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Welcome to Episode #131 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

The 16th century was the first time English history, and the first time in most of European history, that the average person started carrying a weapon as a matter of daily life. The rapier specifically came into fashion in England in the mid 16th century, and while it plays a prominent role in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare mentions the rapier specifically over 30 times in his plays including Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and the Henriad plays. The specific terminology Shakespeare has characters like Mercutio use which refer to passado, staccato, and the punto reverso were Italian fencing terms from manual being published at the same time Romeo and Juliet was written. More than just a reference to a single manual, though, as our guest this week points out, rapier fencing was a huge cultural moment in England with official edicts from Elizabeth I being passed totry and limit or even outright ban the use of rapiers in London, as some of the noblemen in England were actively hiring Italian fencing masters specifically tobe trained in this new, and rapidly popular art of rapier fencing. Here this week to take us back to the 1590s and explore the moment in history and explain what was going on in the very moment that Willliam Shakespeare had Mercutio call Tybalt a cat who fights from the book of arithmetic, is our guest Tobias Capwell.

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Dr. Tobias Capwell is Curator of Arms and Armour at the Wallace Collection in London, home to one of the world’s greatest collections of medieval and Renaissance weapons. He is also a well-known author, TV personality, and historical martial artist. His books include Armour of the English Knight 1400-1450 (the first of three books on fifteenth century armour); Arms and Armour of the Medieval Joust, Arms and Armour of the Renaissance Joust, and Masterpieces of European Arms and Armour in the Wallace Collection.  In 2012 he curated the major exhibition The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe 1520-1630, the first international show to focus on the rapier and civilian combat in the early modern period. Toby is also a founding member of the modern historical jousting community, and has fought in major tournaments all over the world. In 2015 he had the unusual honour of serving as one of two fully-armoured horsemen escorting the remains of King Richard III from the battlefield at Bosworth to their final resting place in Leicester Cathedral.  Follow him on instagram @tobiascapwell

In this episode, I’ll be asking Tobias Capwell about :

  • We do not often see Shakespeare depicted with a sword at his side. Was the sword something a man of his profession and status would have carried in the 16th century?
  • Did the fact that suddenly everyone was carrying swords around lead to an escalation in violence in everyday Renaissance society?

  • Again in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare has Mercutio call Tybalt a cat who “fights by the book of arithmetic”. Tobias, please tell us about this quote from Act III Scene 1 and how does it illuminate the cultural circumstances surrounding English vs Italian fencing that was going on right as Mercutio spoke those lines for the first time in the late 1590s?

… and more!

Books & Resources Tobias Capwell Recommends

Also a number of my other articles on this and other subjects can be downloaded from my Academia page: 

Then there is the historical European martials arts wiki:

And you can see some of the world’s most important surviving Renaissance swords at the Wallace Collection Online:

Additional Books Cassidy Thought You Might Enjoy on This Topic

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In his lawless fit
Behind the arras hearing something stir,
Whips out his rapier, cries ‘A rat, a rat!’


Hamlet (IV.1)

Sir Walter Raleigh and his son circa 1602. | Unknown Artist |  Wearing rapiers were common fashion statements among Elizabethans. You see both Raleigh and his son have one around their waist. | Public Domain | Source

Define Rapier

Rapier = defined by it’s context. It’s functional context.

When it comes to the world of weapons, there are a lot of swords that “by any other name” would be as sharp. Toby explains this week that a rapier was not really a weapon you could define in terms of strict physical attributes. He says that the rapier was not a weapon that always had the same dimensions.

“Not really by length of blade or type of hilt (as you have with other swords) later centuries defined the typology of rapiers by when they appeared circa 1520 they were the “every day sword” for specifically a civilian instead of a military weapon, which was a new thing. Previously, everyone had a knife historically, but weapons and carrying a sword in every day life was not only not done, but before the mid 16th century, it was actually a criminal offence or civilians to carry weapons.”

Rapiers, and carrying one, came to be associated with an upper class mentality. It was the gentleman who carried a rapier, and as Toby explains,

There was an association between weapons and service to a lord, honor, etc. Rapier started in Italy, spread very rapidly across Europe and became a universal REnaissance entity. Word comes from espado rapara, “sword of the robe”

Fencing masters like John Florio came to England specifically to teach these gentlemen how to use this weapon in the Italian style.

