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Poet and dramatist, b. in London, 18 Sept., 1596; d. there Oct., 1666. As a boy he attended the Merchant Taylors School, from October, 1608, to June, 1612, matriculating at St. John's College, Oxford, in the latter year; he there won the esteem of Laud, the president of the college. In 1617 he took his degree of B.A. at St. Catherine's Hall, Cambridge, and soon after taking orders in the English Church (1619), was assigned curate in a parish near St. Albans, where he remained until his conversion to the Catholic Church. After his conversion he taught for a livelihood and became master in the Edward VI School at St. Albans, on the failure of which he removed to Gray's Inn, London, 1625, as he said "to set up for a play maker". That he was faithful in the practice of his religion is gleaned from his works. His praise of the Benedictines in the "Grateful Servant" betrays an intimacy with the monks of that order. His first poem, "Eccho or the Infortunate Lover", appeared in 1618. There is no known copy of this under that title but it is supposed to be identical with "Narcissus or the Self Lover", still extant, which was published in 1616 and is an evident imitation of "Venus and Adonis". The beginning of his literary career was coincident with the accession of Charles I, who was enthusiastic over his comedy "The Gamester" and is even said to have suggested the plot. Shirley was a loyalist as evidenced by his poem on "The Prince's Birth", 1630, and he received great encouragement from Queen Henrietta Maria. His "Maide's Revenge" (1639), however, shows him to have been no lover of court flattery. He enjoyed great popularity as a playwright, and before 1640 he produced over thirty plays. "Love's Tricks" (1631) was the first, followed by: "The Traitor", a tragedy (1635); "Hyde Park", comedy (1637); "The Gamester", comedy (1637); "The Royal Master", sentimental comedy (1638); "The Ball", comedy, in collaboration with Chapman (1639).
During the plague in London (1636-37), when the theatres were closed there, the dramatist went to Dublin, probably under the patronage of George Fitzgerald, 16th Earl of Kildare, to whom he dedicated "The Royal Master". Here he produced three or four plays, among them "St. Patrick for Ireland" and "The Royal Master", in Ogilby's Theatre (built in 1635), the first public theatre in Ireland. He returned to England a few years before the revolution in 1642 when the Long Parliament ordered all the theatres closed. From Nov., 1642, to July, 1644, Shirley fought under the Duke of Newcastle, to whom, in gratitude for former kindness, he had dedicated his tragedy "The Traitor" (1635). On the decline of the king's fortune he returned to London and his old occupation of teaching at the academy in Whitefriars, numbering among his students many afterwards eminent men. For these pupils he wrote several text-books, among them: the "Via ad latinam linguam complanata", with rules "for the greater delight and benefit of readers in both English and Latin Verse"; "Rudiments of Grammar" with rules in English verse. However, the attraction of the theatre was too strong and he soon returned to the composition of plays. In 1646 he wrote "The Triumph of Beauty", on the familiar theme of Peele's "Arraignment of Paris", and "The Contest of Ajax and Ulysses". In the latter is found the now famous dirge beginning "The glories of our Mortal State are shadows, not substantial things", which is said to have terrified Oliver Cromwell. "The Cardinal", his masterpiece in tragedy, appeared in 1652, followed in 1653 by "Six Newe Plays" and in 1655 by two more. In a preface to a work in 1659 he informed his readers that this is "likely to be the last of his dramatic productions" and he held to this resolution. Driven from his home in Fleet Street during the great fire of London, 1666, he took refuge in the parish of St. Giles where he and his wife died on the same day, survived by three sons and a married daughter. They were buried in the Church of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, 29 Oct., 1666.
James Shirley was the last of the great Elizabethan dramatists linking the Golden Age with the period of the Restoration. Though at times original in the invention of his plot, which was always ingenious and interesting, his mind was not that of a great master opening up new and untried ways. He was rather a diligent student and painstaking imitator of his great contemporaries and predecessors. He was an honour student in a school of which Shakespeare, Massinger, and Fletcher chiefly were the masters. He owes more to Fletcher perhaps than to any other; but he is often also reminiscent of Shakespeare. A critic said of him that what he borrowed from others lost nothing in his hands. He borrowed characters, situations, and ideas, but the manipulation of them was his own as was also the poetic language which enriched them. He numbered among his friends such men as Massinger, Ford, and Habington; his admiring imitators are found for two centuries after his death. "The Gamester" was frequently adapted by Garrick in 1758 and 1773, and by Poole in "The Wife's Strategem" in 1827. He was quick to observe the follies of his time and his pen was facile in delineating them. He is often reminiscent of Shakespeare, as when he introduces into one of his masques an imitation of the famous comic portion of a Midsummer Night's Dream where the shepherd "Bottle" takes the place of Bottom the Weaver. His tragedy "The Politicians" brings back memories of Hamlet. With the exception of Shakespeare no dramatist knew better than he how to enhance his narration with striking images or to intersperse his dialogues with poetic passages of rare workmanship, while he was far in advance of his day in grasping the idea of making the whole play centre in one striking scene (la scène à faire). Splendid examples of this may be seen in the three classes of drama in which he exercised his pen, in the tragedies, "The Traitor" and "The Cardinal", in the tragi-comedy, "The Royal Master", and in his comedy "The Gamesters". If lacking in pathos or in deep knowledge of the human heart, he possesses one quality not prevalent in the writings of his contemporaries. His plays are clean morally, and of "The Young Admiral", a romantic comedy licensed 3 July, 1633, we read that it was fit to serve "for a patterne to other poetts not only for the bettring of manners and language, but for the improvement of the quality [i.e., the actors] which hath received some brushings of late". The plays of Shirley, once produced in the famous cockpit at Drury Lane, are preserved for us in the only complete edition of his works ever made and edited by Gifford and Dyce (6 vols., London, 1833). The revival of interest in his dramas is due to the sympathetic criticism of Charles Lamb.
WOOD in Athenae Oxonienses, ed. BLISS, III (London, 1817), 737-44; FLEAY, Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama (London, 1891); WARD, History of English Dramatic Literature (London, 1875); Quarterly Review, xlix (April and July, 1833); CIBBER, Lives of the Poets (London, 1753); WARD in Dict. Nat. Biog., s. v.