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Welcome to Episode #187 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

In 1593, Shakespeare wrote Venus and Adonis the play in which he writes “like the deadly bullet of a gun, His meaning struck her ere his words begun.” As our guest this week explains, “This is likely a reference to the phenomenon of a supersonic bullet hitting the target before the gunshot is heard. The Henrician arquebuses housed at the Royal Armouries in England, some dating from Shakespeare’s lifetime, were capable of 400 metres per second or more, which is supersonic. The big heavy muskets of his era and many artillery pieces were also supersonic. ‘Bullet’ was used for any gun projectile at the time, so Shakespeare could actually have been talking about firearms or artillery (or both) here.” Shakespeare references either the word gun or musket a total of 7 times in his works. Like so many things during this Renaissance period of history, the technology of firearms and rifles was growing and evolving rapidly in terms of their construction, accuracy, firing mechanisms, and even which countries adopted the manufacturing of these weapons. Several surviving examples of these guns from 15-17th century Germany, France, and England are held at the Royal Armories Collections and their Keeper of Firearms and Artillery, Jonathan Ferguson, is here today to talk with us about the differences between matchlock, flintlock, rifles, and muskets, and to explore exactly what kind of weapons Shakespeare would have known about when he mentions guns, bullets, and muskets in his plays. 

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Jonathan Ferguson is Keeper of Firearms & Artillery, based at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. Jonathan has curated numerous displays including the forthcoming RA exhibition ‘Firefight: Second World War’. He is also a Technical Specialist for Armament Research Services and Associate Editor for Armax journal. His research interests include the use and effect of firearms and their depiction in popular culture. His publications include the book ‘Mauser “Broomhandle” Pistol’ (2017), a contribution to ‘The Right to Bear Arms: Historical Perspectives and the Debate on the Second Amendment’ (2018), and ‘Thorneycroft to SA80: British Bullpup Firearms 1901 – 2020’ (2020).

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Enough, sweet Suffolk; thou torment’st thyself;
And these dread curses, like the sun ‘gainst glass,
Or like an overcharged gun, recoil,
And turn the force of them upon thyself.

Queen Margaret

Henry VI Part II (III.2)

Musketeer from Jacob van Gheyn’s “Wapenhandelingen van Roers, Musquetten ende Spiesen” (1608). Public Domain. Source

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

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

Depiction of an arquebus fired from a fork rest. Image produced in 1876. Public Domain. Source

As if that name,
Shot from the deadly level of a gun,
Did murder her; as that name’s cursed hand
Murder’d her kinsman.


Romeo and Juliet (III.3)

A serpentine matchlock mechanism.12 August 2008. Description, translated from German: “Culture and museum center Schloss Glatt Hook box with matchlock, South German 16th century” Photo by Rainer Halama Own work, attribution required (Multi-license with GFDL and Creative Commons CC-BY 2.5). Source

Or like the deadly bullet of a gun,
His meaning struck her ere his words begun.


Venus and Adonis

Two soldiers on the left using arquebuses, 1470. Description, translated from German, “‘The people of Zurich attack the Schwyz who landed near Erlenbach during the grape harvest.’ The Swiss Chronicles of Pictures, Atlantis Verlag, Zurich 1941” | Diebold Schilling upload by Adrian Michael  | Public Domain | Source

Resources into Arquebus history from the Royal Armouries:

Matchlock muzzle-loading arquebus – Or Caliver (about 1560) | A military style in use across Europe at this time.

Matchlock muzzle-loading arquebus – Brescian style (1540) | Typical design produced in the Gardone region.

Explore the history of the phrase “Brown Bess”

Explore the “Tula Garniture” from the 18th century, “Consists of a flintlock sporting gun, a pair of flintlock pistols, a patch box and a powder flask, and a pair of stirrups.”

Flintlock breech-loading military rifle (1780-1790) Image is copyrighted by the Royal Armouries. (c) Royal Armouries

By John Probin

Place: England
Location:Study Collection
Object Number:XII.150
Old Tower Collection
Physical Description: 
Octagonal barrel with rifling of eight grooves. The breech stamped with the mark of the maker John Probin and with the proof marks of the London Gunmaker’s Company. Backsight missing. Lock with flat lockplate and swan-necked cock, the lockplate engraved with a crown and PROBYN. Service pattern brass mounts. The rear sling-loop is screwed into the butt behind the trigger-guard. The butt is stamped with the same maker’s mark as the barrel
Source: Image used by permission. Details, curator, and license included here.
Snaphance muzzleloading arquebus – Or Caliver (about 1615)

With broad sweeping butt.

Provenance: Ex Dunster Castle, Somerset. Purchased 21 May 2002

Physical Description: Flintlock muzzle loading gun, the letters W H inscribed in the butt twice. Trigger and ramrod loose, visible damage. Proof mark on the barrel, a Crown over the letter G.

Location:The Box, Plymouth
Object Number:XII.11301
Source: (c) Royal Armouries Collection, used by license permission. Visit the Royal Armouries here.

Books & Resources Recommended by Jonathan Ferguson:

Jonathan points out for you, that if you are interested in learning more about this topic then the Royal Armouries has a library that is open to the public. There, you can find copies of books like Jonathan Ferguson’s first book on the Matchlock as well as many other resources to help you. 

Gun Culture in Early Modern England by Lois Schwoerer 

Archaeological Journal Vol. 65, Armour and Arms in Shakespeare 

Pollard’s History of Firearms by Hugh B.C. Pollard

Finally, Graeme Rimer’s book ‘Wheellock firearms of the Royal Armouries’ 

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.

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