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If you grow foul with me, Pistol,
I will scour you with my rapier

Henry V (II.1)

The title page from Vincentio Saviolo, His Practice, an Elizabethan fencing handbook translated into English in 1595. | Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Library |  Source

Shakespeare probably carried a sword himself

We do not often see Shakespeare depicted with a sword at his side, but as Toby explains,

“there are no full length portraits of Shakespeare which might explain why you can’t see the sword, but he could have carried one.” 

The sword was the mark of a gentleman and anyone wanting to have, or appear to have, that status made a point of carrying one in the same way someone today who is looking to make a good impression at a job might choose to wear a tie. The rapier was a specific, expected, standard of accessory and attire for men who were of a gentlman’s status. Toby explains that the rapier

“Made a statement about an individual’s image of himself. The rapier was a higher status weapon, not the peasant or common person. Anyone who wanted to be seen as a gentleman needs to wear a sword.”

That means William Shakespeare very likely carried a sword in his daily dress. There are some records which indicate Shakespeare may have even bequeathed a sword after his death. Toby cited other early modern societal realities to indicate Shakespeare may have had a sword, citing the theater itself saying,

Shakespeare and playwrights had to be trained swordsmen, Ben Jonson killed a man in a sword duel.”

Despite the fashion of England requiring a rapier and considering rapier and dagger to be the standard method of dueling for Shakespeare’s lifetime, that preference for the rapier as a weapon rapidly declined in the century following Shakespeare’s death. Toby indicates that

After about 1750, the preferred weapon for private duels rapidly became the pistol and the sword became old fashioned.” 

During Shakespeare’s lifetime, however, the fashion to carry a weapon did have an impact on weapons related violence in London. Toby marks that

In one year in the reign of H3 of France, eight thousand noblemen were killed in private duels in one year. That’s only the deaths, not the duels. [There was a general] expectation that personal disagreements would be solved with a violent fight.”

Hamlet: What’s his weapon?
Osric: Rapier and dagger.

Hamlet and Orsic

Hamlet (V.2)

Demonstration of rapier and dagger style fighting from the manuals by Agrippa and Capoferro. Both of these Italian fencing masters’ work were popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime and influenced his staging and writing of this method of dueling. Source | More on Rapier and Dagger in Hamlet.

Italian Fencing Masters Hugely influenced Shakespeare

Saviolo is part of a fad where Italian swordsmen were influencing the practice of fencing in England, going on since 1570.

Toby explains, “Giacamo Degrassi, most influential of the Italian fencing masters of the second half of the 16t century, wrote in 1570, published in Italian, abbreviated as “the correct method of safely using the rapier…” disseminated throughout Europe, strong impact in England two decades before R&J. Existing culture. Already Italian masters teaching in London, immigrating, setting up schools in London to teach English gentlemen and noblemen the latest Italian sword fighting methods. In R&J Shakespeare is using general terms for this culture of “italians in London” and all of the responses that this stimulates. Some were very supportive, and excited to study this at all lengths, Saviolo arrives in an existing immigration 

Saviolo’s timeframe of when he was in London dovetails and agrees with the writing of Romeo and Juliet perfectly. We don’t quite know when Romeo and Juliet was written but the consensus is 1591-1595. Saviolo arrived in 1590 and [began] collaborating with other Italians to grow their profession in London. That upset the London fencing masters, and fomented xenophobic opposition to them. Going on right as this play was written. Shakespeare doesn’t have to be using Saviolo as a source but his references are referring to a very contemporary situation in the culture that everyone in South London would have known about.”

Other Italian fencing masters whose work was active in London at this time included Agrippa, Capoferro, and Thibault, whom you may remember from the bantering scene in The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black fight at the top of the Cliffs of Insanity. That kind of bantering, comparing, and using one master’s method to defend against the attack of yet a separate master’s training approach was very much part of the culture for William Shakespeare.

Stream Shakespeare History Episodes

Get unlimited access to the digital streaming app where you can watch documentaries, animated plays, video versions of the podcast and more, all with no commercials AND a 14 day free trial. 

