Welcome to Episode #55 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

From rapiers to broadswords, weapons fly in Shakespeare's plays, but how many of these dramatic weapons were an established part of daily life for the bard? Did people really carry around rapiers and daggers in the streets of London or at home in Stratford upon Avon? Find out when we talk with author and professional sword maker, Sean Flynt, as he introduces us to the weapons of Shakespeare's life.

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Sean Flynt is a writer and public relations professional with a special interest and expertise in European arms and armour. His education in history, extensive international experience and love for handcraft combine in the hobby of making historical knives and swords. A brief former life as an English teacher also helps him shed light on the ways Shakespeare spoke to an audience that was all too familiar with the work of those weapons.

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

  • Would Shakespeare have carried a weapon as part of his daily life?
  • Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, sees Lord Capulet made fun of for calling for his longsword, as if that’s an old man’s weapon, that the young kids are using rapiers and daggers. Was the longsword an antiquated sword by Shakespeare’s time?

  • Hamlet and Laertes famously fight with rapier and dagger at the end of Hamlet during a duel, but how much of that scene is true to the time period when it was staged?

    …. and more!

Sir, no; his indignation derives itself out of a 
very competent injury: therefore, get you on and 
give him his desire. Back you shall not to the 
house, unless you undertake that with me which with 
as much safety you might answer him: therefore, on, 
or strip your sword stark naked; for meddle you 
must, that's certain, or forswear to wear iron about you.

Sir Toby Belch

Twelfth Night, III.4

Hand crafted, Single-hand longsword, style c. 1500. Example of Infantry sidearm throughout the 16th century.
Courtesy Sean Flynt. Used with permission. Craftsmanship of Leo “Tod” Todeschini of Tod’s Workshop

The Longsword

The longsword shown in the picture above gives us one idea of what Shakespeare might have had in mind for the elder Capulet’s weapon. In context of the play, this style of weapon dates to Lord Capulet's youth, which is one reason the fellow players make fun of “old” Capulet for calling for his longsword during a fray. It's a traditional weapon, but the use of it in the street brawl dates the man to an older time. Sean Flynt makes weapons of this time period and the single-hand sword shown here is one he crafted. The design of the longsword is finished in the 16th century style and is considered a plain, short, cut-and-thrust swords that served as an infantry sidearm throughout Shakespeare's lifetime (and, indeed, the entire 16th century).

Good arms, strong joints, true swords

Aeneas

Troilus and Cressida, I.3

Example of a medieval and Renaissance eating knife.
Hand crafted by Leo “Tod” Todeschini of Tod’s Workshop, photo provided courtesy of Sean Flynt and used by permission.

The Eating Knife

The one kind of weapon considered to have been carried universally throughout England during Shakespeare's lifetime was not, as I had secretly hoped thought, the rapier, but instead, a utilitarian eating knife. Cutlery was only available to the extremely wealthy at this time, and really didn't catch on popularly even there until the late 17th century in Europe. Therefore, there were no forks to be sitting down to table with. You ate food with your fingers, and your eating knife. Unlike modern restaurants and inns where you are provided with cutlery when you arrive, if you intended to eat with a  utensil at the table, you had to bring your own. The style of the eating knife changed very little through the medieval and Renaissance periods. While it was carried for practical purposes, as it was a weapon, it could be used for personal defense, if neccessary. 

A crutch, a crutch! why call you for a sword?

Lady Capulet (To Lord Capulet)

Romeo and Juliet, I.1

John Derricke’s illustrations of the English conquest of Ireland (1581) show the military arms, armour and tactics of Shakespeare’s day. The English are shown at left here, with lances, pikes, halberds, firearms and various kinds of armour.
(Wikipedia Commons l description by Sean Flynt)

Military Weapons (Lance, Pike, Halberd, etc)

While daily weapons were popular during Shakespeare's lifetime, the use of military weapons is where you get the really extravagant weaponry we think of as “weapons” of the Renaissance period. The Lance, pike, halberd, and even launching style weapons were all ones Shakespeare would have needed a rudimentary understanding of at least in order to portray the many extravagant battles he placed on stage like Agincourt, Bosworth Field, and the numerous altercations which occur over the eight play stretch that Shakespeare uses to focus on the War of the Roses.

Come, stand by me; fear nothing. Guard with halberds!

Solinus

Comedy of Errors, V.1

Capoferro, Italian Fencing Master, drawings from his manual showing rapier and dagger style fighting from c. 16th century. Public Domain.

Then have we here young Dizy, young Master Deep-vow, and Master Copperspur, and Master Starve-lackey the rapier and dagger man, and young Drop-heir that killed lusty Pudding

Pompey

Measure for Measure, IV.3

Rapier and Dagger

Fencing masters, and particularly the fighting style of rapier and dagger, were coming over almost in droves from Italy during Shakespeare's lifetime. During a period that is so small and specific to approximately 50 year history when this form of fighting was highly popular, the method of approach to fighting was unique to Shakespeare's lifetime, with the style falling out of favor shortly after the bard's death. 

Shakespeare's Place in History

A timeline showing Shakespeare's life, when he wrote his plays, and what was going on in England.

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Books Recommended by Sean:

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Sean shares with us that Ian Borden, of the University of Nebraska, has written a paper titled

You can also learn more about swords and the craft of sword making/weaponry at http://myarmoury.com

This is not an affiliate link, but a resource recommended by our guest this week. Sean says “I've been involved with myArmoury.com for more than 15 years. I think it's unsurpassed for the quantity and quality of information, and for the truly welcoming and helpful attitude of the members.” So if you are interested in weaponry and want to learn more, you can use that link to explore further. 

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