One of the ways we fund the podcast is through affiliate links. If you purchase these items through our links, we make a commission. This, and all the posts here on our website, may contain such affiliate links. 

Welcome to Episode #132 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

In the late 1590s as William Shakespeare was writing Henry V, and the famous battle scene of Agincourt, there was a cultural battle going on between the older and younger generations of men in England concerning the use of the longbow. As Shakespeare staged Henry V in 1605, he did so with the obvious absence of the very longbows that are considered responsible for the English victory at the Battle of Agincourt. Similarly, Christopher Marlowe sidesteps the use of archery in his portrayal of Tamburlaine, when the real Tamberlaine was famous for his skills with a recurve, or Eastern-style bow. These omissions are made even more striking when we consider that scholars and historians like John Smythe and Roger Ascham were writing treatises at this time making a plea to the young men of England to take up the longbow once more in what they saw as the quintessentially English weapon to use. With an absence of teachers in the art of archery, having been replaced by the booming fencing industry coming over from Italy at this time, these pleas to take up the longbow fell on deaf ears for most of England’s young men who saw the sword as the more popular weapon of choice. 

Here to help us step into the moment when England was divided in their opinion about archery and young men were turning their sights on the sword while older men went so far as to pass laws to try and save the dying art of using a longbow, is our guest, Lyn Tribble. 

Join the conversation below.

Subscribe
Itunes | Stitcher | TuneIn | GooglePlay | iHeartRadio

Get the App | 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 That Shakespeare Life digital streaming app. Watch the trailer right here. (Just press play above)

Get access to the app here.

Lyn Tribble is Professor of English at the University of Connecticut, where she has been since 2018. From 2003 to 2018 she was Professor of English at the University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ.  Her books include Cognition in the Globe: Attention and Memory in Shakespeare’s Theatre (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and Early Modern Actors and Shakespeare’s Theatre: Thinking with the Body (Bloomsbury, 2017).   She is currently working on an edition of Merry Wives of Windsor and on ecologies of skill in early modern England.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Lyn Tribble about :

  • Clifford J. Rogers studied the English longbow development and wrote that the weapon was quite unique to England. He writes that “the longbow proper” (as he calls it) “as developed in the early fourteenth century, was an exceptionally thick and long weapon, significantly taller than its user, with a draw weight of well over a hundred pounds” Lyn, this description makes the longbow sound not only formidable, but extremely large and potentially hard to use. Please explain for us what the bowman using this weapon has to know and possess physically in order to be effective with this weapon.
  • Lyn writes in her article “Where are the Archers in Shakespeare?” that well into the 1590s, as Shakespeare was writing Henry V, and notably leaving longbows out of that play, that scholars like John Smythe were writing treatises trying to convince the nation to use the longbow again, but it was largely falling on deaf ears. One response to Smythe’s treatise in particular refutes the idea of using longbows by saying that despite Kings Henry V, Edward III, and Henry VIII being honorable warriors, “ had they knowne the terrour Muskets, Caliuers, and Pistols, they would have vsed the lesse Bowes, Speares, and Bills.” Lyn, does this conversation provide an explanation, of sorts, as to why Shakespeare might have left archery off the stage in his depiction of Agincourt? Was it unpopular in the late 16th century to promote the longbow?
  • Lyn writes “The case of archery in early modern England precisely shows the intergenerational tensions and discords that arise from attempts to graft a traditional bodily practice honed in the late medieval period into the very different “mental universe” of the late Elizabethan period.” Lyn, what was the “mental universe” of the Elizabethan period concerning archery? Had society in general decided it was an old man’s weapon? 

… and more!

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.

You are too swift, sir, to say so: Is that lead slow which is fired from a gun?
Moth

Love's Labour's Lost (III.1)

This is a photo of the three shot breach loading cannon gun made for Henry VIII (dated 1540-1543), currently housed at the Tower of London. This photograph was taken by user Uploadalt for Wikipedia, and is provided for you here under the CC-ASA3.0 Creative Commons license, which provides for sharing and distribution of the photograph with link to the license along with attribution of the author and stating whether changes have been made. No changes to the photograph have been made, it is presented in the original format found at this source. 

