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Welcome to Episode #105 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

Famously, William Shakespeare’s Globe burned down from canon fire in 1599 and several of Shakespeare’s plays mention guns, gunpowder, and bullets. While we think of Shakespeare’s era as one of romantic sword battles, duels with a rapier in the streets, and even the massive naval battles with the Spanish Armada, for the life of William Shakespeare everything was under constant strain and a theme of developing the new. The development of new weapons technology was no exception as the late 16th century saw England replace the serpentine, culverine, and demi-canon, with smaller more portable hand canons, pistols, and muskets. While the average person on the street would not have carried these weapons regularly, we know from the burning of The Globe theater that canons, at least, has a place in 16th century theater, so does that mean guns and gunpowder did as well? Here to help us explore the advent of the hand gun and portable firearms that took place in England during the life of WIlliam Shakespeare is our guest, Grace Tiffany.

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Grace Tiffany teaches Shakespeare and Renaissance literature at Western Michigan University, and is the author of many scholarly articles and books on Shakespeare and his contemporaries, as well as six novels set during the early modern period. Her latest work of fiction, Gunpowder Percy, reimagines the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of religiously disaffected Englishmen attempted to blow up the House of Lords, so as to kill the Protestant King James and his Privy Council and replace them all with a Catholic government. In the novel — and perhaps in reality — it was Shakespeare's history plays, staging heroic rebellion, that sparked the Gunpowder Plot.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Grace Tiffany about :

  • What kind of guns were most popular–was this a rifle or a pistol that was getting its start here?
  • We see a gun mentioned in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which was written in 1595, what kind of gun is being used there?
  • In Henry IV Part I, Hotspur says “but for these vile guns,He would himself have been a soldier.” Is that association between guns and the military suggesting that guns were seen as more of a terrorist weapon in Shakespeare’s lifetime, or was gunpowder being adopted by the military during this time as well? 

  • … and more!

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is it I / That drive thee from the sportive court, where thou / Wast shot at with fair eyes, to be the mark / Of smoky muskets?
Helena

Alls Well That Ends Well (III.2)

16th Century Flintlock Musket c. 1500, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Skokloster Castle with this description, translated from Swedish: “Steel half-box pipe (coffin below 329 mm), front part octagonal. Steel bullet sight, with lead screen. Grain of brass. The whole barrel with cinnamon top. The underside of the pipe originally with three pipe leaflets, of which the rear is now missing. 8 grooves. Snap lock, spring lock. Swedish type. The male with loose upper jaw, slightly wrinkled and with dorsal fin. Omvändningseldstål. External impact spring, which is integral with the fire spring. Whole log of brown wood. Narrow flask of German type. A locking screw. The barrel attached to the chute with three pipe pins, not irregular. Closed barrel trench. Clutter of bones. Steel stirrup, Swedish type – flared for the stirrup, otherwise in trough.1710 years inventory p. 24, room II: “194 – 470 – 1 Kijstepijpa with gl. Stock Spring lock …- 8-“. Accessories: Brown wooden barn, front end with threaded steel pipe, broken rear end.
Marked: 470, above the locking plate, punch type 5376.” Source

The Musket

The first kinds of muskets to be manufactered were derived from a canon, which meant the firing weapon was hand held, but it had a “Smoothbore” or a long canon like firing tube that was smooth on the inside. It was a variant of the earlier arquebus weapon. While it was primitive compared to later models, it was capable of penetrating heavy armor. 

As the use of heavy armor went out of fashion during the life of William Shakespeare, the 16th century saw the advent of the matchlock–which was the first mechanical design that allowed a weapon to be a hand held firing rifle. The term “musket” continued to be applied to this kind of long barreled gun that used a flintlock, long after the original “musket” was out of use. This is one reason you will see conflict among historians when describing what kind of weapon was used for the Three Musketeers. They did use muskets, but the kind of weapon they had would not have been in use for Shakespeare's lifetime, despite the same monicker, since the weapon itself was rapidly evolving during the 16-17th centuries producing muskets in the late 1700s that Shakespeare would never have known. 

The term “musket” would go on to describe any kind of shoulder firearm well into the 19th century.

