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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.

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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).

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes5
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.


Romeo and Juliet, Prologue

Editor’s Note: In the audio of this week’s episode, I suggest Shakesperare’s text Romeo and Juliet uses the phrase “warring families” but this statement is incorrect. The text of the play itself never uses that phrase. Shakespeare’s text describes the two families in the Proglogue as “Two households” and “foes” –making “warring families” an accurate description, but one applied by me, and which Shakespeare never wrote in this play. My sincere apologies for the error, please accept this correction offered here.

I will bite my thumb at them; which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it.” Sampson, Romeo and Juliet (I.1) | Act I Scene I Romeo and Juliet by John Gilbert, pre-1873 | Public Domain | Source

Warring Families Were Real

Gang culture and street based families, the way we see depicted in Authur Laurents’ West Side Story (a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Rome and Juliet), may not have been established in the city of London for Shakespeare’s lifetime, but when comes to warring families similar to what we think of from the American West and “the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s” Casey explains, 

“This absolutely would have been a thing. The main source of urban conflict would have been warring families and their members were proxy armies. Not gangs like roving highwaymen, which was not very prevalent in Elizabethan England… The vagrants/travellers of Elizabethan England were not threats to people. They were mostly out of work individuals outside of a family legal system. “Gangs” was not a thing, even though plays do have examples of highwaymen in them. Murders in the Scottish Play, and others. Threat to social order is the families.”

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Give me my rapier, boy.


Henry IV Part II (II.4)

“Falstaff and his page” (Translated from the original German: “Falstaff und sein Page”) by Adolf Schrödter, 1867. Public Domain. Source

Class Determined the Right to Bear Arms

when Shakespeare was writing the original Romeo and Juliet where Mercutio, Tybalt, and Romeo are having sword fights on the streets of Verona, there is a class distinction that’s important to recognize when evaluating the fight scenes. Casey explains, 

Class is the important distinction with violence. In Shakespeare’s London, there weren’t any restrictions on who could have a sword, but the distinction was who had the right to use it, when, and who would get away with violence. If you had a “Sir” in front of your name in some way, you would have had the right to bear arms, and a historical/hereditary right to bear arms which had been previously primarily a military right. Opening of Romeo and Juliet, Sampson, would have had the right to bear arms. Which is why we see them carrying swords and bucklers, lower quality, cheaper, and less dangerous than other swords we could talk about. They were easily available to servants, purchased throughout London, and it was a normal thing to see servants travelling armed. There’s a third class, in the opening of R&J, the aristocratic youth–middle class youth–unified in their carrying of what would become called the rapier, not weapon of war, it was an urban weapon, smaller, thinner, and decorative used to establish social status. It was a deadly object. [Across Elizabethan London, there were] three groups with the right to bear arms in some capacity. 

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Draw, Benvolio; beat down their weapons.
Gentlemen, for shame, forbear this outrage!
Tybalt, Mercutio, the prince expressly hath
Forbidden bandying in Verona streets:
Hold, Tybalt! good Mercutio!


Romeo and Juliet (III.1)

A Man Interfering in a Street Fight, from Images of Spain Album (F), 82 | Brush and Brown Wash on Laid Paper | by Francisco Goya (1746–1828) | Cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) 04:04, 17 May 2020 (UTC) | Housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art |Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1935 | See the Met resource link here. | Public Domain | Source

Street Fights Had to Happen Outside the Law

[TWhether a duel of honor or the group street fights we see in Romeo and Juliet, there was what Casey calls a “Complicated system of jurisdiction” in place in London, whose complex nature allowed for loop holes which was exploited by warring families to hold street fights. As Casey explains,

“The idea of [street fights] being “illegal” is a vague notion because we have to understand Shakespeare’s London as fundaemntally different to what we think of today [in terms of] what “law” [means]. [This time period is ] before anything recogfnizable as a modern police force. There were Sheriffs, but they had a limited jurisdiction. They were often hired by a particular town or mayor- or even a particular family- to patrol a very set and limited area. [These individuals were] somewhere between an agent of social law and private security guiards. They are pimraily not there as prevention, but after something has gone wrong to dispense consequences. Example of the Globe, they moved it to the south wark because it was under three completely different legal jurisdictions and none of them wanted responsibility, so the laws there are vague. It’s not clear who is going to come deal with it.”

