Henry VI, Part 2
This history play was likely written in 1591. (See Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor in The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works (2nd edition, 2005).)
The play, the middle one in Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy, centers on conflicts among the nobility and Henry’s failure to deescalate them, leading to civil war, i.e., the War of the Roses.
Textual References to Dance
Text excerpts and their act, scene, and line numbers follow Folger Digital Texts unless otherwise noted.
Act I, scene 3, lines 166-178
Before we make election, give me leave
To show some reason, of no little force,
That York is most unmeet of any man.
YORK: I’ll tell thee, Suffolk, why I am unmeet:
First, for I cannot flatter thee in pride;
Next, if I be appointed for the place,
My lord of Somerset will keep me here
Without discharge, money, or furniture
Till France be won into the Dauphin’s hands.
Last time I danced attendance on his will
Till Paris was besieged, famished, and lost.
That can I witness, and a fouler fact
Did never traitor in the land commit.
Act IV, scene 1, lines 129-138
SUFFOLK: Suffolk’s imperial tongue is stern and rough,
Used to command, untaught to plead for favor.
Far be it we should honor such as these
With humble suit. No, rather let my head
Stoop to the block than these knees bow to any
Save to the God of heaven and to my king;
And sooner dance upon a bloody pole
Than stand uncovered to the vulgar groom.
True nobility is exempt from fear.—
More can I bear than you dare execute.
Dance References in Henry VI, Part 2
Both references to dancing in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2 have a decidedly negative tone. In Act I, scene 3, the Duke of York and the Duke of Suffolk argue over who should become the regent for England in France. York contends that the only reason he is “unmeet” or unfit for the post is because the Duke of Somerset will undermine his efforts due to their past history of antagonism, a claim that the Earl of Warwick confirms. York complains that even if he “danced attendance” on Somerset, the duke would still oppose his actions on principle, even if it went against England’s interests.
To “dance attendance” was a common phrase of the period with negative connotations. (See also Richard III, Act III, scene 7, line 57.) The implication is that the “dancer” is not simply respectfully “attending” a superior as required but is actively trying to gain favor. The phrase alludes to people who are willing to bow low, jump high, or otherwise do whatever their superior wants, potentially compromising their dignity and morality in the process.
The Duke of Suffolk’s reference to dancing in Act IV, scene 1, also occurs in a speech contrasting dignity and moral uprightness with flattery and weakness. However, in this passage dance is associated with the means to preserve morality, not compromise it. Suffolk says that he would rather “dance upon a bloody pole” — in other words, die — than “plead for favor.” On the one hand, dance serves as a generic metaphor for energetic motion in this passage. On the other hand, dance, which is typically associated with joy and festivity, is intentionally juxtaposed with a graphic description of bloody and violent death. (See also The Winter’s Tale, Act I, scene 2, 141-142.)
Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 is a play concerned with the actions (and transgressions) of the nobility. The play’s references to dance remind us of the suspicions aroused by the skillful courtier: court etiquette emphasized deference and respect, but the courtly arts also facilitated flattery and scheming, and they disadvantaged the plainspoken, however noble their blood or their intentions.
– Emily Winerock (Dec. 11, 2018)