Main content

Transcript - Shakespeare's Restless World - Programme 5

Swordplay and Swagger: Rapier and Dagger

A de Burgh: 'And of course you have to remember I am a fight director so I will not kill you.'

N MacGregor: Even so you are pretty terrifying.

A de Burgh: 'Wait until I show you stabbing in the stomach, then you can panic.'

The streets of London were a dangerous place in the 16th century.

N MacGregor: Right.

A de Burgh: Feeling confident now?

N MacGregor: Very.

Almost as dangerous as back-stage at the National Theatre today.

N MacGregor: And we're off!

A de Burgh: Here we go ...

And we'll be hearing more later from Alison de Burgh, Britain's first female theatre fight director. She'll be telling us about just how that 16th century street-fighting worked and just how bloody it could be.

So far, we've been talking about big ideas: world-exploration, religious upheaval. Today we're a little closer to the everyday life of Shakespeare's theatre and to one thing in particular that you could admire on stage one moment and then find yourself actively embroiled in, the next.

Romeo: Gentle Mercutio, put thy rapier up.

Mercutio: Come, sir, your passado!

[They fight]

Romeo: Draw, Benvolio. Beat down their weapons.

Gentlemen, for shame! Forbear this outrage!

Tybalt, Mercutio, the Prince expressly hath

Forbid this bandying in Verona streets.

Hold, Tybalt! Good Mercutio!

[Tybalt under Romeo's arm thrusts Mercutio, and exits with his followers]

Mercutio: I am hurt.

A plague a' both houses! I am sped.

(Romeo and Juliet 3.1.82-91)

Romeo and Benvolio try their best to stop the swordfight between their friend Mercutio and the hot-shot swordsman, Tybalt. But it's hopeless. Mercutio is stabbed, and once again the streets of Verona run with blood. We tend to think of Romeo and Juliet as the balcony scene, a play about the romantic tribulations of young love. It's familiar if painful ground to all of us. We've all been there. But in fact it's just as much a play about gangs of privileged lads slicing each other to death, a fore-runner not so much of Love Story, but of A Clockwork Orange. Romeo and Juliet, with its upmarket knife gangs and its blood-stained streets, shows that urban violence, for Shakespeare and his audience, was one of the big issues of the day.

I'm in one of the store rooms of the Royal Armouries in Leeds and this is a dagger that I see before me. It was made around 1600 and it's much bigger than I'd expect a dagger to be, it's more the size of a carving knife you might use for the Sunday roast. The dagger that hovered in front of Macbeth was no slight weapon. This is a thing of real substance.

It's not a battlefield weapon. It's the sort of weapon you carried around with you on the streets of Elizabethan England and, like a poisoned hat pin in a mystery novel, its part dress accessory, part murder weapon - essential kit for any young man out for a night on the town. It's like many others here in the Royal Armouries but this dagger is special because it was found on the foreshore of the Thames on the South Bank.

In Shakespeare's day there were only two ways of getting from the City of London to the South Bank. Either you walked over London Bridge or you took a rowing boat or a ferry over the river and I think we have to assume that our dagger was dropped by a young man as he got in or out of a rowing boat. When he lost his dagger was our young man looking for trouble? Was he a hot-headed Tybalt or Mercutio, up to no good as he set foot in Southwark? We don't know of course but he was almost certainly dressed at his best and looking for fun because one of the main reasons to go south of the river was to get to the roaring entertainments on Bankside. There were the theatres of course, The Rose, The Swan, The Globe, but there were also bear-pits and cock-pits, brothels and inns, all easily accessible and all conveniently outside the authority of the City of London.

The South Bank was a dangerous place, particularly when groups of Elizabethan lads, not so different from the characters in Romeo and Juliet, carried lethal weapons with them as they went out drinking and clubbing or, in the language of the day, 'whoring' and 'shelling an oyster or two'. Toby Capwell is curator of arms at the Wallace Collection:

T Capwell: 'Once they become part of your dress as a gentleman there is always the temptation to use them. If everyone is going to carry swords around all the time, they are going to come out pretty quick when there is some kind of argument.'

N MacGregor: Is it a bit like carrying guns in modern America? It is seen as what every free man ought to be able to do?

T Capwell: 'Absolutely yes'

N MacGregor: And with all the consequences that bewilder Europeans and to us look odd in Shakespearean London.

T Capwell: 'Yes it looks strange because what you are saying is that I have the personal right to take someone else's life whenever I feel like. It is strange now and it was strange then. We mustn't forget that even in Elizabethan England there were people who opposed the idea of duels, people who regarded duels as savage and barbaric and, you know, we have to be honest, they probably were.'

To be fashionable, to be cool, in 16th century London you needed to carry a sword. Only a gentleman was entitled to and a true gentleman was expected to. So it comes as no surprise that the earliest use of the word 'blade' to refer to a stylish young man appears in Shakespeare, and the play?: Romeo and Juliet. If the scenes between those young blades Tybalt and Mercutio are still so vivid today, it's because such fights were not a fanciful invention but the rough stuff of daily life. In 1596 one William Wayte was attacked by four assailants outside The Swan theatre. He swore before the Court of Queen's Bench that he had been in real danger of death or serious injury. One of his quartet of attackers was William Shakespeare.

By the standards of the day it was a run of the mill kind of brawl, the only remarkable thing about it is that we know Shakespeare was involved. Brought before a judge, the Shakespeare Four had to post bail and promise to keep the peace. They eventually settled out of court.

