The danse macabre and Shakespeare's Battle of Shrewsbury


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Danse macabre references in 1 Henry IV assume a more sustained and cohesive patterning than is evident in other plays. The Battle of Shrewsbury in Act V offers vignettes that reveal performative elements reminiscent of the danse macabre in medieval frescos and early modern emblem books. The danse macabre was an essentially Roman Catholic medieval art form with a clear religious and moral significance: in order to ascend to heaven the individual must live a pious life, do good deeds, and reject earthly vanities. In 1 Henry IV intimations of the old form are presented without the customary religious and moral anchorings. The English Reformation had in some sense "liberated" Roman Catholic iconographies from their traditional centres of meaning, making them available for new semantic uses in art, literature and drama. In 1 Henry IV the audience recognises the old Roman Catholic danse macabre dynamic but struggles to deduce a new and cohering iconographic narrative. The difficulty with removing the religious core from the medieval danse macabre was that it left behind an intellectual, mythological and moral void. Filling that space was a central challenge Shakespeare faced in dramatising the Battle of Shrewsbury and the outcome is not wholly convincing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)173-181
Number of pages9
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2015

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory

User-Defined Keywords

  • danse macabre
  • Elizabethan
  • iconography
  • Reformation
  • Shakespeare


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