James Shirley



The Poems of James Shirley, ed. Ray Livingstone Armstrong (New York, 1941)

Gifford & Dyce

The Dramatic Works and Poems of James Shirley, ed. William Gifford and Alexander Dyce, 6 vols (London, 1833)

Poems 1646 (1970)

James Shirley, Poems 1646 Together with Poems from the Rawlinson Manuscript (Menston: Scolar Press, 1970)


James Shirley has generally been accepted as the last in the short line of major Jacobean and Caroline dramatists. He is unusual in that more is known about his life than about that of any of the others with the exception of Ben Jonson. He has also left a number of examples of his handwriting including his entries in one of the best surviving authorial collections of verse of the period.

Identification of Shirley's hand is not, however, without problems and controversy — especially since there is evidence that he was apprenticed before 1614 to a scrivener and is therefore likely to have been trained to write different scripts for different purposes. Scholars who have commented on Shirley's manuscripts in the past — including W.W. Greg, R.G. Howarth, P.J. Croft and I.A. Shapiro — have not always agreed on the identification of Shirley's hand or on its distinction from the writing of other scribes, and the situation is no nearer to a consensus following more recent discoveries.


There are no known letters by Shirley, but a small number of largely non-literary documents survive in which Shirley's hand appears, including his entirely autograph will (*ShJ 211). These are given entries below (ShJ 208-211).

There is also (in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Gratz Collection, British Poets, Case 11, Box 3), a letter signed by one ‘Jam: Sherley’, with other members of a ‘Committee’, to an unidentified lady, from Kingston, 1 January ‘1645’, concerning money she owed. This is, however, almost certainly by a namesake of the playwright, who never seems to have signed himself in this way. Sold earlier at Puttick & Simpson's, 28 April 1856 (Francis Moore sale, 4th day), lot 732, to Simpson, this document is presumably to be identified with the ‘Doc[ument] s[igned by James Shirley] with others, 1 page folio, 7th January, 1645’ re-offered at Puttick & Simpson's, 4 June 1878, lot 263.

Yet another readily mistaken item is a three-line attestation in Latin signed by ‘Jacobum Sherley’, below the scribal text of a Schedula Excommunicationis drawn up in the Archdeaconry Court of St Albans, 10 November 1623, a document now in the Hertfordshire Record Office (ASA 5/6, No. 108). This is, in fact, by John Shirley, vicar and headmaster of St Albans Grammar School: see Georges Bas, ‘James Shirley, Pasteur dans la Hertfordshire’, Études Anglaises, 15 (1962), 266-8.

Principal Literary Manuscripts

On the basis of these miscellaneous documents written or signed by Shirley, something may be said about a small but important number of literary manuscripts associated with Shirley. Best-known among these is the ‘Rawlinson MS’ (Bodleian, MS Rawl. poet. 88), the poet's formal collection of early versions of 36 poems by him, largely in an accomplished professional hand. This volume was produced no earlier than 1640 (date of the poem on Strafford, p. 8) and most probably following the closing of the theatres in June 1642. Some commentators on this manuscript — notably I.A. Shapiro (private correspondence), as well as R.G. Haworth and W.W. Greg as expressed in the latter's Dramatic Documents from the Elizabethan Playhouses: Commentary (Oxford, 1931) — have assumed that the whole volume was written by the poet himself adopting, for the most part, an elaborate calligraphic style. P.J. Croft (in his Autograph Poetry, I, 40-1) has dissented from this view, declaring that ‘Shirley's own fluent calligraphy occurs only on the last two pages and is in marked contrast to the laboured writing of the rest of the volume’. What is clear is, indeed, that the last two pages of the manuscript (*ShJ 13, *ShJ 94), which seem to have been added in a less busily ornamental hand at a later date and are signed at the end by the poet (‘J. Shirley’), are autograph. It may be noted that other subsequent additions are made on pp. 12, 33, and 66 in the main text, where titles of three poems are supplied in spaces initially left by the scribe (see ShJ 29, ShJ 88, ShJ 98). These three titles, which share palaeographical features of both the main scribe (his occasional peculiar h, for instance) and Shirley's hand at the end, might well support the argument that the whole volume is in variants of a single hand. However, while the authority of this collection of Shirley's poems is beyond question, it seems best, in the absence of conclusive evidence one way or the other, to leave the identity of the main scribe open to further investigation.

