Saturday, January 17, 2015

Speaking (and Writing) Poniards

I've  let this space lie fallow in recent weeks, because holidays, the ending and beginning of semesters, and Actual Work haven't left much time for blogging. That said, I'm hoping to do a bit better at maintaining this venue as an informal place to share ideas and some random writing, so to that end I’m setting the wayback machine to a time when my work was somewhat (but not entirely) different.

Before starting graduate school, I worked for several years as the public education program manager at a (now sadly defunct) museum of medieval and Renaissance arms and armor. (The running joke is that I moved from the non-profit sector to the no-profit sector: wakka-wakka!) Like any job, there were things and people I loved, some that I hated, and lots of stuff that fell somewhere in the middle. One of the most rewarding parts of the experience was the opportunity to research and develop material for a wide variety of audiences: from special programs on everything from Boudicca and Joan of Arc to beer and corsetry, exhibit openings, annual events, and field trips for K-12 students and beyond, the Higgins Armory Museum education staff did it all, and while it was a great deal of work, it was also a great deal of fun a great deal (if not quite all) of the time.

Unsurprisingly, I wound up learning a lot—indeed, more than I ever expected or wanted to know—about various types of armor and weaponry and the roles they played in ordinary medieval and Renaissance life. Since I’ve always been interested in the intersections of literature, history, and material culture, it was inevitable that Shakespeare would become involved, and thanks to serendipity, I found a co-worker and friend who helped me learn to identify, understand, and interpret the many (and I mean many) ways arms, armor, and weaponry-oriented language and rhetoric inform and play roles in early modern texts. One of the foremost of these is Romeo and Juliet, a play that turns out be all about fencing!

(What? Did you think it was some sappy romance about dopey teenagers in love? Well, think again, bub, and let this be a lesson not to believe everything you hear in high school.)

As I began transitioning from the museum world to academia, I was able to apply much of what I’d learned to things like conference presentations and public talks, and today’s post is the final iteration of a paper that has appeared in a number of forms in various venues and contexts. In recent years, my research has moved away from arms and armor-related topics, and since I’ll be writing about early modern domestic tragedy for the foreseeable future, I’m unlikely to be revisiting the warring factions of Elizabethan rapier fencing any time soon, if ever. And so this is quite possibly the end of the road for a topic that has meant many things to me, not least of which being my first baby-steps on the road to Proper Scholarship. So draw, if ye be men (or not), and if anyone tells you this play is about anything but swords, swordplay, and Renaissance xenophobia, issue your challenge forthwith!

As one of the most popular spectator sports of the early modern period, fencing occupied an important place in the social imagination of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, with prizefights often held in the same theaters that staged plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and entertainments like bear-baiting and Marocco the Dancing Horse (trained - some said bewitched - by his owner, William Bankes, to curtsy at Queen Elizabeth's name, and bare his teeth when Spain's Philip II was mentioned). Andrew Gurr and Mariko Ichikawa have observed that “The Southwark playhouses in particular were popular for such public shows of prowess. [Philip] Henslowe records a debt of forty shillings in 1598 for hiring the Rose for a ‘challenge,’ noting that ‘James Cranwigge the 4 of november 1598 playd his challenge in my howsse & I sholde have had for my part xxxxs which the company hath rd & oweth yt to me.’”[1]

In addition to its appeal as public performance, fencing was a chic, aristocratic pastime, and in the late sixteenth-century an influx of “Englished” swordplay guides by Italian masters contributed to a growing enthusiasm for sophisticated rapier and dagger techniques in some quarters, while fueling xenophobic mistrust of foreign influences in others. The arrival of Italian fencing manuals (and their authors) in Elizabethan London had a transformative effect on civilian combat, and public debate about the practice informed legislative, polemical, and recreational literature.

The rapier—possibly from the Spanish espada ropera (“robe sword”) or from the French raspar (to scratch)—was a gentleman’s weapon, and unlike swords designed for warfare, was designed to be worn with street clothes. The long blade and swept hilt were in sync with increasingly exaggerated fashions for gentlemen, and were eventually targeted by the same sumptuary laws. The antiquarian John Stow inveighed in print against what he regarded as an affected and dangerous vogue:

"He was held the greatest gallant that had the deepest ruff and longest rapier. The offence to the eye of the one, and hurt unto the life of the subject that came by the other—this caused her Majestie to make proclamation against them both, and to place selected grave citizens at every gate, to cut the ruffes and breake the rapiers points of all passengers that exceeded a yeard in length of their rapiers."[2]

The growing interest in rapier fencing eventually spilled over into the works of contemporary playwrights, skeptical historians notwithstanding. Writing in the 1990s, Craig Turner and Tony Soper noted that “Critics and scholars of the Renaissance, who would not hesitate to further investigate almost any word, punctuation, or stage direction in Shakespeare, have been surprisingly mute about such open-ended notations as ‘they fight.”[3] To a large extent this remains true in literary scholarship today, but an appreciation for the contemporary audience’s familiarity with fencing rhetoric and practice provides a valuable glimpse into early modern popular culture, where the line between spectacle and reality could be fascinatingly permeable. In addition to references in letters and diaries, the many theatrical allusions to weapons and swordplay reveal a great deal about the level of civilian violence in an Elizabethan city, along with the simmering economic, nationalist, and cultural anxieties that frequently informed it.

