c18th Hints for Halloween: How to avoid dancing with death


In the spirit of Halloween, I present a lovely (if slightly out-of-time) c17th drawing and a brilliant Cruikshank print of 1808, both of which illustrate the very last liaison any of us can look forward to – the dance with Death. Whatever your trade, age, sex or position in society, he catches up with you in the end.

The print (shown in full at the bottom of the page) imagines the dying pleas of 24 characters – including a king, a doctor, an elderly spinster and a disgruntled brothel-keeper – as they attempt in vain to extricate themselves from Death’s fatal grasp. Some try to bargain, others appeal to his sympathies; some exclaim surprise that he would prey on his most faithful servants, or interrupt them so rudely before they have finished their plate of venison/drink/newspaper. But every time the skeletal figure grins back at them in amusement, and the dance goes on.

Here are a select few, beginning with my favourite by far:

Plea #1, the lady of quality:
“Don’t be so boisterous you filthy Wretch, I am a Woman of Fashion.”


Plea #2, the elderly gent:
“My good friend, I am too old I assure you!!”


Plea #3, the preacher:
“If you won’t take I… I’ll never mention you or the Devil in my Sarmons [sic], as long as I lives!!”


Plea #4, the old spinster:
“Let me but stay till I am married and I’ll ask no longer time.”


Plea #5, the gourmand:
“If you detain me in this way my venison will be quite cold.”


Plea #6, the bloated old brothel-keeper:
“You may well call me old Bawd if you please but I am sure I have always been a Friend to your Worship.”


Plea #7, the drink-blotched parson:
“I can’t leave the company till I’ve finished my pipe, and bottle.”


Plea #8, Death’s faithful servant:
“A pretty dance this… for an Undertaker.”


***dance of death

– ‘The Dance of Death’, by Isaac Cruikshank (after George Woodward), published October 1808

Explore the full print in more detail at the Lewis Walpole Library

Header image: ‘Dance of Death: The Nobleman’, by Gerrit van Battem (after Holbein the Younger), c17th

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