It may be added that the writing of the Rawlinson scribe does have some elements of resemblance with what may be regarded as a ‘household’ style of script in literary manuscripts associated with the Cavendish family, notably William Cavendish (1593-1676), first Duke of Newcastle, whom Shirley served during the Civil War, probably in 1643-44, although it is not the accomplished hand of Cavendish's secretary John Rolleston (1597?-1681), of Sokeholme, Nottinghamshire, which was identified by Hilton Kelliher in 1993 (English Manuscript Studies, Volume 4). Inter alia, Shirley evidently helped Newcastle with literary composition, for, according to Anthony Wood, he did ‘much assist his generous Patron…in the composure of certain Plays which the Duke afterwards published’. One result of this assistance appears to have been Newcastle's comedy The Country Captain (first published at The Hague in 1649, but dating from c.1639-41), a song from which (‘A Catch’ on dice) was printed in Shirley's Poems (1646), p. 51. This play has indeed sometimes been attributed to Shirley himself (see Bentley, III, 145-8). The surviving manuscript of the play, now in the British Library (Harley MS 7650) is, in fact, written in a calligraphic hand, but also bears extensive corrections and additions — notably a scene in Act IV neatly written on a large unfolding leaf at the end of the manuscript, which has a single leaf at the end (f. 79r-v) in Rolleston's hand. A hand somewhat similar to Rolleston's is also responsible for a copy of Shirley's satire The Common-Wealth of Birds (ShJ 12) in the Portland Collection, a major portion of which also derives from the Newcastle papers.

Rolleston would also seem to be principally responsible for the extant manuscript of Shirley's play The Court Secret (or Don Manuell, as its modern binding has it), now at Worcester College, Oxford (*ShJ 175). At some much later date, probably for the production in 1664, Shirley returned to this manuscript and made a number of revisions, as well as deletions, in his own cursive italic hand.

There remains the most recent discovery of all: the dramatic fragment of a scene later recast in Shirley's The Traitor which was discovered among the Lothian muniments at Melbourne Hall and highly publicised in 1986 (see ShJ 192). Messrs Felix Pryor and Antony Hammond, among others, are convinced it was written by John Webster, c.1606-9, for a lost tragedy on ‘The Duke of Florence’ which subsequently in the 1630s formed the basis for Shirley's play (which, according to Peter Motteux in 1692, Shirley ‘only usher'd…into the Stage’). Their argument is based on a complex of considerations, including the manuscript's distinctive stylistic affinities with Webster's known tragedies, the characteristic method of composition to which it bears witness (its practice of borrowing or ‘bonding’ phrases from other literature), its equally characteristic Italian subject matter, characters and sources, and the great dissimilarity of both handwriting and dramatic style to those of Shirley, who, in any case, was influenced by Webster in The Cardinal and occasionally apt to ‘rework other men's plays’. Mr. I.A. Shapiro, on the other hand, was no less convinced that the fragment was written by Shirley himself and represents an early and ultimately rejected version of a scene in The Traitor. He has argued that the handwriting, being rough or ‘foul’ draft intended only for the writer's own eyes, will not compare exactly with other examples of Shirley's hand, which are all more or less formal in nature and which show him to be adept in a variety of scripts; but that there are, nevertheless, a sufficient number of similarities in letter formation to invite favourable comparison; that Shirley was much given to serious revision of his own work; that the scene would have had to be adapted for the final version of The Traitor to avoid giving offence to the Court (notably in the possible analogies between Lorenzo and the late favourite, Buckingham, and in Lorenzo's disrespectful comments on a Prince's writing books, which might appear to reflect on James I). Shirley is also known to have had to prune other plays for similar reasons; and the manuscript seems likely to have derived from Gray's Inn, where Shirley (as well as the younger John Coke and Thomas Coke) resided in the 1630s; besides all of which, the diction and imagery of the scene is not, in Shapiro's view, peculiarly Websterian.

