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Welcome to Episode #88 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

When Hamlet and Laertes duel in the final act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, they are using a very specific style of fencing called rapier and dagger fencing. It’s called for in the stage directions and the dialogue of the text as well. Other plays like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as well as King Lear also use very specific fencing terminology that demonstrates a knowledge of contemporary fencing styles at the highest level of the fencing industries and Shakespeare’s indoor playhouse, the Blackfriars was even a professional fencing school before it was bought by the Burbages for use as a theater. But what does that mean William Shakespeare knew about fencing, and did he work with some of the famous fencing masters of the 16th century like Rocco Bonetti, Vincento Saviolo, and others?

Here to take us back to the 1590s, as Shakespeare was writing some of his most famous fight scenes in plays like
Romeo and Juliet, RIchard II, and even Henry V, to share with us where the life of William Shakespeare overlaps with the history of fencing, and explore where Shakespeare learned about swordsmanship, as well as the role of professional fencing in the theater, is our guest professional fight coordinator for stage and film, Jared Kirby. 

Join the conversation below.

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Jared Kirby has been involved in Western Martial Arts and Combat for Stage & Screen for nearly 25 years. He teaches in New York City (and the metro area) and has choreographed fights Off-Broadway, Nationally, in London, and Sydney Australia.

As a Fight Director, Jared has worked with stars such as Peter Sarsgaard, Steve Guttenberg, Cameron Douglas and has trained actors/stunt performers who are working on hit shows and films. Jared is a member of Actor’s Equity and SAG/AFTRA.

Jared has worked on production such as Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, Midsummer Night's Dream, Cyrano, Romeo & Juliet, Merry Wives, Taming of the Shrew, Comedy of Errors, Richard III, The Rover, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), King Lear, and The Three Musketeers. Among his numerous production credits for the works of William Shakespeare, a few of his most memorable Fight Directing credits include Hamlet at the Classic Stage Company, Company at the Lucille Lortel Theatre & multiple shows for the New Vic Theatre of London.

He is the president of Combat Con in Las Vegas, past president of Art of Combat, and served for six years on the board of the International Order of the Sword & Pen.

Jared currently teaches fencing at SUNY Purchase, Sarah Lawrence College and is a Master of Arms (Maestro d’Armi) through the Martinez Academy of Arms. He teaches a variety of workships across the US and around the world, including the prestigous Tom Todoroff Conservatory, the NY Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, the Paddy Crean International Art of the Sword Workshop, and the International Swordfighting and Martial Arts Convention (ISMAC), Rapier Camp and the Western Washington WMA Workshop just to name a few.

Jared is the editor and one of the translators of “Italian Rapier Combat”, the first complete, professional translation of Capo Ferro. He is also the editor and wrote the introduction for “The School of Fencing” by Domenico Angelo and annotated by Maestro Jeannette Acosta-Martínez. Most recently “The Gentleman’s Guide to Duelling” was released in February 2014 and a reprint of Donald McBane’s The Expert Swordsman’s Companion was released in January 2017.

The Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare's plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
 Download the app here.

This app is an official sponsor of That Shakespeare Life.


In this episode, I’ll be asking Jared about :

  • Were members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men looking specifically to partner up with a fencing master?
  • Did Vincento Saviolo operate his fencing school out of the same building as The Blackfriars Playhouse?
  • Why were they coming to England instead of practicing in Italy since this style of fighting was Italian?
  • … and more!
He will fence with his own shadow.

Merchant of Venice (I.2)

Blackfriars Monastery, London – ground plan. A plan of the various buildings as they appeared before the dissolution, based on the Loseley Manuscripts and other documents, surveys, and maps. The Buttery became Farrant's, the Frater Burbage's playhouse. Source: The Project Gutenberg eBook, Shakespearean Playhouses, by Joseph Quincy Adams

Blackfriars was a fencing school before it was a theater. 

Rocco Bonetti came to England from Italy and established his fencing school, catering to the super elite of London, in the same Blackfriars that William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage would use as their indoor theater a few years later. 

When he setup his school, he spent enormous sums of money to update and furnish the space with beautiful, even elaborate, decorations and furniture that would appeal to the high ticket clientele he was courting. A surviving copy of the inventory indicates he was targeting the nobility by creating a beautiful school location.

Inside the school itself was a second room that functioned like the inner sactum of a temple where only the favored were allowed to study. The techniques he offered in these private lessons were considered “top secret” fencing techniques reserved only for the masters of his school. 

Despite his auspicious beginnings, Bonetti did not operate from this location long. His school was only open a year before he was arrested. Bonetti would be remembered by history as one of the world's greatest Elizabethan fencing masters, but in his lifetime he would die in debtors prison, unable to repay the loans he had taken out to furnish his elaborate school. 

