was educated at St John's College, Oxford, and St Catherine's Hall, Cambridge. He took Anglican orders, was a schoolmaster until 1624, and then converted to Roman Catholicism. He wrote plays for the Cockpit Theatre until 1636. In the dedication to his play The Bird in a Cage (1632–3), he sarcastically complimented Prynne, who was then in prison awaiting trial for writing Histriomastix. Perhaps because of this dedication, Shirley was made a member of Gray's Inn and invited to supply the literary part of the Inns of Court masque The Triumph of Peace (1634).
During the Civil War he was in the Royalist army under the earl of Newcastle, his patron. After the defeat of the Royalist cause he returned to his career as a schoolmaster. His Contention of Ajax and Ulysses (pub. 1659), written during this period, is largely a dramatic debate interspersed with songs, one of which, ‘The glories of our blood and state’, was a favourite with Charles II.
Shirley wrote some 40 dramas, most of which are extant, including The Traitor (1631), Hyde Park (1632), The Gamester (1633), The Lady of Pleasure (1635), and The Cardinal (1641). He had a considerable reputation in his lifetime and died very well off; Dryden's bracketing of him with Heywood and Shadwell in Mac‐ Flecknoe probably does not represent a considered judgement of his work.