Yet another discussion of the authorship appears in N.W. Bawcutt, ‘The Assassination of Alessandro de' Medici in Early Seventeenth-Century English Drama’, Review of English Studies, NS 56 (June 2005), 412-23, where it is argued that the stylistic differences between this fragment and Shirley's The Traitor are too great to be written by the same author and that possibly ‘both dramatists worked from a modified version of Giovio which has yet to be found’. At this point the matter remains unresolved.

Manuscript Verse

As is evident from the entries below, Shirley's poems did not for the most part circulate very widely in manuscript before he published them in 1646, although contemporary copies of a few particular poems can be found, some of them set to music. Perhaps the chief area in which some of his poems may have been passed around is the Inns of Court, where Shirley resided from about 1624 (he ‘lived in Greys-inn, and set up for a play-maker’, Anthony Wood noted), becoming an honorary member of Gray's Inn after the success of his Inns of Court masque The Triumph of Peace in 1634. There is a likely Inns of Court association for the ‘Chute MS’ (British Library, Add. MS 33998), a professional verse anthology, including fourteen poems by Shirley, which was copied by a scribe who apparently also did work for the playhouse. The same general circle would probably account for many of the surviving manuscript song-versions.

Two known printed exempla of Shirley's Poems (1646) are evidently presentation volumes from the author, although they do not bear any trace of his own hand, and are recorded below (ShJ 214-215).

The Verse Canon

The association with the Inns of Court noted above lends credence to the ascription to ‘Sherly’ of an otherwise unknown Riddle on Love found in the ‘Monckton-Milnes miscellany’, which dates from around 1624 and has clear associations with the Inns of Court. For this reason the poem has been included in the entries below (ShJ 64). One or two other ascriptions to Shirley found in manuscript sources are somewhat less assured. What is apparently an otherwise unknown poem, To his Mrs (‘Noe matter though our age doe not agree’), is ascribed to ‘Sherley’ in one miscellany (ShJ 133.5). Shirley is also one of the candidates, along with Donne, William Baker, and the Earl of Pembroke. for the widely circulated poem A Paradoxe of a Painted Face (‘Not kisse? By Jove I must, and make impression!’). This is represented here in PeW 211-265.

Otherwise the verse canon accepted for present purposes is that established in Armstrong.

Dramatic Works

Besides the major manuscripts noted above in the discussion of Shirley's handwriting, the most striking number of dramatic texts recorded in the entries below is for seventeenth-century prompt-books (ShJ 134, ShJ 184-187, ShJ 191, ShJ 206). While occasional promptbooks from the Restoration period survive for Shirley's contemporaries, the number surviving for him is relatively exceptional and is clearly of special interest to theatre historians.

What is described as ‘part of a prompt-book’ of Shirley's The Royal Master (published in London, 1637), for a performance in Dublin in 1637 or 1638, is recorded in Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage, V, 1139-42, as having been in the nineteenth century in the library of The Players Club, New York. No trace of it has been found since then, however.

Various extracts from plays by Shirley appear in manuscript commonplace books and miscellanies recorded below, not least copies of what was probably his most famous stage song, ‘The glories of our blood and state’ (ShJ 140-174.5) — a dirge alleged to have entertained, and affected, both Oliver Cromwell and Charles II (see Bentley, V, 1098).

Some later transcripts of printed texts of plays by Shirley may be listed here briefly:

The actor J. P. Kemble's transcript of Cupid and Death, made on 19 April 1786 from an exemplum of the edition of 1653 lent to him by Edmond Malone, is in the Huntington (HM 601).

