Shakespeare the Swordsman

In a series of articles I have been taking on the myriad aspects of Shakespeare’s personality, the depth of his knowledge and whether the Stratford Shakespeare had as much prolific knowledge to write the plays attributed to him. One peculiarity about the author of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry is the fact, taken partly from the linguistic terminology and his arcane descriptions, sometimes metaphorical, sometimes anachronistic of various subjects as listed as follows:
The author of the plays and poetry was a prolific polymath having studied a multitude of subjects such as botany, medicine, anatomy, ornithology, falconry, fencing, horsemanship, horticulture, astrology, and Greek and Roman classical mythology. Incidentally, to name but a few, the list in reality is much larger suggesting an ability or curiosity about the world at large and the motivation to discover and understand a lot more. See for example: The Hunt For Shakespeare

The author of Shakespeare’s plays was undoubtedly a natural polymath and had studied a variety of subjects extremely well. I have already reviewed in a previous blog post the extent of his knowledge of field sports, in particular the hunting of deer, stags, boar with the aid of dogs, the knowledge and experience of falconry, angling, the coursing of hare and game birds such as pheasant, grouse, and partridge. I also mentioned his love and knowledge of music and the occult sciences in Harmony of the Spheres and his kinship to the Secret Art of Alchemy.
I turn now to the subject of fencing and duelling of which there is much to list and catalogue within Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. It is highly unlikely, and as yet unproven, that William Shakspere had any experience of fencing or duelling at least there does not appear to be any evidence forthcoming from academics that he did. His family were certainly not of a military or noble heritage. Above all the lack of evidence of an education excludes his knowledge of the art of defence, although clearly the author of Shakespeare’s plays must have had a great deal of experience and knowledge of fencing and duelling. Among the books available at the time were “The School of the Noble & Worthy Science of Defence” by Joseph Swetnam (1617), an earlier work would have been Roger Ascham’s “Toxophilus” (1545) and in the author’s lifetime George Silver’s “Paradoxes of Defence” (1599). Now Roger Ascham was the tutor of Edward de Vere as a young man and must have taught the young Earl, among other things of course, both fencing and archery. Also relevant were the fencing master from Modena, Giacomo di Grassi who wrote “The True Arte of Defence”, translated by Jeronimo into English in 1594. It would appear from a report in “Shakespeare’s England” (Oxford Clarendon Press-1917) that sword fencing was undergoing a revolution during Shakespeare’s time with the gradual importation of fencing techniques and weapons from both Spain and Italy. In England before that time the favourite weapon of choice in a fight or a duel was the sword and buckler, which gradually got replaced by the rapier and dagger and the two-handed broadsword which was for most a difficult weapon to handle in a conflict. The rapier as employed in Italy and Spain was introduced into England during the early reign of Queen Elizabeth and it was certainly known of during the reign of her father, Henry VIIIth. The buckler with its’ pike was the ideal weapon with which to break an opponent’s sword tip thus rendering them weapon less or at least with only a short dagger to defend themselves. The buckler varied somewhat in it’s size, length and shape, the rapier had a defensive guard above the handle and was lighter to wield. During friendly contests their tips were often hammered flat into a button so that they would not pierce the flesh or severely injure anyone. The variety of names for these weapons are worth noting and are derived from Anglo-Saxon, French, Italian and Spanish sources. Another term for the rapier was a stock or “tucke” from the Old French ‘estoc’, Spanish ‘estoque’. Cotgrave’s dictionary of fencing terms (1611) lists ‘Espee Espagnole’ for the Spanish rapier which was known in France as the ‘poinard’. Then there was the foil, a junior or apprentice weapon which even a woman could wield with its’ sharp tip, (often blunted for safety) and narrow blade.

The prescribed cuts in Italian Swordsmanship
16th century stage combat

Writing on the subject of Shakespeare’s swordsmanship, William M. Gaugler, says “In William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; or What You Will, Sir Toby Belch urges Sir Andrew Aguecheek to challenge the “count’s youth” and “hurt him in eleven places.”
The “eleven places” very likely allude to the ten body areas sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian fencing masters directed cuts to, plus the point thrust to the center of the target, or the adversary’s navel. The direction of the cuts shown in relation to the human body appear in illustrations for Achille Marozzo’s “Opera nova dell’arte delle armi” (Mutinae, 1536), and Salvator Fabris’ “Sienza [sic] e pratica d’arme” (Copenhaven, 1606).
Therefore, an English swordsman of the sixteenth century interested in seeing an image showing the direction of cuts and the thrust would probably have had to be familiar with a copy of Marozzo, or early in the following century, with a copy of Fabris. And since Shakespeare was acquainted with the target areas, he either saw illustrations of them or learned of them through conversation with professionally-trained swordsmen. Moreover, the phrase, “hurt him in eleven places,” suggests that the playwright was apparently familiar with Italian fencing theory and practice, more, in fact, than would seem to be the case judging solely by references to swordplay in “Romeo and Juliet” and in “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”.
Marozzo’s illustration shows nine cuts.
From the right side:
dritto fendente (a vertical cut from above that cleaves or splits)
dritto sgualembrato (a diagonal cut)
dritto tondo (a round or circular horizontal cut)
falso dritto (a diagonal cut designated false)
montante (a vertical cut from below)
From the left side:

fendente rouerso (a reverse vertical cut from above)
rouerso sgualembrato (a reverse diagonal cut)
rouerso tondo (a reverse round or circular horizontal cut), and
falso mancho (a diagonal cut designated false).
Fabris employs the same terms and adds sotto mano (a vertical cut from below) next to montante, raising the number of cuts to ten. And judging by di Grassi’s text, the cuts to be directed to Marozzo’s target areas were circular or by molinello. With a circular cut, momentum and force are increased, making the cut more effective.”

