“We’ll sing, like swans, to welcome death”: The Danse Macabre in The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi

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    The Danse Macabre visual tradition of the late Middle Ages could terrify and delight in equal measure: one might be horrified by its leering skeletal figures leading souls to death, or derive pleasure from the dance’s implication that death is the greatest equalizing force. Whether you are King or a pauper, the Danse reminds the viewer that every life ends. In The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil, Webster utilizes Danse Macabre imagery in a dramatic meditation on the visceral terror that death inspires while acknowledging the power of death as an equalizer. This paper draws on recent scholarship by Paul Frazer on the influence of Michel de Montaigne on Webster, Elizabeth Williamson’s work on the significance of Catholic religious objects in Devil, and Eamon Duffy’s seminal work on English religious culture to demonstrate how the Danse Macabre loomed in the cultural imagination. If confronting the fear of death is necessary to conquer that fear as Montaigne argued, Webster conjures the Danse Macabre to force his audience into that confrontation. The result is a grim reminder that, no matter the religious context, cause of death, or earthly status of the deceased, the dance of death claims us all.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusUnpublished - 2021
    EventBritish Graduate Shakespeare Conference - The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon
    Duration: 23 Aug 202127 Aug 2021


    ConferenceBritish Graduate Shakespeare Conference

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