One of the primary objections voiced by critics of the Italian style (after its suspicious continental origins) was its potentially lethal outcome: rapier fencing was a great deal more hazardous than the “good downright blows” of traditional English methods, which might end in cuts or bruises but rarely in death.[4] The same could not be said of rapier bouts, even those fought purely for show; one contemporary example of a sporting event gone terribly awry comes from the 1602 diary of John Manningham, who reports that “in an exhibition at the Swan the professional fencer Dun had been killed by a thrust in the eye.”[5] In an environment where an afternoon’s entertainment could have fatal consequences, it seems likely that playhouse audiences viewed stage combat with particularly keen attention.

Allusions to swordplay and the masters who taught it occur in a great many Renaissance texts, but Joan Ozark Holmer points out that the “earliest accents of rapier fence in Elizabethan drama appear in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet.”[6] Holmer posits that the English translation of one manual in particular, Vincentio Saviolo his Practice, which appeared in 1595, may account for the sudden appearance of swordplay vernacular in plays of the mid-1590s. She also notes that the subsequent “flourishing of this foreign jargon in the literary works of such Elizabethans as Thomas Lodge, John Marston, and Ben Jonson also post-dates publication of Saviolo’s book and therefore suggests its impact.”[7] Of the two Shakespeare plays mentioned above, Romeo and Juliet is especially striking in its deployment of this language: from Tybalt’s angry “Fetch me my rapier, boy” when he perceives Romeo at the Capulets’ feast, to the “Spanish blades” of Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, the text is rife with the stylized vocabulary of the formal duel as detailed in contemporary fencing literature (Romeo and Juliet, 1.5.53; 1.4.84). [8]

Along with practical instructions about technique, swordplay manuals contained injunctions as to what constituted a proper cause for a quarrel, along with the appropriate ways of issuing a challenge and pursuing retribution if one’s honor was insulted. The second half of Saviolo’s manual was entitled Of Honor and Honorable Quarrels, and divided into two sections: “A Discourse of Single Combat” and “A Rule and Order Concerning the Challenger and Defender.” Shakespeare burlesques these minutely calibrated standards in the jester Touchstone’s speech about the seven degrees of “giving the lie” in As You Like It (ranging from the Retort Courteous to the Lie Direct), offering a means of avoiding actual engagement without any loss of face. We see an earthier iteration of the same dynamic in the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet, as the Montague servant Samson attempts to pick a fight without risking legal ramifications; asked if he has bitten his thumb at the Capulet servant he has insulted, he ascertains whether or not “the law [is] of our side if I say ‘Ay?’” before responding (1.1.45).

Such references would have resonated with playhouse audience, who had opportunities to witness private as well as professional duels, and to whom the names of famous fencing masters would have been familiar. Holmer writes, “Complementing Saviolo’s foreign fencing rhetoric is his careful articulation of the ethic informing the truly honorable duello, the values of which significantly illuminate the tragic complexity of the duels in Romeo and Juliet.”[9] In the end, Mercutio and Tybalt, pay as high a price for their investment in the notions of honor prescribed by fencing culture as that paid by the play’s feckless, eponymous lovers for their star-cross’d affection.

The widespread success of Saviolo’s manual was partially due to his connections in the fencing world: a native of Padua, Saviolo immigrated to London in 1590 to teach at the “colledge” of Rocco Bonetti in Blackfriars. Bonetti’s students were drawn from the highest echelons of Elizabethan society (Sir Walter Raleigh and Lord Peregrin Willoughby were both patrons), and he enjoyed a reputation for swagger.[10] In 1596, the actor James Burbage—like Shakespeare, a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men—took over the lease on Bonetti’s school, planning to incorporate it into the second Blackfriars playhouse, which makes it improbable that Shakespeare was unacquainted with the fencing salon.[11] Moreover, Mercutio’s characterization of Tybalt as “the very butcher of a silk button,” is a direct allusion to Bonetti’s boast that he “could hit any Englishman with a thrust, just upon the button of his doublet” (2.3.64-5).[12]