This is the official trailer for The Art of the Sword, a documentary short film by Cassidy Cash that is available in full, with no commercials, inside the video streaming library available to members.

I do excel thee in my rapier as much as thou didst me in
carrying gates
Don Adriano de Armado

Love's Labour's Lost (I.2)

Collection of early modern swords (17th to 18th centuries) at the George F. Harding Collection of Arms and Armor, The Art Institute of Chicago ( From the left: five rapiers, two broadswords (a claymore(?) and a schiavona), another rapier (with cup-hilt), and a parrying dagger (main-gauche). Visible on the right edge: the balde of another rapier, and part of another parrying dagger. Visible at the bottom edge: part of two elaborate decorative short swords, probably from Mughal India. | Original description from (the item marked “1” is the cup-hilted rapier on the right (8th from the left), “2” is the schiavona on the right (7th from the left)):  Rapiers, 1: Blade: Italian Hilt: Spanish Cup-hilted rapier in the Spanish manner 1650/60 Steel, iron, wood Length: 50 in. Blade length: 42 3/4 in. Weight: 2 lbs. 11 oz. Item number: George F. Harding Collection, 1982.2147 2: Hilt by Master VG Italian, Venice, active 1790/1800 Schiavona, 1790/1800 Steel, silver, wood, stone Overall length: 42 3/8 in. Blade length: 36 1/2 in. Weight: 2 lbs. 14 oz. Item number: George F. Harding Collection, 1982.2144 | Original Source

You Fight By the Book–What Book?

Again in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare has Mercutio call Tybalt a cat who “fights by the book of arithmetic”. But what book is that? As Toby explains this week, the quote from Act III Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet refers to a specific fencing manual that used geometry to describe how to fence correctly. Toby explains,

“A cat who fights by the book of arithmetic. Everything in there has meaning and works on different levels. Shakespeare’sreally good at using these oblique references to communicate the emotion of hte deeper emotions. The book of arithmetic is referring precisely to Degrassi, Saviolo, and the other Italian fencing masters, because since the 1530s, Italian fencing masters had been referring to geometry and geometric principles ot justify their teachings. They literally referred to it as the science of arms. They tried to use pseudomathematics to prove their system was most efficient, effective, and dangerous to the opponent. Ideal for the user. ALot of the math in these books of the 16th century is symbolic, rather than literal. They aren’t really calculating precise differences and angles of attack (later people would try it) but as a 16th century Englishmen, you would see geometric diagrams and circles in quaradrants, A-B vectoring, it’s allvery impressive. They are trying to create they are books of arithmetic, mathematics is the law of the universe, immutable, unchangeable, and you can’t argue with it. They were tying into that on purpose.”

So what Tybalt using math to be good at fencing? Toby explains that it was not so much math as it was spacial reasoning (All the mathemeticians groan collectively, since you know, spacial reasoning is math. But I digress). Toby shares the distinction,

“Generally not real math. Proper fencing masters might object, and some Italians did object. Manuscript at the Wallace Collection that’s a late 16th c fencing book, written in the fencing master’s hand, all red chalk, it’s the original one, never published, and in it he himself says that he rejects the mathematical veneer, and he doesn’t deal with math–just how to kill your opponent.”

So whether or not you were being precise about it, ending the duel with you still alive and your opponent dead was the ultimate object and depending on which fencing master you studied under, exactly how you accomplished that goal would vary. Interestingly, the approach a fighter used in a sword duel was likely identifiable visually since masters like Degrassi used very specific styles which were, as his book demonstrates, able to be communicated precisely. It would make sense then, as someone like Shakespeare prepared to present that fighting on stage, that he would study the manuals that described (like a dance) the motions the fighter should take to complete the duel properly.

See digital scans of Capo Ferro’s work here.


Stream Shakespeare History Episodes

Get unlimited access to the digital streaming app where you can watch documentaries, animated plays, video versions of the podcast and more, all with no commercials AND a 14 day free trial. 

This is the official trailer for The Art of the Sword, a documentary short film by Cassidy Cash that is available in full, with no commercials, inside the video streaming library available to members.