A late-eighteenth-century transcript of the same masque, from the edition of 1659, is at Yale (Osborn MS c 256). This may be the ‘1659’ manuscript of the masque that was sold at Sotheby's, 27 January to 1 February 1873 (Joseph Lilly sale, 5th day), lot 1543, to Kershaw.

A nineteenth-century transcript of the same masque made by Edward Jones, together with a musical score by Sir Henry Rowley Bishop, is in the British Library (Add. MS 17800).

J.P. Collier's transcripts of Cupid and Death, from the edition of 1653; of The Triumph of Love and Beauty from the edition of the Poems (1646);and of A Contention for Honour and Riches, from the edition of 1633, are at Harvard (MS Eng 785).

A printed exemplum of The Example (1637) sold at Sotheby's on 7 February 1873 (T H. Lacy sale), lot 799, is described as having ‘one leaf [in] MS’.

What was evidently a presentation exemplum of one of Shirley's plays, his Honoria and Mammon — adapted from his The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses for the Armor of Achilles and ‘Printed for the use of the Author’ [in 1658] — appeared in Part VII of the Henry Huth sale at Sotheby's, 8 July 1918, lot 6848, and was sold to Pickering & Chatto (see Bentley, V, 1118). The volume was inscribed on the title-page ‘This Mr. James Sherley himselfe sent me by his sonn in Law wh. a Letter June 11. 1658. E. libris Rob. Bolley Esq.’.

Some notes on Shirley by George Thorn-Drury, KC (1860-1931), literary scholar and editor, also appear in one of his index books in the Bodleian (MS Eng. misc. e. 349, f. 38v).

The Triumph of Peace

Other records of Shirley's plays survive and are cited by various scholars. For example, manuscript cast lists for three plays by Shirley — The Imposture, The Cardinal and The Coutrt Secret — for revivals by the King's Company before 1664 appear in the exemplum of Six New Playes (London, 1653) now in the Brotherton Collection at the University of Leeds (Lt. d. SHI). They are discussed in Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, ‘Manuscript Casts for Revivals of Three Plays by Shirley in the 1660s’, Theatre Notebook, 39 (1985), 32-6.

By far the most extensive records relating to any of Shirley's dramatic works, however, concern The Triumph of Peace, the elaborate masque which was produced by the combined Inns of Court for the entertainment of Charles I (and in order to get back into his favour) in February 1633/4, the first performance at Whitehall on 3 February, the second performance at Merchant Taylors' Hall on the 13th. Costing over £15,000, it was one of the most expensive and most lavish spectacles seen in the seventeenth century, for which reason both records and eyewitness accounts of the production survive in exceptional numbers. The papers of Bulstrode Whitelock at Longleat relating to arrangements for the music and presentation contains entries in Shirley's own hand (*ShJ 208). These documents as a whole are discussed in Andrew J. Sabol, ‘New Documents on Shirley's Masque “The Triumph of Peace”’, Music & Letters, 47 (1966), 10-26; in Murray Lefkowitz, ‘The Longleat Papers of Bulstrode Whitelocke; New Light on Shirley's Triumph of Peace’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 18 (1965), 42-60; in Trois Masques à la Cour de Charles Ier d'Angleterre, ed Murray Lefkowitz (Paris, 1970), pp. 27-109; and in Bentley, V, 1154-63.

Some seventy-seven documents relating to financial accounts, as well as warrants for costumes and properties, for the entertainment including documents signed by Bulstrode Whitelocke, John Selden and Edward Hyde, and payments ‘To Mr Sherley the Poett’ of £100 (plus £20 ‘for ye booke’) and to Inigo Jones of £200 — are in the Middle Temple Library (box: ‘Masques & Entertainments’). Most of these have been edited and discussed in detail by Tucker Orbison in Collections Volume XII (Malone Society, Oxford, 1983), pp. 31-84, and a few others are discussed by John R. Elliott, Jr in the Collections Volume XV (1993).