Longbow quickly surpassed by the arrival of guns

The longbow was shortlived in its' popularity in England as a weapon. It was very quickly overshadowed by innovations in military weapons. Under Henry VIII arrived the advent of small guns, and then later, long guns. Lyn explains, “These guns weren’t that effective, but they didn’t take a lot of skill to use and they could be used in guerilla warfare (hiding behind battlements) and so there was a strategic advantage to the gun that superceded the longbow. Then, at the same time, there were people who wanted to spend their life’s energy into the learning a weapon over their life (fencing and Italian rapier) was extremely popular.”

During the time Shakespeare was writing Henry V, and referencing arrows, bowmen, archers, and archery in dozens of his plays, there was a cultural tension between the longbow and the newer weapons arriving on the military scene. Lyn argues that the glaring ommission of longbows from a portrayal of a battle like Agincourt, where longbows are the pivotal weapon, is revealing about how divided society was over which weapon constituted the best military weapon in England.

Related Episode You Might Enjoy

I would be sorry, my lord, but it should be thus: I
knew yet but rebuke and check was the reward of valour. Do
think me a swallow, an arrow, or a bullet? 

Falstaff

Henry IV Part II (IV.3)

John Smythe's military treatise, “Certain Discourses: Concerning the formes and effects of diuers sorts of weapons, and other verie important matters militarie, greatlie mistaken by diuers of our men of warre in these daies; and chiefly, of the mosquet, the caliuer and the long-bow; as also, of the great sufficiencie, excellencie, and wonderful effects of archers: with many notable examples and other particularities, by him presented to the nobilitie of this realme, & published for the benefite of this his natiue countrie of England.” (1590) | Public Domain | Source | Read Certain Discourses on Google Books Here.

John Smythe wrote treatise pleading for a return to the longbow

 

Lyn writes in her article Where are the Archers in Shakespeare? that well into the 1590s, as Shakespeare was writing Henry V, and notably leaving longbows out of that play, that scholars like John Smythe were writing treatises trying to convince the nation to use the longbow again. His pleas were largely falling on deaf ears. One response to Smythe’s treatise in particular refutes the idea of using longbows by saying that despite Kings Henry V, Edward III, and Henry VIII being honorable warriors, “ had they knowne the terrour Muskets, Caliuers, and Pistols, they would have vsed the lesse Bowes, Speares, and Bills.” Lyn explains,

Promotions of the longbow in light of “new fangled” weapons was a response from the military. It was considered kind of a retrograde/antique way to look at the world to think people should still know about and use longbows or play the lute. When Shakespeare has people talk abotu the longbow, those characters are very elderly. That’s a contemporary perspective to look at the longbow with nostalgia instead of a legitimate weapon of war.

Among several other pleas made by John Smythe in his treatise promoting archery, he claims that the decline in young men who learned archery could be attributed to “blind use” or the lack of a coach to train them. Lyn points to disinterest as one reason the demand for training declined.

You can show someone how to do something, but if they aren’t doing their part to work with it, and passionately chase after mastery with it, then they will never advance or be truly skilled at the sport. Archery was at this point a popular pastime, but it wasn’t generating skilled users. That meant it could not be an effective weapon of war any longer,because there weren’t people being raised up to use them. Peasant activity.

Lyn writes “The case of archery in early modern England precisely shows the intergenerational tensions and discords that arise from attempts to graft a traditional bodily practice honed in the late medieval period into the very different “mental universe” of the late Elizabethan period.” The “mental universe” of the Elizabethan period saw longbows as an old man's weapon for practical use, but as Lyn explains, as a cultural symbol, the longbow survived in national patriotism.

As a weapon of war, the longbow was not tenable. It was decidedly an old man’s weapon. The time had passed for the longbow to be useful. However, it was a sociable sport, considered a great pastime, and very patriotic symbol for England.

BECOME A MEMBER

Cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare
with history activity kits that work like science labs for Shakespeare. 

I go, I go; look how I go, Swifter than arrow from the Tartar's bow.
Puck

Midsummer Night's Dream (III.2)

The Tartar countrymen are mentioned in no less than 9 of Shakespeare's  plays, with Puck in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, refering specifically to their significant prowess with a bow. This is an 1844 drawing of a “Tartar bowman” by John Ouchterlony from The Chinese War. London: Saunders and Otley. p. 376. Source

Archers Were Visibly Recognizable by Physical Attributes

One reason Shakespeare may  have opted to leave out the archers of Agincourt is that these strong men were incredibly hard to portray onstage as their most defining attribute was their visible physicality. There are references in Shakespeare’s plays to men who can be evaluated physically on whether or not they are able to “draw a good bow” but as Lyn points out, it's arguable to suggest the ability to evaluate a person on sight as being (or not being) a longbow archer could have complicated the use of them on stage in theater. Given the many more complicated scenes of magic, spells, blood, and other fantastic fair, Lyn doesn't give Shakespeare a pass for his omission of the archers, instead saying,

