Death the Leveller
The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows not substantial things
There is no armour against fate,
Death lays its icy hands on kings;
Scepter and crown,
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made,
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
Some men with swords may reap the field,
And plant fresh laurels where they kill,
But their strong nerves at last must yield,
They tame but one another still;
Early or late,
They stoop to fate,
And must give up their murmuring breath,
When they, pale captives, creep to death.
The garlands wither on your brow,
They boast no more your mighty deeds;
Upon death’s purple altar now,
See where the victor-victim bleeds,
Your heads must come,
To the cold tomb;
Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet, and blossom in their dust.
Shirley was the most substantial professional dramatist of the generation after Shakespeare. He was born in 1596, at around the same time as Shakespeare was writing The Merchant of Venice, and he began writing plays nine years after Shakespeare’s death, initially doing so part-time in parallel with his day-job as a schoolmaster. In the late 1630s he was the principal dramatist for the first commercial theatre in Dublin, and in 1642 his last full-length play, The Court Secret, was being prepared for its London premiere when the outbreak of Civil War closed the theatres; but he continued writing shorter work for private performance during the Interregnum, and The Court Secret was eventually revised for production after the theatres reopened in 1660.