Yet other related documents include entries in the Diary of William Whiteway (British Library, Egerton MS 784); Merchant Taylor School (Accounts Vol. 16 and Court Books, Vol. VIII); and Court of Aldermen, Repertory 48; City Cash Books 1/1, and Court of Common Council, Journal 36, formerly in the Corporation of London Record Office and now in the London Metropolitan Archives. They are edited and discussed in C.E. McGee, ‘“Strangest consequences from remotest cause”: The Second Performance of The Triumph of Peace’, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, 5 (New York, 1991), 309-42.

Original sketches and designs for the masque by Inigo Jones are owned by the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth House: see particularly Stephen Orgel and Roy Strong, Inigo Jones: The Theatre of the Stuart Court (1973), II, 536-66. One sketch by Jones is at the Royal Institute of British Architects: see A Book of Masques in Honour of Allardyce Nicoll (1967).

Various contemporary accounts of the masque and of the procession through London preceding it are cited in Bentley, loc. cit., and in other sources mentioned. They include a letter by Thomas Coke, 17 October 1633 (now among the Coke Papers in the British Library), as well as letters by George Garrard, Justinian Paget, and Robert Reade (in the National Archives, Kew), and Bulstrode Whitelocke's own account as given in his Memorials of the English Affairs (1732), pp. 19-22.

Comments on the masque, giving a sceptical view of its negative effect on the Court and its waste of money, is given by Sir William Drake in his memorandum book (Huntington, HM 55603, f. 22v).

A detailed description of the order of the intended procession (‘The Manner of the progression of the Masque’), once among the Cholmondeley Manuscripts and recorded in HMC, 5th Report, Part I (1876), Appendix, p. 355, was offered for sale in Quaritch's ‘Rough List’ No. 87 (January 1888), item 2, p. 5, and is now in the Folger (MS Z.e.1 (25)). It is edited in full and discussed, with facsimile examples, in John R. Elliott, Jr, ‘The Folger Manuscript of the Triumph of Peace Procession’, English Manuscript Studies, 3 (1992), 193-215, where one of the hands in the manuscript is identified as that of the Middle Temple Bencher Robert Thorpe (1581-1639). The manuscript is also printed and discussed in Jerzy Limon, ‘Neglected Evidence for James Shirley, The Triumph of Peace (1634)’, Records of Early English Drama Newsletter, 12 (1988), 2-9.

A poem on the masque procession, entitled A breif expression of the delight apprehended by the Authour att the seeing of the Solemne triumphs of the gent of the Innes of Court riding with the Masque presented before his Matie: Feb: 3, 1633, ascribed in one source to Alexander Gill, is found in several manuscript versions and has been given separate entries below (ShJ 216-220).

Comprehension of the masque and its occasion is aided by various articles, including W.W. Greg's ‘The Triumph of Peace A Bibliographer's Nightmare’, The Library, 5th Ser. 1 (1946-7), 113-26; by Lawrence Venuti, ‘The Politics of Allusion: The Gentry and Shirley's The Triumph of Peace’, English Literary Renaissance, 16 (1986), 182-205; and by Martin Butler, ‘Politics and the Masque: The Triumph of Peace’, The Seventeenth Century, 2/2 (July 1987), 117-41.


Various documents relating to Shirley's life are discussed and, in some cases (such as baptism, school and burial records) reproduced in facsimile in Arthur Huntington Nason, James Shirley, Dramatist (New York, 1915), and in Dictionary of Literary Biography 58, Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists, ed. Fredson Bowers (Detroit, 1987), pp. 249-66. Many other records of Shirley's life have come to light over the years and are discussed in various articles, including some of those cited above. In addition, notes on Shirley by William Oldys (1696-1761) are written in his exemplum of Gerard Langbaine, An Account of the English Dramatick Poets (Oxford, 1691), now in the British Library (C.28.g.1, pp. 474-85). Notes on Shirley by the Rev. Joseph Hunter (1783-1861) in his Chorus Vatum Anglicanorum (Volume III) are in the British Library (Add. MS 24489, ff. 232r-4v).

Peter Beal