This story was derided by the conservative English master George Silver—of whom more below—who quotes Bonetti verbatim in his Paradoxes of Defence, writing of a “pretty jest…scarce worth the reading, in commendation of outlandish fight. There was an Italian teacher of Defence in my time…so excellent in his fight, that he would hit any English man with a thrust, just upon any button in his doublet, and this was much spoken of.”[13] After Bonetti’s death, his student—known to history only as “Jeronimo”—took over, and “For the next couple of years Jeronimo and Saviolo exploited the immense English interest in rapier-fight, traveling around the country propagating their ‘foining fence’ and enraging the English Masters” whose livelihoods and reputations suffered as a result of this exotic imported competition.[14]

The conflict between the English and Italian schools played out in print, with public challenges being issued and advertised, and this tension is evident in Romeo and Juliet. While Holmer is correct in identifying Saviolo’s stylish Italian terminology throughout the text, it is important to recognize the presence of an alternate view of current swordplay trends. This contrary attitude is represented by Mercutio (and to a certain extent by Benvolio) in the play, and was wholly embraced by George Silver in real life. Although his Paradoxes of Defence was not published until 1599, Silver was a voluble critic of his continental rivals throughout the 1590s, and on one occasion he and his brother challenged Jeronimo and Saviolo to a public duel, which “The Italians refused, to the public disgrace of the Silvers, who had already printed and distributed posters and handbills advertising the fight,” thereby adding personal insult to professional injury. [15]

The Paradoxes remains the only extant Elizabethan manual written by an Englishman: essentially a nationalist diatribe against the incursion of Italians with their “long Swords, long Rapiers, [and] frog-pricking Poiniards,” it opens with “an admonition to the noble, ancient, victorious, valiant, and most brave nation of Englishmen, to beware of false teachers of defence, and how they forsake their own natural fights.”[16] (It is also worth noting that Silver's book is dedicated to Saviolo’s patron, “the right honorable…singular good lord, Robert, Earle of Essex and Ewe, Earle Marshall of England.”)[17]

Turner and Soper note that as “an historical document…the Paradoxes represents the last gasp of a dying breed: the conservative—even reactionary—voice of a man watching his beloved Englishman’s style receding before waves of enthusiasm for the Italian rapier.”[18] In Romeo and Juliet, Silver’s scornful tone is first heard in the voice of Benvolio, who belittles the duelist’s flashy technique to the angry Prince Escalus, following the play’s opening brawl:

Benvolio: …the fiery Tybalt, with his sword prepar’d,
Which, as he breath’d defiance to my ears
He swung about his head and cut the winds,
Who nothing hurt withal, hiss’d him in scorn.

However, it is Mercutio's character who most forcefully reviles the modish enthusiasm for these “antic, lisping” affectations, in language strikingly similar to Silver’s. Compare the following passages:

Mercutio: The pox of such antic, lisping, affecting phantasimes, these new tuners of accent!...Why, is not this a lamentable thing, grandsire, that we should be thus afflicted with these strange flies, these fashion-mongers, these pardon-me’s, who stand so much on the new form, that they cannot sit at ease on the old bench?’(Romeo and Juliet, 2.3.26-33)

Silver: Fencing (right honorable) in this new fangled age, is like our fashions, every day a change, resembling the chameleon, who alters himself into all colors save white. So fencing changes into all wards save right.
(Preface, Paradoxes of Defence)

In fact, Mercutio uses his dying breath to condemn his nemesis as “a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat, to scratch a man to death! A braggart, a rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic!” (3.1.100-02). Foreign names and settings never quite disguise the fact that Shakespeare’s plays take place in England, and are populated by English characters, and it is interesting that Mercutio’s issue seems to be less with Tybalt’s choice of weapon than the style in which he employs it. Romeo’s admonition—“Gentle Mercutio, put thy rapier up”—makes it clear that both men are armed with similar swords, but Mercutio’s contemptuous, “Come, sir, your passado!” makes it clear that he has little time for his rival’s foppish, imported mannerisms (3.1.82-3).

The most intriguing thing about this scornful language may be the playwright’s choice to place it in the mouth of a young man. It is unsurprising that Old Montague should call querulously for a longsword (his wife’s response, “A crutch, a crutch! Why call you for a sword?” makes it clear that his fencing days are long past), or that the servants are armed with old-fashioned swords and bucklers, associated in Shakespeare’s time with lower-class ruffianism (1.1.72). What invites interrogation is the disparity of opinion about au courant techniques between the aristocratic young men of the Capulet and Montague camps: one embracing the hot new trends, and the other clinging to methods of defense that were becoming woefully outdated.

