The following biography is reprinted from Characteristics of English Poets from Chaucer to Shirley. William Minto. London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1885.
More is known about James Shirley than about some of his more distinguished, or at least abler contemporaries. He was born in London, and educated at Merchant Tailors' School, St. John's College, Oxford, and Catherine Hall, Cambridge. He took orders, and was presented to a living in Hertfordshire; but in a short time he became Roman Catholic, left his living, turned schoolmaster for a while; and at last, finding this employment also "uneasy to him, he retired to the metropolis, lived in Gray's Inn, and set up for a playmaker."
He was twenty-eight or twenty-nine when he went up to London (probably in 1624 or 1625), and in the course of a few years he got into the full swing of dramatic composition, and produced plays at the rate of two or three or four a year. The chief were-- Love's Tricks, a comedy, 1625; The Maid's Revenge, a tragedy, 1626; The Brothers, a comedy, 1626; The Witty Fair One, a comedy, 1628; The Wedding, a comedy, 1628; The Grateful Servant, a tragi-comedy, 1629; The Changes, or Love in a Maze, 1632; The Ball (written in conjunction with Chapman, but almost wholly Shirley's), 1632; The Gamester, a comedy, 1633; The Example (containing an imitation of Ben Jonson's humours), 1634; The Opportunity, 1634; The Traitor, a tragedy (perhaps Shirley's best), 1635; The Lady of Pleasure (perhaps the best of his comedies), 1635; The Cardinal, a tragedy (an attempt to compete with Webster's Duchess of Malfi), 1641. Under the Commonwealth, Shirley, after some vicissitudes during the civil war, was obliged to return to his old trade of teaching; and at the Restoration, though several of his plays were revived, he made no attempt to resume his connection with the stage.
Shirley's first essay in print was a poem entitled Echo (afterwards printed under the more suggestive title of Narcissus). A man's youthful work is always a good index of his tendencies and powers, and in this poem the nature of Shirley's gifts shines unmistakably through the lines. He goes boldly to work with jaunty self-assured ease: there is pith and "go" in his style; he is borne on with pride in his triumphs of expression, but he is victorious with weapons which other men have provided. He has no originality of idea, or situation, or diction.
The same thing strikes us in his plays. Lamb says of him that "he was the last of a great race, all of whom spoke nearly the same language, and had a set of moral feelings and notions in common." But the really great men of the race, not merely Shakespeare, Jonson, and Fletcher, but Chapman, Dekker, Webster, Ford, and Massinger, spoke the same language with a difference; and each had moral feelings and notions of his own. In Shirley the distinctive individual difference was small, both in amount and in kind: he was not a great man in himself, but an essentially small man inspired by the creations of great men. Fletcher was his master and exemplar, as Shakespeare was Massinger's; but he imitated much more closely, was much more completely carried away by this model than Massinger was. And although his language and moral feelings and notions (even as regards female types and kings) are Fletcher's, and he had most ambition to emulate Fletcher's dashing and brilliant manner, yet Shirley's plays contain frequent echoes of other dramatists. One great interest in reading him is that he reminds us so often of the situations and characters of his predecessors. It is good for the critic, if for nobody else, to read Shirley, because there he finds emphasized all that told most effectively on the playgoers of the period. We read Greene and Marlowe to know what the Elizabethan drama was in its powerful but awkward youth; Shirley to know what it was in its declining but facile and still powerful old age.
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