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Swordplay and Swagger

Episode 5 of 20

15 minutes
First broadcast:
Friday 20 April 2012

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, continues his new object-based history. Taking artefacts from William Shakespeare's time, he explores how Elizabethan and Jacobean playgoers made sense of the unstable and rapidly changing world in which they lived.

With old certainties shifting around them, in a time of political and religious unrest and economic expansion, Neil asks what the plays would have meant to the public when they were first performed. He uses carefully selected objects to explore the great issues of the day that preoccupied the public and helped shape the works, and he considers what they can reveal about the concerns and beliefs of Shakespearean England.

Programme 5. SWORDPLAY AND SWAGGER - The essential accoutrements of any self-respecting gentleman illustrate the extent of violence in Elizabethan London - both onstage and off.

Producer: Paul Kobrak.

  • Rapier and Dagger

    Date: c.1600  

    Size: Rapier: H:1280mm. Dagger: H: 463mm  

    Made in: England  

    Made by: Unknown  

    Material: Steel, Iron, Wood    


    We tend to think of the play about Shakespeare’s most famous couple, Romeo and Juliet, as being about the tribulations of romantic love – when in fact it’s just as much about gangs of privileged lads slicing each other to death.


    Although the play’s action is set in Italy, the issue of urban violence would not have been foreign to its English audience. Weapons were part of everyday life – all gentleman of the time would have worn something similar to this rapier and dagger set – part fashion accessory, part murder weapon.


    Many such gentlemen would head south of the river to London’s South Bank where, outside the authority of the City, they could encounter the roaring entertainments of Bankside which could either lead the way to delights…or dangerous drunken feuds.


    This object is from the Royal Armouries


    British Museum Blog: Swords as symbols of status by Toby Capwell, Curator of Arms and Armour, The Wallace Collection

  • Quotations

    'He fights as you sing pricksong: keeps time, distance, and proportion. He rests his minim rests, one, two, and the third in your bosom. The very butcher of a silk button... Ah, the immortal passado! the punto reverse! the hay!'  

    Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 4

  • Background

    • Stage fights were extremely popular in Elizabethan theatre and actors used real weapons
    • According to the 1574 Statute of Apparel, rapiers and daggers could only be worn by gentlemen 'and others of higher degree and place'
    • Fencing was an essential part of the education of a man of any status
    • The classic text for fencing was Vincentio Saviolo's Discourse of Rapier and Dagger, translated into English in 1595
    • Some theatres were multi-purpose venues, offering displays of fencing and bear-baiting when no acting company was in residence
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    Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss why revenge tragedy was so popular with Elizabethan theatre goers, from Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy to Shakespeare's Hamlet.


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