In his Introduction to the second Arden edition of the play, Brian Gibbons writes of the “widening gap between [Mercutio] and Romeo…Romeo seeks joy and harmony where Mercutio delights in exacerbated conflict, so that Romeo begins to find his friend inflexible, superficial, [and] content with fixed ideas.”[19] This is an arresting point, since the main “fixed idea” in Shakespeare’s Verona is that the Montagues and Capulets hate one another, and their friends must do likewise. Tybalt may be more receptive to innovative styles of swordplay than Mercutio, but he is equally bound to the notion that there can never be peace between these two warring factions. When Romeo (now secretly married to Tybalt’s cousin) tries to deflect the young Capulet’s challenge before the fatal duel in Act Three, the latter responds, “Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries/ That thou hast done me. Therefore turn and draw” (3.1.65-6). Having threatened to make Tybalt “dance” with his “fiddlestick,” Mercutio decries his friend’s conciliatory attitude as “calm, dishonourable, vile submission,” and is soon engaged in a fight which neither he or the “King of Cats” will survive (3.1.47-8; 72; 76).

Considering the stress that has been placed on disparate approaches to personal combat, it is significant that in the play’s pivotal duel neither Mercutio nor Tybalt gains the advantage based on traditional methods or stylish technique. It is only when Romeo steps between the combatants to separate them that Tybalt’s rapier manages a thrust under Romeo’s arm. Like the servants in Act One, Mercutio seems to solicit a fight without expecting a lethal outcome; it is difficult to imagine that he is prepared to sacrifice his life for the pleasure of fighting Tybalt, regardless of their mutual hatred.

Mercutio fails to appreciate that the newer methods play for higher stakes, which was one of the most serious critiques the Italian style met with upon arriving in England. George Silver laments that the foreign masters “teach men to butcher one another here at home in peace, wherewith they cannot hurt their enemies abroad in war,” asserting that “neither the Italians nor any of their best scholars do never fight, but they are most commonly sore hurt, or one or both of them slain.”[20] 

The anxious xenophobia of Silver’s rhetoric seems particularly apposite to a historical moment when England faced an impending succession crisis, with the likely accession of a “foreign” sovereign after the death of the childless Elizabeth. With no direct English heir to succeed the aging queen (and the end of the Tudor dynasty that brought to a close the decades-long civil “wars of the roses” of the previous century), the possibility of cultural colonization loomed large for many Elizabethans. In Silver’s view, if the old ways were abandoned by the younger generation, the English might cease to be English, succumbing to alien influences,

"…like degenerate sons, [who] have forsaken our forefathers virtues with their weapons, and have lusted like men sick of a strange ague, after the strange vices and devices of Italian, French, and Spanish fencers, little remembering, that these apish toys could not free Rome from Brennius' sack, not France from the King Henry the Fifth his conquest.”[21]

Turner and Soper point out that Silver’s allusion to the fourth century Northumbrian victor of the Battle of the Allia may well “hint at the Italian teachers’ common contention that the Romans invented the thrust,” while the reference to Henry V is easily read as jingoistic (and rather desperate) whistling in the dark.[22] Given the (still) ongoing English reputation for insularity and resistance to change—despite the former empire’s continuing and increasingly successful efforts to strike back—Silver’s concerns and their echoes in Shakespeare’s play sound an oddly familiar note. 

By placing Romeo and Juliet against a backdrop of civil unrest and appropriating the public, rhetorical debate about the proper approach to private quarrels, the play sets up a deadly interaction between popular notions of honor and increasingly lethal weapons practices. That these techniques were threatening in both their origins and their application may render their chilly reception by culturally wary Elizabethan “Little Englander” analogues more understandable, but Romeo and Juliet’s theme of unfamiliar, innovative, and/or foreign ideas clashing with established codes of behavior is an idea with relevance for audiences in any century. And you have to admit that it’s a lot more interesting than the orchard scene.


[1] Andrew Gurr and Mariko Ichikawa, Staging in Shakespeare’s Theatres (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2000), 65.

[2] John Stow, quoted in Isaac Disraeli and Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Curiosities of Literature: And, the Literary Character Illustrated (London and New York: Frederick Warne and Co., 1859), 59.

[3] Craig Turner and Tony Soper, Methods and Practice of Elizabethan Swordplay (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990), xiii.

[4] George Silver, Paradoxes of Defence and Bref Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence, in Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals, ed. James L. Jackson (Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1972), 493.

[5] Gurr and Ichikawa 66.

[6] Joan Ozark Holmer, “‘Draw, if you be Men’: The Significance of Saviolo for Romeoand Juliet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 45.2 (Summer, 1994): 164.

[7] Ibid.

[8] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1997). Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[9] Holmer 163.

[10] Turner and Soper 17.

[11] Holmer 165.

[12] Turner and Soper 16.

[13] Silver 495.

[14] Ibid. 18.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Silver 493.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Turner and Soper 79.

[19] Brian Gibbons, in Romeo and Juliet, The Arden Shakespeare, Second Series, ed. Brian Gibbons (London: A & C Black Publishers, 1980), 68.

[20] Silver 496.

[21] Ibid. 494.

[22] Turner and Soper 80.