Here in Leeds I am looking at the essential accompaniment to an Elizabethan dagger, the rapier, and this one too was found in the Thames - another casualty of a young man's night out on the South Bank perhaps. Dropped maybe as its drunken owner stumbled back into the rowing boat to take him home north of the river. It's an impressive weapon, the blade alone is well over a metre long and it's sharp on both sides and at the end, you can slash and pierce. This is in every sense cutting edge fashion. The owner must have been very sorry to lose this rapier because it was clearly a very expensive weapon. When you come to the handle it looks as though a long thin metal snake has coiled itself around the end of the blade to protect your hand while you're fighting. You'd have worn a rapier like this in what Elizabethans called a hanger or a girdle, a sort of sling, and you'd have needed it because it's certainly not light in the hand. Toby Capwell again:

'We always think of rapiers as a kind of feather-light flashing blade, the weapon of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks and actually it is a misconception. We often think of medieval swords for example as being heavy and cumbersome while we think of rapiers as being feather-light and rapier-fast as it were. But actually it is just the reverse, medieval swords tend to be very light and real rapiers tend to be quite heavy and to an untutored hand quite ungainly.'

Yet when rapiers and daggers found themselves in tutored hands, the result was, in the words of Mercutio, a kind of musical performance:

Mercutio: 'He fights as you sing prick-song: 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. A duellist, a duellist. A gentleman of the very first house, of the first and second cause. Ah, the immortal passado! the punto reverse! the hay!'

(Romeo and Juliet 2.4.20-26)

Mercutio's description of Tybalt's skills with a rapier and dagger captures a new fashion in fighting. Tybalt is not just deadly, he's chic. Alison de Burgh:

A de Burgh: 'Shakespeare was picking up on the fact that there were the English school of fighting and the Italian school of fighting, and that they were arguing with each other. So you have Romeo's family are fighting in the old English style of sword play, whereas Tybalt's ...

N MacGregor: How do you know that?

A de Burgh: 'Because of the terminology that they are using. When Mercutio is making fun of Tybalt and the way that he fights he talks about the passado, the punto reverse and he makes up one called the hay, and I think that one of the reasons he's using these terms, and also making fun of them, is he is echoing a gentleman who wrote a manual on sword play, saying how bad the Italian style was. We had the famous Italian master Saviolo set up a school in London. He wrote a manual on sword fighting. Then the Englishman, George Silver, also wrote a manual advocating the English style of sword play and saying how rubbish the Italian style was.'

N MacGregor: So Mercutio is actually picking up on all that.

A de Burgh: 'Mercutio is actually using some of the words that George Silver uses in his manual.'

Rapiers and daggers went together and the quality of a rapier and dagger set marked out the man of fashion. In Hamlet, when the prissy courtier Osric announces a bet between the King and Laertes, the blades he mentions are as much status symbols as weapons:

Osric: 'The King, sir, hath wagered with him six Barbary horses, against the which he has impawned, as I take it, six French rapiers and poniards, with their assigns, as girdle, hangers, and so. Three of the carriages, in faith, are very dear to fancy, very responsive to the hilts, most delicate carriages, and of very liberal conceit.'

(Hamlet 5.2.145-50)

Betting half a dozen rapiers and daggers against six Barbary horses shows just how enormously valuable a 'delicate' rapier and dagger could be. But it wasn't just a question of fashion. Rapiers and daggers were about causing serious bodily harm.

A de Burgh: 'And they also did a move we do today in modern fencing which is basically a stop hit. So if someone is ...'

N MacGregor: What is a stop hit? Show me a stop hit.

A de Burgh: 'Well I'd kill you if I showed you a proper stop hit with one of these I'm afraid so I'd better not do that. We'll say for instance you are swinging an attack to cut for my head, go on swing your sword and go for my ...'

N MacGregor: Like that, yes.

A de Burgh: 'Yes, well a cutting action takes a lot longer than a thrusting action so as you are cutting ... '

N MacGregor: Yes so as I aim for your neck ...

A de Burgh: 'I thrust for your face.'

N MacGregor: Yes that was very uncomfortable.

A de Burgh: 'So if we continue with the move, you'll die.'

Luckily at this point Health and Safety regulations kicked in and stopped her killing me, and 16th century Europe also had regulations to restrict the violent use of rapiers and daggers, just like the Prince of Verona:

Romeo: 'Tybalt, Mercutio, the Prince expressly hath

Forbid this bandying in Verona streets.'

(Romeo and Juliet 3.1.86-7)

An English law of 1562 limited the length of rapiers, thinking that that would help. Rapiers over a yard long were physically broken at the city gates. But it was a bit like saying you could carry only a small gun.

The sword fights that Elizabethans saw in the theatre were a hugely popular spectacle and the actors used real weapons. When theatres were not staging plays they offered fencing displays. In daylight in the open air, swordplay showed to particular advantage in the new outdoor playhouses like the Globe. So watching Hamlet fight Laertes was a two-for-the price of one bargain, you got not only Shakespeare's new play, but an excellent swordfight that you'd willingly have paid to see on its own.

Among the audience watching Hamlet must have been many young men carrying rapiers and daggers just like those they saw on the stage, just like the ones here in the Royal Armouries in Leeds. What was shown in a Shakespearean play was essentially their own lives and the fights in Romeo and Juliet were exactly the sort they might themselves get embroiled in after the show as they spilled out of the theatre and onto the street. Actors and playwrights seem to have been eager to join this kind of action. Christopher Marlowe was stabbed with a knife. Gabriel Spencer, a rising actor in the Admiral's Men, killed a man in a brawl in 1596 and two years later he was himself killed by the playwright Ben Jonson. So it's perhaps not surprising that Shakespeare, like so many other playwrights and actors, was arrested for fighting in the streets.

In the next programme we move from street brawl to pitched battle. We'll be at Agincourt with Henry V and we'll be following the 16th century tourist trail to Westminster Abbey.

Shakespeare quotations are taken from:

Romeo and Juliet (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-14-101226-1

Hamlet (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01307-7