Stage Fencing in Shakespeare's Time
Cesar Alexander Castillo
Hamlet: Come on, sir.
Laertes: Come, my lord. (They play).
Osric: A hit, a very palpable hit.
Hamlet (Act V, scene ii, 170)
This first bit of action begins one of the most famous duels in Shakespearean drama. The "hit" is nothing more than a tap on the chest that marks one point in favor of Hamlet. Soon the exhibition is over and the two characters are fighting for their lives, culminating in both their deaths. In reality, the actors playing the roles cannot kill each other; they have four more performances at the Globe Theatre left before the run of the show ends. So they must set a choreographed sequence that can be safely repeated each night when the time comes to perform the scene. This scene is an example of stage violence or stage combat. Any sequence of events in a play that causes physical harm and/or death to a character must be presented in a way that is safe to the actor and visually believable to the audience. The Globe's audience craved violence and its playwrights fulfilled the need by adding many scenes that were exceedingly "action packed". The actors in the sixteenth century would have to learn how to fight with rapiers and then apply it to the stage. The way they would learn, is through fencing schools. Over the following pages we will look at the history of fencing schools, the importance of technique, and consider some of the possibilities in the catastrophe scene from Hamlet.
A Master of Arms is more honourable than a Master of Arts ,for good fighting came before good writing. - Marston. The Mountebank's Masque. Paradox XV. 1617. (Aylward 1)
The origin of fencing schools was in Italy and soon spread to Spain and France prior to arriving in England. At the beginning of the Italian Renaissance, Italy was a popular place to do battle. As the kingdoms tried to conquer more land and riches, soldiers became more proficient in protecting themselves from attackers (Morsberger 9). The idea of the Italian duello was also very important. Of the three kinds of dueling, the state duel, judicial duel, and the duel of honor, it is the last one that was the most popular. The duel of honor would deal with personal honor and would only be allowed by soldiers and men of stature. This was the most prominent duel in society and was well represented on the stage (Morsberger 34). Examples include the Hamlet/Laertes fight (which begins as an exhibition match and ends as a duel), Tybalt's fight with Mercutio, and Romeo's slaying of Tybalt.
The large market for Italian culture was due to upper-class English families (Aylward 39). Parents would send their children across Europe to learn about other countries and they would bring back many ideas and customs (the duel being one). "The Renaissance spread Italian swordsman as well as Italian scholars" (Morsberger 14). It soon became fashionable for an Italian swordsman to set up schools in England and establish clientele consisting of aristocratic young men. English sword teachers were being replaced by new Italian teachers and found themselves out of a job. They ended up having to teach anybody they could which would include jugglers and actors (Morsberger 14).
A Master of Arms was the instructor who knew everything about a weapon and taught a particular style. The above quote shows how seriously the Master of Arms took his profession. One of the most prominent Master of Arms was Rocco Bonetti. He leased part of the theatre at Blackfriars and set up a fencing school before his death in 1587 (McCollum 29-30). Jeronimo continued to lease the space and teach before being challenged and dying in his own duel. It was through schools like this that actors would learn how to fence.
Next let's look at some techniques that were used in Elizabethan stage fencing. First one must understand the importance of real fencing technique. The sword was an essential part of a man's dress. Much like your shoes, hat, and doublet, the rapier defined whom you were (Morsberger 3). An actor had to be as confident with his rapier as any man would. To perform the technique correctly was very important because the audience could see if an actor made a mistake. "To Shakespeare's audience, swordplay was a part of everyday life; all of the gentlemen carried swords and were skilled in their use and therefore demanded a high degree of accuracy in the stage duels they witnessed" quotes Morsberger (65). Not only would an actor have to be a good performer but he would also have to be current in the new styles of fencing (Morsberger 77). It is also interesting to point out that the theatre was not only used as a performance space but also as a space to present fencing matches (Wise 8). If a groundling saw a real fencing match on Wednesday, and didn't see the same thing at the performance of Hamlet on Saturday he would let the actor and the audience around him know how bad the performance was.
Now, with the knowledge of the technical aspects of sport fencing, an actor had to transfer this technique safely to the stage. It was well known of some accidents in previous productions. During a Restoration revival of Davenant's, Man's the Master, Davenant's stepson lost an eye by a thrust from the foil of Henry Harris; while in 1666 Pepys recorded that an actor named Smith killed his opponent in a stage duel (Morsberger 66). "An actor might be hissed off the stage for want of skill in fence or for clumsiness in dancing the lavolta" quotes Professor Schelling in Morsberger's book.
Some other performance techniques include the use of fake blood. Sometimes bladders were hidden under armpits of an actor's doublet and filled with vinegar or sheep's blood (Morsberger 66). When the time was appropriate, the actor would squeeze the bladder and blood would extrude out from a "wound" that was inflicted by another actor.
These are only some of the skills that an actor used in performing at the Globe Theater.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet. Ed. Edward Hubler. A Signet Classic. New York: Penguin Publishers,1963. 33-174.
Morsberger, Robert E. Swordplay and the Elizabethan and Jacobean Stage. Ed. Dr. James Hogg. Salzburg, Austria:(unknown), 1974. 4-89.
Aylward, J.D. The English Master of Arms. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, (unknown). 39-42.
Wise, Arthur. Weapons in the Theatre. London: Longmans, 1968. 2-21.
McCollum, Linda Carlyle. The Fencing School in Blackfriars. The Fight Master Fall 1993:29-30.
How to cite this article:
Castillo, Cesar Alexander. Stage Fencing in Shakespeare's Time. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/essays/StageFencing.html" >.
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