Challenge me the count's youth to fight with him; hurt him in eleven places
Sir Toby Belch

Twelfth Night (III.2)

The title page from “Vincentio Saviolo, His Practise”, Saviolo's fencing handbook published in 1595. For context, Romeo and Juliet–which almost directly quotes some of what's written here–was written sometimes between 1591-1596. (I'm going to go on a limb and say I think more like 1596, after Shakespeare had a chance to read this manual. But you decide.) Source

1992 Archaelogical Dig Uncovers Evidence of Saviolo's School

One of the reasons Jared wrote his new book was to go in search of a connection between Shakespeare and the heroes of Elizabethan fencing that were practicing right down the street from Shakespeare's known residences, as well as famous performance locations. While his book is able to demonstrate the importance of Italian fencing masters in the stage craft and performance of Elizabethan plays, the definitive personal connection in the form of a direct record to Shakespeare alluded him to the last. 

One record which surprised him, and was delightful though unexpected, was when he came across what he believes is evidence that an archaelogical dig in London uncovered a possible site for the fencing school of Vincento Saviolo.

Jared says, “In England, whenyou are tearing up the ground to build something new, there’s 1-2 years of “sit on it” time where archaeologists have to inspect it. In this process, circa 1992, they did this in the area of Saviolo’s school.”

Jared outlines that records show Saviolo's school is located “At the sign of the red lion, in the street with a well in it” and “within a bow’s shot of Bell Savage Inn” and the archaeological dig has evidence of a well, and the red lion. 

Pocahontas appeared at The Bell Sauvage Inn,
next to Saviolo's fencing school.

Learn more about her performance in this related episode:

The Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare's plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
 Download the app here.

This app is an official sponsor of That Shakespeare Life.


A hit, a very palpable hit.

Hamlet (V.2)

Giacomo di Grassi. Portrait Source. Italian fencing master who operated a school in Italy, but travelled extensively teaching the method he developed and published in 1570, called  Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l'Arme (“Discourse on Wielding Arms with Safety”). In 1594, a new edition of his book was printed in London under the title His True Arte of Defence, translated by an admirer named Thomas Churchyard. Source Information. 

Elizabethan actors were swordsmen, not gentlemen

In order to perform the role of Kings, Dukes, and noblemen of England's storied past, the actors on Shakespeare's stage had to be proficient with a weapon, and specifically with a sword. Jared believes that it is unlikely, due to the exorbitant prices we know he charged, that the average actor would have had the means to work with a fencing master like Bonetti, who catered to the super wealthy and far beyond the scope of an actor's pay, but he does believe they trained. 

There were town guilds who were responsible for the official fencing master rules, and the playing companies were patronized by nobility. These patrons often gave the players access to things otherwise outside their social rank, like costumes, and other accessories, so it is also possible that the actors were provided training through their noble ties. 

While we do not know precisely how they trained, we can be confident the actors were trained in fencing to a degree, and that Shakespeare himself studied fencing manuals, since there is specific fencing terminology throughout his plays and in Romeo and Juliet most specifically. Romeo and Juliet employs language and details about fencing that had not previously been published until the fencing masters famous during Shakespeare's lifetime wrote them down and published official manuals that Shakespeare appears to be quoting in his play. 

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Learn more about Shakespeare's Swords inside our interview
with one of the founders of the Society of American Fight Directors, Joseph David Martinez.

Master Gower, if they become me not, he was a fool taught them me. This is the right fencing grace, my lord; tap tap, and so part fair.

Henry IV Part II (II.1)

Vincentio Saviolo Practise
The first Intreating of the use of the Rapier and Dagger
The second of Honor and honorable Quarrels. Source

16th C Playing Companies Worked with Fencing Experts

We cannot tie Shakespeare to a specific fencing master personally, but we can directly associate many contemporary playing companies, including ones Shakespeare worked with–like the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

Samuel Pepys diary contains some accounts, but very few references to actual fight choreography in terms of performance overall. Jared explains:

Elizabethan actors were all trained swordsmen, but they weren’t gentlmen, so having access to train with Bonetti (we know what he charged, it was exorbitant, a common person wouldn’t be able to afford). The liklihood of them training with these guys is less likely, but the players do have noble ties, where they received costumes and other playing accessories, so it’s possible.

The blogger Henry, from “Olde Words: An Examination of Elizabethan English” writes extensively about history of fencing connected to Shakespeare. In his write up he says:

Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost presents the first location of evidence of fencing jargon, however the timing of Romeo and Juliet and the close previous publication of Saviolo’s manual is more significant. The plays which follow increase in fencing jargon. In general, also Romeo and JulietAs You Like It, and Hamlet are more well-known plays and all have evidence of the influence of Saviolo within them. Hence the timing of the publication of several of Shakespeare’s plays is significant.

Read the entire write up here. It's worth the read. There is a ton of valuable fencing information related to Shakespeare, Salviolo, and Bonetti (and Jeronimo!) over there.

I am not affiliated with that blog (Wouldn't mind being, it's amazing) I'm sharing because it's truly a great resource if you want to learn more about fencing in Shakespeare's England.

Books & Resources Jared Kirby recommends:

Some books you can use to learn more:

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