 

Drill for arms handling at musketeers. c. 1664 by Jacob de Gheyn. Source

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And thou hast talk'd Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents, Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets, Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin, Of prisoners' ransom and of soldiers slain, And all the currents of a heady fight.
Lady Percy

Henry IV Part I (II.3)

An example of a basilisk weapon. Known as “Queen Elizabeth's Pocket Pistol”, on display within Dover castle. Source

The Basilisk

In mythology, the basilisk was a fire breathing dragon, venemous, and fierce. It was known for causing large scale destruction and could even kill someone by just looking at them. Obviously, the creature alone was a great source of metaphor for Shakespeare's plays but the name of the basilisk was used to describe a kind of gun that was particularly devastating.

In 1588, the Spanish Armada has several of these basilisks they used to invade England. They had intended to use the basilisk to beseige towns loyal to Elizabeth and essentially wipe them out with these weapons. Many of these guns were lost when the ships wrecked on their return to Spain. 

It was a huge weapon, and therefore hard to use (despite being very effective at what it was built to accomplish) but because it was so massive, and so heavy, it fell out of favor among European generals who wanted lighter artillery. In the late 16th cenutry, the basilisk stopped being such a standard issue. One example of a weapon that replaced the basilisk was the Maltese Gun in 1607. It was built in Holland and would go on to play a key role in the Napoleonic Wars.

Related Episode About Basilisks The Creature: 

 

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Against the hospitable canon, would I
Wash my fierce hand in's heart.

Tullus Aufidius

Coriolanus (I.10)

The so called Tannenberg handgonne (German: Tannenbergbüchse). Casted bronze. Calibre 15-16 mm. A medieval hand cannon found in the water well of the 1399 destroyed Tannenberg castle. The Tannenberg handgonne is the oldest survived firearm from Germany. Source

 

The Hand Cannon

Before firearms had a trigger to pull, the traditional cannon was built smaller and made to be held in the hand. It was a long tube where the user just fired it at one end, and the gunpowder launched projectile out the other.

The hand cannon is considered a forerunner to the fire arm, and a precursor to the hand gun. The device was made to be held with two hands, and some images of firing the hand cannon show that the user would have a helper or assistant whose job it was to light the cannon with things like burning wood, coal, iron rods, or even matches. The cannon could also be rested on something so that the user could fire the gun themselves. 

The projectiles fired from the canon could be rocks,pebbles, or arrows, but by the late 14-15th centuries, the stone shaped into balls which had become the standard choice for ammunition was replaced by iron balls. While this weapon was falling into disuse by the time William Shakespeare was writing his plays, this mechanism was what the inventions of Shakespeare's lifetime were being made to replace.

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O thou great thunder-darter of Olympus, forget that thou art Jove, the king of gods and, Mercury, lose all the serpentine craft of thy caduceus, if ye take not that little, little less than little wit from them that they have!
Thersites

Troilus and Cressida (II.3)

Detail of a matchlock revolver (Germ. Drehlling). Made in Nuremberg, Germany ca. 1580. Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg Inventory No W 1984. Image of the complete Rifle, 2nd photo at the data set of an other weapon at Germanisches Nationalmuseum (Germnan). Source

The Serpentine

The Serpentine is actually not a weapon itself, but a specific mechanism that came to be added to weapons during the life of William Shakespeare. 

The serpentine was the “S” shaped trigger that allowed a user to fire a weapon by pulling a trigger (as opposed to waiting on the fuse to simply burn until firing). The serpentine was a lever that sticks out from the bottom of the gun and connected to a clamp that drops down and connects the burning match to the flashpan. This fire burned to ignite the priming powder, which would ignite the gunpowder and fire the gun. When you let go of the lever, a spring would swin the serpentine backwards and clear the firing pan. The user would then remove the match and reload. Both ends of the match were kept burning in case one accidentally went out (one source for the phrase “burning the match at both ends”)  

This method of firing a gun was pretty impractical because of how many physical actions it required from the soldier or gun user in order to reload and fire again that it quickly fell out of favor, making it a unique representation of guns from Shakespeare's lifetime as it was only briefly popular and then right during Shakespeare's life.

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Books & Resources Grace Tiffany recommends:

 

Make sure to check out Grace's latest historical fiction novel based during the time of the real Gunpowder Plot. Available on Amazon and at this link here:

Related Books Cassidy thought you might enjoy:

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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