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Welcome to Episode #166 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

In the 1950s when Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was adapted into West Side Story, popular culture in the US resonated with the gang culture and street fighting depicted on stage because the brass knuckled “rumbles” taking place on streets like those in New York City were current events of the day. Turns out, historically, these gang fights were a real issue for Shakespeare’s lifetime as well, and scenes like Mercutio and Romeo fighting in the streets of Verona, the mob that goes after Cinna the Poet in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and the tavern brawls that break out in several scenes across Shakespeare’s works would have been viewed by Shakespeare’s 16th century audience as a reflection of their current events and realities of life on the streets of Elizabethan London. Here this week to help us explore the 16th century history, current events, street fights and even gangs that were present during Shakespeare’s lifetime as he wrote about the Capulets and Montagues being “warring families” duking it out in the streets of Verona, is our guest and expert in Elizabethan street crime and one of the Washington, DC, area’s most sought-after fight coaches for stage plays, Casey Kaleba. 

Join the conversation below.

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Casey Kaleba is a doctoral candidate in Theatre History and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland, was host and creative contributor to the two-time Emmy Award-winning Experiencing Shakespeare through the Folger Library and Alabama Public Radio. A Certified Teacher and Fight Director with the Society of American Fight Directors, Casey has taught theatrical combat workshops and courses for a wide range of programs. He has taught at dozens of colleges, high schools, festivals, professional development workshops, libraries, and camps. He has served as a teaching artist for the Shakespeare Theatre, Round House Theatre, English Speaking Union, and Folger Library. Casey has been a guest instructor for Fight Directors Canada and the Nordic Stagefight Society, and an instructor at the Paddy Crean Workshop – the largest international stage combat workshop.Casey is a proud member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. We are delighted to have Casey visit with us today. 

In this episode, I’ll be asking Casey Kaleba about :

  • In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet the Capulets and the Montagues are described as “warring families.” Was this description in line with what we think of as “Hatfields and McCoys” here in the US, or were there actually street gangs operating in Elizabethan London? 
  • In that same scene when Mercutio and Tybalt and Romeo draw swords in the street, were they doing something recognized as illegal for 16th century London?
  • Shakespeare used the word “rapier” 31 times across his works, consistently giving the rapier, and specifically the combination of a rapier and dagger, to aristocratic individuals in his plays. In almost every reference to the rapier, Shakespeare refers to this weapon as “my rapier” or “your rapier.” Casey, was the rapier, specifically, considered a very personal weapon and was it common for the everyday man to have one of these on his person as a matter of course? 
  • … and more!

Click here to watch the video version of our show with Casey Kaleba (with bonus archival images!) All the video versions of our show along with documentaries, animated plays, and bonus content are included in the streaming app for That Shakespeare Life. Try the app for free with our 14 day free trial, then stream unlimited Shakespeare history episodes for just $5/month (or $49.99/year).

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Act I Scene I Romeo and Juliet by John Gilbert, pre-1873, depicting an urban conflict between warring families
  • Image of “A man Interfering in a Street Fight,” 1746-1828
  • Image of French Rapier from the 17th century
  • 14th century illustration of German Trial by Combat
  • 19th century depiction of the 1874 Code of Honor Duel
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Book & Resources Casey Kaleba recommends:

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