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Reasons for a new edition of Shirley’s works

Despite Shirley’s outstanding literary importance for the reign of Charles I, and his long-lived presence in English drama (and music), his work has never been published in a complete collection. The first and last edition of that ambition, The Dramatic Works and Poems in six volumes, was undertaken by William Gifford and Alexander Dyce (Murray, 1833; repr. New York: Russell, 1966). Without wishing to detract from these editors’ impressive achievement, it must be noted that an updated edition is long overdue. The Gifford/Dyce edition excludes a substantial part of the non-dramatic writings, some of the plays, and music. We propose a Complete Works edition which meets current bibliographic standards, considers scholarly developments and sources found since 1833, and accommodates a modern readership.

Individual texts have been edited since the late nineteenth century. Both Shirley’s The Triumph of Peace and Cupid and Death are included in T. J. B. Spencer’s and S. Well’s A Book of Masques (CUP, 1967). Between 1979 and 1991, several doctoral dissertations which involved the editing of select plays were published in the Garland series. Their quality is uneven. A certain number of the plays are available in excellent recent or forthcoming publications (The Cardinal, ed. E.M. Yearling, Revels 1986; The Lady of Pleasure, ed. R. Huebert, Revels 1986; The Bird in a Cage in the forthcoming Three Seventeenth-Century Plays on Women and Performance, eds S. Tomlinson, H. Chalmers, J. Sanders; Cupid and Death in Janet Clare’s Drama of the English Republic, Revels, 2002; Andrew Walkling’s planned edition of the same for the Musica Britannica series). It is our intention, however, to provide a comprehensive scholarly edition which embraces the full range of Shirley’s remarkable output, not just favourite plays. The scope of Shirley’s production approximates that of Ben Jonson (indeed Gifford, initiator of Shirley’s 1833 Works, also edited Jonson). The Complete Works of James Shirley would fill a serious gap in the study of Caroline theatre and literary culture, making full use of up-to-date bibliographical and editorial theory.

A new edition will lead to a reassessment of Shirley’s place – and, by extension, his period as a whole – in English literature. It is surprising how neglected Caroline writers have been in comparison to the immense editorial attention their Jacobean predecessors have received. The new edition of the works of John Ford, being edited by Brian Vickers for Oxford University Press, is leading the revival of interest in Caroline drama. The Complete Works of James Shirley will consider the Caroline age as having literary merit in its own right and contribute to a long overdue revision of Caroline ‘decadence’.

Given the negative post-Dryden criticism of Shirley’s work, his long popularity on the stage has not been satisfactorily investigated. His dramatic work – staged in diverse theatrical spaces ranging from Dublin’s first public theatre to Whitehall Banqueting House – had a wide impact on both English and Irish theatrical culture. This is not sufficiently appreciated in current criticism, which regards him as a writer obsessed with courtly côterie. To give readers a full impression of Shirley’s afterlife in English theatre history, we will engage in detail with adaptations from the late seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Our edition will also be concerned to present a multifaceted Shirley: not only a playwright but also a poet, grammarian and translator whose linguistic studies were reprinted in the eighteenth century.

Another aspect concerns Shirley as a reviser. We will show readers how Shirley continued to revise and edit his own work. Excellent case studies have addressed Bodl. MS. Rawl. poet. 88 and the 1646 Poems, or Shirley’s autograph Don Manuell, a version of The Court Secret (pb. 1653) at Worcester College Library, Oxford. This issue is of the utmost importance to understanding the conditions of writing and publishing in the seventeenth century, and adds to the wider debate about print and manuscript which will be of interest not only to Shirley specialists.

Furthermore, we will pay particular attention to the non-textual aspects of Shirley’s art, such as stage designs (some by Inigo Jones survive), or illusionistic special effects. A very important area is music: Shirley collaborated with the finest composers of his day, such as William Lawes and Christopher Gibbons. The only complete surviving score for any pre-Restoration masque is for Shirley’s Cupid and Death (1653, 1659) – the missing link, as it were, to later productions by Henry Purcell and others. All these aspects were completely neglected by Gifford/Dyce. We will also make a special effort to explain the many allusions in Shirley’s plays to social practices, etiquette and fashion of the time. For instance, his comedies alone contain several hundred references to dancing, many of them now obscure. By elucidating these, the edition will excavate lost details in the cultural history of seventeenth-century Britain and Ireland.