Toy, The

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James Shirley (1636-1640)

Historical Records

James Shirley’s Poems &c (1646) includes a section of “Prologues and Epilogues Written to several Playes Presented in this Kingdom, and else-where,” which includes prologues that Shirley wrote for his own plays and plays by others. Included in these prologues is “A Prologue to a play there [Ireland]; Call’d THE TOY” (sig. C7v-C8r):

So sickly are the Palats now a-dayes,

Of men that come to see and taste our Playes;

That when a Poet hath, to please some few,

Spent his most precious sweat, Minerva’s dew,

And after many throwes, a piece brought forth,

Ligitimate in Art, in nature, birth,

’Tis not receiv’d, but most unhappy dyes,

Almost as soon as borne, Wits sacrifice:

When children of the braine, not halfe so faire,

And form’d, are welcome to the Nurse and Aire.

Since ’tis not to be help’d and that we finde,

Poems can lay no force upon your minde,

Whose judgements will be free, ’tis fit we prove

All ways till you be pleas’d to like, and love.

And as at a great Mart, or Faire, we see

Some things of price, which all men doe not buy;

But guided by their eye, or strength of purse,

Lay out their pence upon a Hobby-horse

Sometime, or a Childs Rattle: so we are

In this wits Market, furnish’d with all ware,

But please your selves, and buy what you like best,

Some cheap commodities mingle with the rest,

If you affect the rich ones, use your will,

Or if the Toy take, y’are all welcome still.

Theatrical Provenance

Performed at Werburgh Street Theatre (Dublin) by Ogilby’s Men between 1636-1640.

Probable Genre(s)

In the prologue, Shirley distinguishes "The Toy" from richer commodities. Possibly Comedy (Harbage).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

None known.

References to the Play

None known.

Critical Commentary

Ray Livingstone Armstrong contends that "The Toy" is “a trivial composition, as the prologue shows” and notes that “it was probably never printed” (73).

Robert I. Lublin uses this prologue as evidence that Shirley was baffled by the “artistic leanings” of the Irish audience (112).

For What It's Worth

From 1636-1640, Shirley lived in Ireland and wrote plays for Ogilby’s Men at the Werburgh Theatre; Shirley also wrote prologues and epilogues to plays by other playwrights and for revivals. For more on Shirley’s time in Ireland, see Stevenson, Slowey, Lublin, Nason, and Clark.

Alfred Harbage suggested "The Toy" may have been written by Henry Burnell; Deana Rankin points out that “there is no evidence for this.” In the 1989 edition of The Annals of English Drama, Sylvia S. Wagonheim lists the play as anonymous. Lublin suggests that Shirley wrote the play, suggesting that the Poet who labours and births a play in the prologue is Shirley.

In The Witty Fair One, Shirley uses the term “the toy” to refer to a woman.

This prologue also published in Ray Livingston Armstrong’s The Poems of James Shirley and Alan J. Fletcher’s Drama and the Performing Arts in Pre-Cromwellian Ireland.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Ray Livingstone, ed. The Poems of James Shirley. New York: King’s Crown Press, 1941.

Clark, Ira. “Shirley, James (bap. 1596, d. 1666).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. Date of access 6 Oct. 2020.

Fletcher, Alan J. Drama and the Performing Arts in Pre-Cromwellian Ireland: A Repertory of Sources and Documents from the Earliest Times until c. 1642. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001.

Harbage, Alfred. Annals of English Drama, 975-1700. 1st ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1940.

Harbage, Alfred, Sylvia S. Wagonheim, and Samuel Schoenbaum. Annals of English Drama, 975-1700. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 1989.

Lublin, Robert I. “Shirley’s Dublin Days: A Nervous Première of St Patrick for Ireland.” James Shirley and Early Modern Theatre: New Critical Perspectives ed. Barbara Ravelhofer. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017. 108-23.

Rankin, Deana. "Burnell, Henry (fl. 1640–1654), playwright." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. Date of access 6 Oct. 2020.

Shirley, James. Poems &c. London: Humphrey Moseley, 1646.

Slowey, Desmond. The Role and Image of the Ascendancy in the Irish Theatre, 1600-1900 PhD thesis (Dublin City University, 2006),

Stevenson, Allan H. “Shirley’s Years in Ireland,” The Review of English Studies 20.77 (1944): 19-28.

Site created and maintained by Laura Estill, St. Francis Xavier University; updated 01 March 2020.