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Critical History

Survey of the Literature

Shirley’s contemporaries spoke highly of him. Thomas May, the translator of Lucan’s Pharsalia, admired in Shirley’s Poems the wit of his ‘terse pen’ and John Ford credited The Wedding with ‘sweet perfection’. William Habington called him another Jonson. Philip Massinger praised ‘each triumphant page’ of Shirley’s work: ‘few have outstripp’d thee, many halt behind’ (on The Grateful Servant). Anthony à Wood, the main source of Shirley’s biographers for the next 200 years, lauded him as ‘the most noted dramatic poet of his time’ (Athenae Oxonienses, 1691/92); Langbaine offered qualified praise (‘the Chief of the Second-rate Poets’) in An Account of the English Dramatick Poets (1691).

Yet in the course of the later seventeenth century many critics tempered their enthusiasm. Shirley’s reputation has never quite recovered from Dryden’s verdict in Mac Flecknoe (1682), which declared him irrelevant (‘From dusty shops neglected authors come, /Martyrs of pies, and relics of the bum; / Much Heywood, Shirley, Ogleby there lay...’). Following Dryden, Robert Gould – who was not above using Shirley’s The Maid’s Revenge for his own The Rival Sisters – called the Caroline writer ‘the scandal of the ancient stage’ in The Playhouse, A Satire (1685).

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw some cautiously positive assessments (for instance, in Richard Farmer’s Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare, 1766); from the 1740s Shirley’s plays featured in anthologies of period literature. ‘Get me Shirley (there’s a dear fellow) and send it soon’, wrote Charles Lamb in a letter upon the appearance of the Gifford/Dyce edition of Shirley’s works in 1833. Since at least the 1860s, when A. Mézières characterized Shirley as a writer of an ageing world, Caroline theatre culture has been charged with decadence – ‘rotten before ripe’, in Ira Clark’s phrase. In the 1880s and 1890s, Swinburne found few ‘remarkable and admirable exceptions’ to Shirley’s ‘level, conventional, unambitious and languid work’, while S. R. Gardiner noted a ‘flagrant contradiction with the morality of the Sermon of the Mount’ in Shirley’s plays. Since then, T.S. Eliot and R. Gerber have found Shirley’s ethics wanting.

The mid to late twentieth century saw renewed interest in Shirley. George Bas, Ronald Huebert and E.M. Yearling note the elegant craftsmanship of the witty, fast-paced comedies. Like Beaumont and Fletcher, Shirley is an expert in courtiers’ conversation and a detached observer of the rituals of the upper classes. According to Ira Clark, Shirley’s drama played deliberately to a privileged yet troubled audience. Shirley excels in portraying social events and shows how social roles create people. For Julie Sanders, Shirley’s work marks a sea-change in attitudes to female performance at the time. The strong female characters in his plays identify the author with a ‘feminocentric’ côterie surrounding Queen Henrietta Maria. Shirley’s work probes the tensions of Caroline society, in particular those based upon gender. In this context Shirley’s pre-occupation with song and dance – areas of performance which were accessible to women – is particularly noteworthy. His plays in general portray characters through an uncommonly detailed range of non-verbal clues such as sound and movement. Shirley’s œuvre provides therefore an excellent source to explore the use and meaning of dance as theatrical vocabulary in pre-civil war drama. Given the favourable recent critical reviews, and considering the enormous potential of Shirley’s work to elucidate now obscure aspects of pre-civil war drama, a new full edition seems timely.