Of death and dukes: "King Henry VI Part 2" and the "danse macabre"

Clayton MacKenzie


William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, was captured and murdered by English sailors on 2 May 1450. The event is dramatically re-enacted in Shakespeare’s early history play King Henry VI Part 2. Shakespeare’s version differs markedly from known sources. In particular, the dramatist frames the death of Suffolk as a danse macabre experience in which the victim is taunted, diminished and ultimately dragged off to the grave. The Protestant Reformation had liberated a swathe of Roman Catholic iconographies, the danse macabre amongst them, breaking them free from their traditional semantic moorings and allowing them to find novel significances on the Elizabethan stage. King Henry VI Part 2 represents a preliminary engagement with the danse macabre, a search for new possibilities and new meanings. The danse macabre form is used more coherently and cohesively in later Shakespeare plays but King Henry VI Part 2 appears to be an early, deliberate attempt to explore its potential.


"Danse macabre"; iconography; history plays; Shakespeare; Reformation, Holbein.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.18172/jes.2788

Copyright (c) 2015 Clayton MacKenzie

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© Universidad de La Rioja, 2013

ISSN 1576-6357

EISSN 1695-4300