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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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Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Illustration of a musketeer from the 17th century.
  • Depiction of an arquebus fired from a fork rest: Image produced in 1876
  • Photo showcasing a serpentine matchlock mechanism from the 16th century.
  • Image depicting soldiers from Zurich attacking Schwyz during the grape harvest in 1470
  • Photo of a flintlock breech-loading military rifle, featuring an octagonal barrel with rifling, 18th century
  • Photo of a snaphance muzzleloading arquebus – Or Caliver, 17th century
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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’ 

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