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In Shakespeare’s lifetime, sound was often relied upon by playwrights to let an audience know a battle was taking place, an army was taking action, or a particular military event was about to occur. Some of these military sound cues are found in the stage directions of Shakespeare’s plays when we see him indicate musicians should sound specific pieces. For example, the musicians are directed to “sound a parley” in Coriolanus Act I, and to play an “Alarum to battle” in Henry IV Part I. Here today to share with us the 16th century military history behind these sounds, is our guest Christian Dahl. 

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Christian Dahl is associate professor in Comparative Literature at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark His publications focus on ancient Greek and early modern literature. He has published a monograph in Danish on Greek tragedy, co-authored books on early modern literary history, republicanism, and his publications also include several articles on early modern drama in England and France. Currently, Christian is participating in a collective and comparative research project called Histories (funded by the Danish Velux Foundation) about the multiple hybrids of historiography, poetics, and aesthetics in European theatre between 1550 and 1650. As part of this project, Christian has recently published a study of battle scenes and their popularity in the age of Shakespeare in the literary journal Orbis Litterarum.

I’ll be asking Christian Dahl about:

  • We recognize the fool as a recurrent character in Shakespeare’s plays, but the term “fool” was applied more broadly in Shakespeare’s lifetime to include what was known as a “natural fool”, that stood in contrast to someone that was professionally employed to entertain. Tim, please explain for us the definition of a natural fool and how that contrasted with an artificial, or professional fool. 
  • In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Feste the jester is described as being “wise enough to play the fool.” Were fools intended to be silly, comedic figures, or were they more like bearers of unexpected wisdom?
  • What names can you give us of famous royal court jesters from the life of William Shakespeare (or reasonably close by), and were these individuals competition for the fools that show up in the plays that were performed before royalty?
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Christian Dahl recommends:

“Two armies flye in, represented with foure swords and bucklers, & then what harde heart will not receive it for the pitched fielde?” quoted from Philip Sidney: The Defence of Poesie. London, 1595, p. 32 (The text is also known as An apology for Poetry, written c. 1580).  Battle scenes in English Renaissance Theatre, which has open access:

Shakespeare’s Military World, written in 1956, by Paul A Jorgensen

Shakespeare’s Military Language: A Dictionary, by Charles Edelman 📚

Dessen, Alan C., et al. A Dictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama, 1580-1642. Cambridge University Press, 1999. 📚

Brawl Ridiculous: Swordfighting in Shakespeare’s Plays by Charles Edelman (listed as out of print on Amazon, you can likley get a copy at a library, and there’s a free to read digital copy available on 📚

A Few More Research Tidbits:

Philip Syndey’s Defense of Poesy or An Apology for Poetry | Also available on Project Gutenberg

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Military diagram of a battlefield drawn by Niccolò Machiavelli, 1573, showing trumpeters
  • Links to Machiavelli’s military manual that’s available to read for free online
  • Quotes from Shakespeare’s plays about military instruments
  • Military battle diagram by William Garrard, 1591
  • Illustrations of 16th century trumpeters, fife players, and drummers on the battlefield in military formation
  • G. Clayton’s 1591 instructions for ways trumpets and drums were to be used by soldiers (which sounds indicated what actions)
  • 16th century dedication of military manual to Elizabeth I
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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening! I’m Cassidy Cash and I hope you learn something new about the bard.

I’ll see you next time!