“Longbow[men] were known to be quite tall and muscular. You’d have to have a big strapping fellow to play this role, but if you are just pretending to be an archer, it might have been ok to fake it. Not impossible to portray an archer on stage, but would that have been a deterrent? Well, it doesn’t seem so, since there are sword fights, gunpowder, explosions, and other things equally spectacular, loud, and dangerous. There are ways to fake it and make it seem like you’re in a battle.”

Join us on YouTube for Even More History

I shall as famous be by this exploit
As Scythian Tomyris by Cyrus' death.

Countess of Auvergne

Henry VI Part I (II.3)

A miniature from a medieval chronicle. The miniature decpicts an Ottoman horse archer weilding a Scythian bow.  
Public Domain. Original Source.

Shakespeare omits archery, Marlowe replaces it with gunpowder

Christopher Marlowe is said to have been personally proficient with a scythian bow. To demonstrate his prowess, the story suggests he could pull it behind his ear. The Scythian bow has a heavy draw weight. To pull the bow at all is difficult, and to pull it back to behind your ear was very hard to do (for a long time people thought it was impossible). The Scythian bow was a weapon attributed to the Ottoman Empire, an opinion echoed in Shakespeare's Othello:

Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you
Against the general enemy Ottoman.
Duke of Venice, Othello, I.3

The Scythian bow with which Marlowe is supposed to have been skilled was a very different bow from those manufactured regularly in England. It was attributed to the Ottoman empire, and popular among the ancient nomadic warriors, the Scythians. They had a range all over Central Asia, and were known as fearsome horse archers in battle.

Shakespeare mentions “The barbarous Scythian,” in King Lear, and references Tomyris, Queen of Scythia, in Henry VI Part I when he writes,

“I shall as famous be by this exploit
As Scythian Tomyris by Cyrus' death.
Great is the rumor of this dreadful knight,
And his achievements of no less account”

Interesting about that reference, is that Tomyris was a woman (not a man as this reference suggests). She reigned over a tribe known as the Massagatae, from modern day Iran, and according to ancient Greek historian, Heroditus, she defeated and killed Cyrus the Great (using, we can presume, Scythian bows in battle).

These bows, Scythian, or otherwise, had a strong draw weight. It took a skilled person to pull them at all, much less to make using one look believable on stage. It is entirely possible that both Shakespeare’s glaring omission of the bow, as well as Marlowe’s choice to replace them with gunpowder in Tamburlaine, could have been due to the impracticality of finding, and training, their actors in archery–a sport which had long fallen out of popular fashion for military weapons by the time these men were staging plays in the 16th century, and much more complicated to master at a proficiency level to look anything other than comedic on stage. [Side note: Odinson Archery makes historically accurate Scythian bows.]

 La reine Tomyris par Andrea del Castagno (série des Hommes et femmes illustres) | Translated “The queen Tomyris, by Andrea del Castagno” | 15th century, dated 1450, fresco on wood. Public Domain. Source

Get the App | 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 That Shakespeare Life digital streaming app. Watch the trailer right here. (Just press play above)

Get access to the app here.

Books & Resources Lyn Tribble Recommends

The Mary Rose museum website is a great resource on the archaeology of archery (the excavation proved that the archers indeed could draw very heavy bows).

https://maryrose.org

There’s an accessible free version of Roger Ascham's Toxophilus here:

https://www.archerylibrary.com/books/toxophilus/

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


Comment and Share

Please consider rating the podcast with 5 stars and leaving a one- or two-sentence review in iTunes or on Stitcher.  Rating the podcast helps tremendously with bringing the podcast to the attention of others.

We encourage you to join the That Shakespeare Life community on Facebook. It’s a community of fans of That Shakespeare Life and a meeting place of professional Shakespeareans and Shakespeare enthusiasts.

You can tell your friends on Twitter about your love of Shakespeare and our new podcast by simply clicking this link and sharing the tweet you’ll find at the other end.

And, by all means, if you know someone you think would love to learn about the life of William Shakespeare, please spread the word by using the share buttons on this page.

And remember: In order to really know William Shakespeare, you have to go behind the curtain, and into That Shakespeare Life. 

%d bloggers like this: