James Shirley dominated the last generation of English Renaissance drama with an industrious fluency unapproached by any other playwright during the reign of Charles I. Others, notably John Ford, wrote plays of greater power and more enduring interest; Shirley’s taste was too sure to attempt anything as memorable or extreme as ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. His instinct for experiment and innovation was slight, and the general ethos of his plays is the official gentility of the Caroline court: cleverly risqué but fundamentally conservative in its sophisticated decorum. But by the same token, none of Shirley’s thirty-odd plays fall below a high level of artful competence. The capable heir to greater predecessors, he absorbed their lessons into a skillful conventionality that showed how natural a certain kind of theatrical deftness had become for the English stage.
He was probably the “James the sonne of James Sharlie” who was baptized in London on 7 September 1596. His parents and ancestry are otherwise unknown, though he styled himself “Gent.” throughout his career and is reported to have displayed a coat of arms. He attended the Merchant Taylors’ School—where Edmund Spenser and Thomas Kyd had also gone—from 1608 until at least 1612. In that year, according to Anthony à Wood‘s Athenae Oxonienses, Shirley entered St. John’s College, Oxford, where William Laud, then master of the college, dissuaded him from the ministry because of an unsightly mole on his cheek. The mole is otherwise attested, but his attendance at Oxford is not; some evidence suggests that Shirley may actually have been an apprentice scrivener at the time. In 1615, however, he enrolled at Catherine Hall, Cambridge; he received his B.A. in 1617 and may have proceeded to the M.A. in 1619 or 1620. By then he had married Elizabeth Gilmet, had been ordained an Anglican priest, and had accepted a living at Wheathampstead in Hertfordshire.
In 1621 he left that post to become headmaster at a grammar school in nearby St. Albans. Wood attributes this move to a conversion to Catholicism that has proved impossible to document; oblique evidence on the matter pulls both ways. The profession of schoolteacher would seem to have been congenial to Shirley; it was in such a position that he was to spend the last twenty years of his life. In 1624, however, he changed tack again, and more drastically: resigning from St. Albans, he moved himself and his family to London. No specific reason is known. His Catholicism may have continued to cause problems, but there is also reason to think that secular ambitions had been chafing in the obscurity of provincial life. In 1618 Shirley had published Echo, or The Infortunate Lovers; no copy of that edition survives, but the work in question was probably the poem Narcissus printed in Shirley’s 1646 Poems &c. A neo-Ovidian fable about a nymph’s fatal passion for an unresponsive youth, it is the sort of gracefully decorative and languorously erotic poem that ambitious young writers of an earlier generation had written to display their wit and secure attention—a poem indeed conspicuously like Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, to which Shirley unmistakably alludes. The tracks of such a career pointed in one direction. In London, as Wood put it, Shirley “set up for a playmaker”; in 1625 Lady Elizabeth’s Men performed Love Tricks , the “first fruits of a Muse, that before this/Never saluted audience.”