Death the Leveller

by James Shirley

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Was is the historical context of the poem "Death the Leveller"?

The historical context of the play in which the poem "Death the Leveller" by James Shirley appears is the Trojan War. However, the historical context of the time in which the poem was written and published is seventeenth-century England. Shirley was an English dramatist who wrote and published his plays shortly after the time of Shakespeare.

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The poem "Death the Leveller" by James Shirley was a part of the author's play called The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses for the Armour of Achilles, which was published in 1659. Within the play, the poem functions as a funeral dirge. The play takes place during the Trojan War just after the death of Achilles. In the play, Ajax and Ulysses have a debate observed by Greek generals about who is most worthy to acquire the armor of the fallen Achilles. The generals ultimately decide that Ulysses wins and award the armor to him. Ajax goes mad and commits suicide, and the final scene is his funeral.

Precisely when this play was written and staged is not known. However, we can assess the historical context through the life and career of its writer, James Shirley. He was a dramatist who lived roughly at the same time as Shakespeare. Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616, while Shirley was born in 1596 and died in 1666. While Shakespeare produced most of his plays between 1589 and 1613, Shirley wrote and produced plays from 1625 to 1642, with 1642 being the year that all theaters in London were closed because of the First English Civil War. He published a few volumes of poems and plays after the closure as well, up until 1659, the publication date of the above-mentioned play.

We see, then, that the historical context of the play in which the poem appears is the Trojan War, but the historical context in which the play was written was seventeenth-century England. In the poem, Shirley warns anyone who might have seen the play, whether nobleman, warrior, or commoner, that death comes to all, and that whether in life they wielded "sceptre and crown," "swords," or "scythe and spade," they must "stoop to fate" and "give up their murmuring breath." The only significant things that remain after death are "the actions of the just."

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