Dancing in Twelfth Night:

Courtly versus Carnal Entertainments

by Emily Winerock

[Excerpted with the author’s permission from “The Bard’s Galliard: A Practical Guide to Shakespearean Dance” (Princeton, 1999). This excerpt and the rest of the work are available at www.winerock.com.]

Sir Toby and Sir Andrew make numerous references to specific Renaissance dance steps in Act One, scene three of Twelfth Night. On the one hand, the court dance terminology reminds the audience of the men’s aristocratic background and experiences. On the other hand, these terms call attention to the distance between model knights’ actions and the riotous, drunken behavior of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Just as Sir Andrew lists dancing in between fencing and bear-baiting, dance in general in Act One, scene three, bridges the distinct worlds of high and low entertainment.

Sir Andrew states, “I am a fellow o’ the strangest mind i’ th’ world; / I delight in masques and revels sometimes altogether” (I.iii. 109-110). Masques and revels were courtly entertainments where nobles danced and performed for each other. In one sense, this statement implies that Sir Andrew is privileged enough to have attended court masques and similar entertainments. At the same time though, this comment can be taken ironically. While revel was a general term for partying and dancing, the revels-which were also called the measures – were a particular part of a court masque. If you interpret “revel” as referring to the part of the masque where the performers descend from the stage to dance with nobles in the audience, then it’s rather foolish for Sir Andrew to say that it is strange for him to enjoy both masques and revels together. To make a twentieth-century parallel, it’s as if he says, “I am a man of strange tastes; I like musicals and dancing, sometimes even together!” The ambiguity of the phrasing allows both for the possibility that Sir Andrew has attended many courtly entertainments and enjoys a variety of them and the option that Sir Andrew is trying to impress Sir Toby and actually has no idea that revels are part of all court masques.

The Villagers Open Air Shakespeare Group (2008)

Similarly, when Sir Toby asks his friend how well he dances, Shakespeare’s juxtaposition of dance terms beside the word ‘knight’ allows for varied interpretations. Sir Toby follows his first question, “Art thou good at these kick-shawses, knight?” (I.iii. 111) with the similar, “what is thy excellence in a galliard, knight?” (I.iii. 115). “Kick-shawes” refers to the series of kicks and jumps that comprise the basic galliard step. In placing “kick-shawses” and “galliard” adjacent to “knight,” Sir Toby reminds Sir Andrew of his aristocratic breeding by asking him about his knowledge of a courtly dance. Sir Toby acknowledges and complements Sir Andrew on his social position by assuming that he is familiar with the galliard and its steps. Yet, if the actor playing Sir Toby stressed the word ‘knight’ in these lines, they become a taunt; if Sir Andrew can not dance well, he is not living up to the title of knight.

Sir Andrew’s initial response to Sir Toby’s query, “Faith, I can cut a caper” (I.iii. 116), also supports multiple readings. The caper, which Brissenden defines as “a high spring during which the dancer rapidly moves his feet,” is one of the more difficult steps in the galliard, the most taxing Renaissance court dance (Brissenden, 113). Four small kicks in front at about a forty-five degree angle followed by a large jump comprise the basic galliard step. Arbeau writes that “there are many dancers so agile that while executing the saut majeur [or large jump] they move their feet in the air and such capering is called capriole [or a caper]” (Arbeau, 91). On a tangential note, the step survives intact in the cabriole step in ballet as a jump where the back leg, brushing front or back, beats against the other leg in the air. Therefore, when Sir Andrew claims he can cut a caper, he is asserting not only can he do a galliard, but he is so good that he can execute the extra-difficult variation. For a young, sober, physically fit person the caper is a challenge. For Sir Andrew? A director may decide either way, but it is important for him or her to realize that Sir Andrew’s boast is a bold assertion indeed.

Several other instances further complicate the meaning of these dance references. Earlier in Act One, scene three, Sir Toby mentioned Spanish wine, “O knight, thou lack’st a cup of canary!” (I.iii. 78). Shakespeare’s use of this term although it almost certainly refers to the Spanish wine and not the Spanish dance still prepares the reader for a passage on dancing. Likewise, Sir Toby’s response to Sir Andrew’s boast, a pun on caper, takes the reader from masked balls to the Renaissance table, “And I can cut the mutton to’t” (I.iii. 117). These lines associate dancing with wine, mutton, and thus by indication, the sin of gluttony. Sir Andrew’s retort to the mutton line, “And I think I have the back-trick simply as strong as any man in Illyria” (I.iii. 118-119), possesses a bawdy second meaning which similarly associates dancing with scurrilous activities.

Cesare Negri, Nuove inventioni di balli (1604)

The back-trick or ruade, another galliard step, involved kicking one leg backwards at the knee sometimes while jumping. Although the dance step bears no lewd implications, the English name Shakespeare uses for it, ‘the back-trick’ could also refer to an underhanded deed or a sexual act-as in a prostitute’s turning tricks-involving the backside or posterior.

Continuing in this vein is Toby’s “My very walk should be a jig” (I.iii. 124) and “I would not / so much as make water but in a sink-a-pace” (I.iii. 124-125). To “make water” alludes to urinating while a “jig” refers to the lewd song and dance performed after most plays especially in outdoor theaters. The term “sink-a-pace” is an English spelling of the French cinque pas or five steps, the literal name for the galliard. On this passage Alan Brissenden writes, “A jig is vulgar company for these other, courtly dances. But Sir Toby lowers the dignity of the cinquepace by making a pun about urination, which perhaps shows the level at which he thinks about Sir Andrew, whose leg, he goes on flatteringly to say, must have been ‘form’d under the star of a galliard'” (Brissenden, 59). Given Sir Andrew’s prior boast that his legs look particularly good in red stockings and his previous record as consistently mistaken about his personal attractiveness, any comment regarding Sir Andrew’s legs must be viewed with suspicion.

From the scene’s early references to meat and drink, dance associations deteriorate to sexual indulgence and urination. By juxtaposing dance terms with references to social position, sinful indulgences, and urination, Shakespeare reveals that context is what makes dancing courtly or otherwise.


Arbeau, Thoinot. Orchesography. Langres, 1589. Translated by Mary Stewart Evans; Introduction and Notes by Julia Sutton. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1967.

Brissenden, Alan. Shakespeare and the Dance. London: The MacMillan Press, 1981.

Winerock, Emily. “Dancing in Twelfth Night: Courtly versus Carnal Entertainments.” The Shakespeare and Dance Project, edited by Linda McJannet, Amy Rodgers, and Emily Winerock, May 1, 1999, revised August 13, 2016. shakespeareandance.com/articles/dancing-in-twelfth-night-courtly-versus-carnal-entertainments. Accessed [date].

Updated August 13, 2016.

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