In 1610, when Shakespeare was 46 years old, Ridalfo Capoferro wrote the definitive work on rapier fencing, which not only enjoyed popularity for over 150 years but remains a reference text for professional fencers today. In that work, he outlined specific techniques and approaches for the already popular fighting method, including the rapier and dagger approach used in the duel scene of Act V in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
To put the timeline straight here, Hamlet was first staged around 1600, which means that William Shakespeare did not learn of the rapier and dagger method from Capoferro’s book (that’s hard to do when the book was published after the play) but his book being published during Shakespeare’s lifetime confirms that the rapier was very popular, along with this particular method of rapier and dagger fighting.
By the time Shakespeare was writing Hamlet, the rapier was a civilian weapon in England, used in domestic duels, and carried by men of fashion in a statement as much about their status and their machismo. The rapier saw the height of it’s popularity coincide with much of Shakespeare’s lifetime. From 1550 until 1610 it was widely used but there was a massive lack of general consensus over the exact right way to use a rapier. Ridalfo Capoferro’s book represented one of the first times someone tried to right down the “right” way to fight with a rapier. He developed not only the rapier and dagger approach, but also the classic lunge move which is considered ubiquitous with the term “fencing” today.
It was very popular, quite fashionable, and became something of a competition among men to compare the lengths of their swords with one another. They are reports of men striking up a duel with their fellow townsmen over the most minor of offenses, just to prove their prowess with a blade. Things reached such a head that in 1566, Queen Elizabeth herself issued proclamations about the length of a rapier and instated a law which said anyone found to be in possession of a rapier of longer length stood at risk of fine and imprisonment.
In 1570 (Shakespeare was 6), Italian Rocco Bonetti is in England teaching the idea of using rapier fencing specifically for the duel. (Remember the line in the movie, The Princess Bride, where Inigo asks, “You’re using Bonetti’s defense against me, eh?” We’re talking about that Bonetti.)
While they would not have had the rapier in Denmark during the 1400s when Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, is supposed to be set, very clear directions are given by Shakespeare that the duel in Act V between Hamlet and Laertes is to be done with “rapier and dagger.” That’s because in 1600 (possibly 1601) when Hamlet was first staged, the rapier and dagger method of fencing was one of three most popular dueling methods in England. It’s unclear what Shakespeare’s source was for the fencing scene and explicitly choosing rapier and dagger, but my guess is Agrippa’s treatise on fencing which was basically the manual for 16th century swordsmanship. He’s considered something of the father of swordsmanship and his timeline fits better with the date we think Hamlet was first staged. If you know more on identifying Shakespeare’s sources for Hamlet’s fight scene, tell me in the comments below.
This one line, spoken by Orsic in the play, gives us a great deal of information about how the play is to be performed and the state of Hamlet’s mind at the time.
You see, the rapier and dagger method of fighting allowed for the “left hand seizure” maneuver in which a fencer is forced by the actions of his opponent to seize the weapon from the left hand. That means, that in the play, Hamlet was intended to be completely aware of Laertes treachery when he was first injured, and the switch up of blades was not accidental, but a fencing method being used by Hamlet to get the upper hand in the fight. (Hamlet may not necessarily be aware of that the blade is poisoned.)
This point gets missed in modern staging and even popular film versions of Hamlet because the most common weapon used in film is an épée and not a rapier. Why does this matter?
Well, the épée is lighter than a rapier, and easy to dislodge from an opponents hand. Trying to deliberately dislodge the blade from an opponent is a technique of epee fencing, but not with the rapier. With a rapier, the way you hold the weapon in fighting makes it much more difficult, if not impossible, to accidentally fling the weapon from the hands of your opponent, which means stage and film versions of the fight which show Hamlet and Laertes slinging weapons about the stage, causing them to switch blades unaware of having done so, is an incorrect staging of Shakespeare’s intended version of the play. All three of the major film versions of this fight: Olivier in 1948, Zeffirelli in 1990, and Branagh in 1996, stage this fight incorrectly with an épée blade. So far, no one has staged it as Shakespeare intended. (That I’ve found. Do you know someone?)
In all fairness, the épée was a dueling weapon developed in France with the purpose of poking the opponent, and it was often used to settle matters of honor. So the épée is understandable as a choice for staging Hamlet, if at the same time, not correct. The rapier is also quite heavy comparatively, so choosing the epee instead might have been one of practicality, or even safety, since modern fencing weapons used for sport are much less lethal than a historically accurate rapier.
There’s a second reason Hamlet would have suspected foul play, as well. Laertes was supposed to be challenging Hamlet to a gentleman’s duel which would have used dulled weapons, even in the 17th century. When you were dueling between gentlemen, it was not a battle to the death, but a battle to show expertise. The weapons were supposed to be altered and unable to cut the opponent. At his first injury, Hamlet knows he’d been betrayed, and is motivated to try and remove Laertes weapon from him using the rapier and dagger left-hand seizure maneuver.
Other notable fencing greats from this time period worth your reading include:
These are affiliate links to books on amazon written by the people listed. These books were the definitive works on the subject of fencing during the English Renaissance (Except Gustav, he came later).
Gustav II Adolf who used a broader, “war rapier,” in the 30 years War (Note: This is in French)
Of the popular and available fencing masters of the time, Shakespeare himself was mostly likely influenced by Capoferro primarily, then Bonetti, and Agrippa. It’s amusing to me that Shakespeare set his play in the 1400s then deliberately used a fighting method so specifically popular in such a short period of history The rapier would fall out of popularity shortly after Shakespeare’s death (and in no way due to his death, mind you), in favor of the small sword. You can still find it in various documents after that time period which reference the rapier, but the days of it being carried around by Elizabethan noblemen to demonstrate their superiority, well, those moments died with Shakespeare.
. . .
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