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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

VIII. Ford and Shirley

§ 9. Shirley’s life and career

James Shirley was born in London in September, 1596, and entered Merchant Taylors’ school on 4 October, 1608, where he seems to have shown himself an apt scholar. From school, he went, in 1612, to St. John’s college, Oxford, then under the presidency of Laud. It is recorded by Wood in Athenae Oxonienses, our chief source of information concerning Shirley’s life, that Laud, who liked and appreciated Shirley, objected to his taking orders on account of his having a large mole on his left cheek. The length of Shirley’s stay in Oxford is unknown; but it was probably short, for he is known to have transferred himself to Catharine hall, Cambridge, whence he took his degrees. Having taken orders, about 1619, he obtained a living at St. Albans in Hertfordshire; but, as he was shortly afterwards converted to the church of Rome, he resigned his charge and became a master in the grammar school of St. Albans, in 1623. In February, 1625, his first play was licensed, and it was probably soon after this that he gave up teaching for playwriting, coming to London and residing in Gray’s inn. His dramatic labours brought him a considerable income, and drew the favourable notice of the court, especially of queen Henrietta Maria; but it does not appear that this resulted in any substantial advantage to the poet. His standing in the fashionable world may be inferred from the terms of the dedications of his plays to various noble personages, and, with more assurance, from the fact that he was chosen to write the great masque, The Triumph of Peace, which the four inns of court presented to the king and queen in 1634. In 1635, John Ogilby opened a theatre in Dublin, and it was probably he who induced Shirley to visit Ireland. The dates of this visit are a matter of inference; but it seems likely that Shirley first crossed in 1636, and returned to England for a short time in the next year, but did not permanently take up his residence in London again till 1640. While in Ireland, he produced The Royall Master, The Doubtfull Heir, The Constant Maid and St. Patrick for Ireland. The Gentleman of Venice and The Polititian may, also, belong to this period. His dramatic activity continued uninterrupted until 1642, when the closing of the theatres left him with The Court Secret on his hands, finished, but not acted. On the outbreak of the civil war, Shirley left his wife and children in London and followed his patron, the earl (later marquis and duke) of Newcastle, to the field; “for that count,” says Wood, “had engaged him so much by his generous liberality towards him, that he thought he could not do a worthier act, than to serve him, and so consequently his prince.” Wood also reports that Shirley assisted the duke in the composition of certain plays, but this collaboration has not been held to have increased the reputation of Shirley. After the defeat at Marston moor in 1644, Newcastle fled to the continent, and, later, Shirley came back to London, where he attempted to earn money by the publication of earlier writings as well as by new compositions. He was helped by the patronage of the wealthy scholar, Thomas Stanley, but soon returned to his former profession of schoolmaster, which sustained him for the rest of his days. With the reopening of the theatres, he did not resume the writing of plays, though several of his earlier works were revived. He injured his reputation (more, probably, than he benefited his purse) by assisting Ogilby in his translations of Homer and Vergil, using a classical knowledge which he had put to better employment in the writing of Latin grammars. The end is best told in the words of Wood:

  • At length … he with his second wife Frances were driven by the dismal conflagration that happened in London an. 1666, from their habitation near to Fleet Street, into the parish of S. Giles’s in The Fields in Middlesex, where being in a manner overcome with affrightments, disconsolations, and other miseries, occasion’d by that fire and their losses, they both died within the compass of a natural day: whereupon their bodies were buried in one grave in the yard belonging to the said church of S. Giles’s, on the 29th of Octob. in sixteen hundred sixty and six.
  • From the uniformly friendly tone of Shirley’s references to his contemporaries and fellow dramatists, and of theirs to him, we infer that he was a man of amiable character; and his more personal writings indicate his modesty. But, beyond these characteristics, there is little in the record to help to a picture of the man.