James Shirley (1596-1666) is a quintessentially Caroline writer whose work – produced between circa 1618 and 1661 – echoes and builds upon the art of his Elizabethan and Jacobean predecessors, such as Shakespeare, Fletcher, Ford, and Sidney. Caroline drama would be unthinkable without Shirley, who enjoyed a great reputation as a playwright both at court (Charles I apparently suggested the plot for Shirley’s highly successful 1633 comedy The Gamester) and in the theatres. Shirley wrote pieces for the Blackfriars, the Cockpit in Drury Lane, the Banqueting House, and the City Hall in London, as well as private venues during the Interregnum period. Shirley travelled to Ireland in the late 1630s, so his plays were also performed in Dublin, some written specifically for the Irish stage. During the Restoration, at least fourteen of Shirley’s plays were produced, mainly between 1660 and 1670.
Into the late nineteenth century, playwrights and actors kept revising Shirley’s work for the stage: ‘He painted English manners, English men, /And formed his taste on Shakespeare and old Ben’, Garrick announced in his prologue for The Gamesters (1756). Evadne, borrowed from The Traitor, took Covent Garden by storm in 1819; an adaptation of Shirley’s Hyde Park, The Imperious Maid came out in 1890. Shirley’s poetry has been set to music, by William Lawes, Matthew Locke and Christopher Gibbons amongst others – with Gibbons’s settings being ‘the first really extensive examples of recitative in an English staged drama’. Shirley’s famous ‘The Glories of Our Mortal State’ from The Contest of Ajax and Ulysses – a piece said to have seized Oliver Cromwell ‘with great terror’ – attracted scores as recently as 1963.
In terms of theatrical performance, Shirley’s drama has enjoyed a revival since the 1970s. His works are staged in Canada, the US and the UK, both on campus and in the commercial theatre. Canadian productions include The Imposture (1971) and Hyde Park (1981) by the Medieval & Renaissance Players of Toronto in collaboration with Toronto’s Centre for Medieval Studies and REED. Barry Kyle’s RSC Hyde Park (RSC, 1987-88) presented Fiona Shaw in the leading role of Mistress Carol. One year later, Kyle Donnelly’s Hyde Park (1989-90) was performed by the Huntington Theatre Company in collaboration with Boston University. Gordon Anderson directed a highly successful production of The Lady of Pleasure at the 1995 Cambridge Theatre Festival. More recently, Michael Cordner and Mary Luckhurst staged a performance of Hyde Park at the University of York (c. 2003-2004). This year has seen Red Snake, Michael McClure’s adaptation of The Cardinal at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. In London, scenes from The Lady of Pleasure were performed at the Globe Theatre during the William Poel Festival.