These vague areas of jurisdiction and law were known as the Liberties. The Liberties of London in the 16th century included these areas (Source):
– Blackfriars
– Coldharbour
– Fagswell Brook
– Fuller Rents
– Glasshouse Yard
– Havering-atte-Bower
– Inner Temple
– Middle Temple
-Norton Folgate
– Paris Garden Manor House
– Salisbury Court
– St. Martin’s le Grand
– The Clink
– The Mint
– Whitefriars

To see an interactive version of the Agas Map of London (1561) visit Map of Early Modern London (MoEML), online here. 

These areas were a product of the upheaval created when England became Protestant under Henry VIII. Casey explains,

These are established buildings that were leftover when Henry VIII liberated property from the Catholic church, under crown jurisdiction but the crown didn’t care what happened there. There were places that were functionally off limits to other jurisdictions where you could get away with things. [These places had] terrible reputations, [you] couldn’t do anything about the brawls, etc. [It was] unusual for a fight to break out without consequences, you see that in [Shakespeare’s] plays: this question of witnessing–over and over “Who’s going to see us?”* And should be change because we are observed. Benvolio doesn’t try to stop the fight, he just tries to move it “if we go inside, we’ll be safer”* They aren’t stopping the violence.

*Quotes represent summation of Benviolio’s thoughts & contextual commentary on the play, not quoting the text itself.

Download this Diagram of a Knight's Armor

Includes names of the pieces of a knight's attire, plus where those terms show up in Shakespeare's plays.
Printable, shareable, and ready to color.

…the gentleman will, for his honour’s sake, have one bout with you;
he cannot by the duello avoid it…
Sir Toby Belch

Twlefth Night (III.4)

Rapier dated c. 1610-20 | probably French, Paris; Rapier; Swords | Steel, silver, wood | Metropolitan Museum of Art, Arms and Armor| Gift of William H. Riggs, 1913 | Public Domain | Source

Honor as Currency

The “Code Duello” was a matter of honor in duelling that was massively present in Shakespeare’s lifetime, while being completely illegal. 

“Duelling was absolutely illegl but you almost always got away with it if you survived. So pardons were dispensed by Elizabeth, James I, french, spanish, and german monarchs so for people who engaged in duelling it was sbolutely against the law, but these proclamations ad to be reissued every fre decades. There was apprehension about giving private citizens the right to settle conflicts. Edward I is the first to say that no fencing instructors inthe city of lOndon, we didn’t want private citizens to learn how to use swords on their own. If you’re going to use a sword on your own, yo uneed to be n the miliaryt. He allows you to study fencing outside the city. So immediately, it’s a conflict.”

Prior to Shakespeare’s lifetime, there was a place for sanctioned fighting that settled civil disputes through a fight, known as Trial by Combat. The legal system, sanctioned by the government, would orchestrate duels and fights in order to resolve conflict. 

14th century German Trial by Combat by Gerichtlicher Zweikampf, 1350-1375. Public Domain. Source

 As Casey explains, for Shakespeare’s lifetime, there was a legacy of this concept embedded in society, but the actual practice had faded from popularity: 

Trial by combat goes in and out of fashion. Long time it is sanctioned by the church, one of the paces you can do this is a churchyard, where there’s place for spectators, and there are judges, as well as biblical precedent (David and Goliath), over time–a lot of centuries, the church starts to become a little less comfortable with sanctioning interpersonal violence. 

While the Church may have separated itself from personal violence as a way to resolve issues, society in Shakespeare’s England saw a person’s honor and the defeat of someone who challenged you, as inseperable realities. (Which seems to make the American Old West and ideals of duelling or “calling someone out in the street” to settle issues of insult or matters of honor make more sense. They had a foundation in England!)

Settling things with personal violence disappears for some things. Insulting someone’s sister, someone’s honor, you do solve it on a personal level. 

1874 Code of Honor Duel | original caption: “The Code Of Honor–A Duel In The Bois De Boulogne, Near Paris” | Godefroy Durand (1832–1896) | Published in Harper’s Weekly, New York: Harper Brothers, Vol. 19, No. 941 (9 January 1875), p. 41 | Public Domain | Source

Honor was not just an issue of pride or ego for Elizabethan England. As Casey explains it,

[Elizabethan England understood honor] as a kind of currency, and some people have access to it, but it is an economy that runs through an English lifetime. Central conflict first half of the iliad is honor as a currency. Duelling was pardoned because if you won, you preserved your honor. 

Book & Resources Casey Kaleba recommends:


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