We need only to turn to various plays where these words were used by the author, for example in Hamlet, Act 4, scene 7 we have:
“He gave you such a masterly report for art and exercise in your defence and for your rapier most especially”. In Twelfth Night Sir Toby says to Viola: “Dismount thy tuck” meaning to withdraw a weapon from its sheath or scabbard. Again Toby says: “Why, man, he’s a very devil; I have not seen such a firago. I had a pass with him, rapier, scabbard, and all, and he gives me the stuck with such a mortal motion that it is inevitable”. Or in the Merry Wives of Windsor when reference is made by Justice Shallow to: “With my long sword I would have made you four tall fellows skip like rats”. However, in Richard IInd, Henry IVth and Henry Vth Shakespeare employs the term “rapier” when anachronistically they were not even invented or employed in battles or duels in that time. Was this an oversight on the part of the author or a lack of attention to detail? The debates continue but these anachronisms are often found in Shakespeare’s text for example to hear a clock striking the hour in “Julius Caesar” when clocks had not been invented. I suspect Shakespeare’s argument would have been that the London stage would not only tolerate such erroneous graphic details but greatly appreciate them, literally thrusting the past into the present. It was for the most part of modernising and bringing into the present day an experience of pre-Christian history. In Much Ado About Nothing Margaret says that Benedick’s wit is blunted like ‘the fencer’s foils’ and in the fencing bout between Hamlet and Laertes that the former should seek out ‘a sword unbated’ ie; blunted so as not to kill. Famous of all is Mercutio’s description of Tybalt: “More than prince of cats, I can tell you. O he is the courageous captain of compliments. He fights as you sing ‘prick-song’, keeps time, distance, proportion; rests me his minim rest, one, two, and the third in your bosom; the very butcher of a silk button, a duellist, a duellist; a gentleman of the very first house, of the first and second cause”. Mercutio speaks of the ‘immortal passado’, in Romeo & Juliet; in Love’s Labours Lost we have “the passado he respects not”, and “Cupid’s butt-shaft is too hard for Hercules’ club, too much odds for a Spaniard’s rapier”. In general Shakespeare tends to employ more terms derived of the Italian style while his contemporary Ben Jonson drew more from the Spanish style. The various schools where fencing was taught in London included Ely Place, Holborn, the Belle Savage on Ludgate Hill, the Curtain in Holywell, the Grey Friars in Newgate, the Bull in Bishopsgate, the Artillery Gardens in Leadenhall, and above all Smithfield where earlier jousts, contests and tournaments were regularly held. From various records we know that Richard Tarleton and Robert Greene were apparently masters of the art of fence at the Artillery Gardens having regularly attended and proved their proficiency in the art against all-comers. However, there were established rules governing the length and style of sword, dagger or rapier which if ignored would be broken or removed from the wearer. Many Spanish, French and Italian fencing masters were employed by the aristocracy during Elizabeth’s reign and worth mentioning purely from the point of view of absolute proficiency and success in duelling or warfare. Three Italian masters were available as Masters of Defence: Rocko, who had a college in Warwick Lane, his protégé, Jeronimo, and a certain Vincentio Saviolo who taught, among others John Florio who recorded his instruction in his “Second Frutes” (1591). In this Florio lists the type of blows available from the Italian school of fencing for example: “He plays at rapier and dagger, or rapier and cloak, he can give a thrust (stoccata) and ward it (pararla), knows all the advantages, how a man must charge (investir) and enter upon (incalzar) his enemy, with a thrust (punta), a stoccada with an imbrocadda or charging blow, right or reverse blow, be it with the edge, with the back or with the flat”. Florio’s descriptions become fused with the art of dancing making comparisons of the elegance of a fencer’s movements reminiscent of the Italian schools. Similarly, Jeronimo de Carranza who taught Phillip II of Spain and wrote a treatise on the subject (De la Filosofia de las Armas-1569) made himself available in England as a master of fence. Joining the school from Spain is Luis Pancheo de Navarez (aka: Don Lewis), who wrote his “Libro de las Grandezas de la Espada”, published in Madrid in 1600. However, Spanish fencing styles did suffer and go out of fashion like most things associated with Spaniards, the English were reluctant to adopt Spanish techniques in favour of those taught by the French and Italian schools or colleges.
Finally, we come to the subject of duelling and its’ impact on the social, ethical and cultural aspect of life in London and elsewhere.

The immediate points of honour for a gentleman in England would have been the honour and modesty of his lady, his family, his ancestral and aristocratic status and his own virtue in any matter in contention. It was regarded a point of honour should one man accuse another, whether publicly or privately, of being a liar, and even today in Parliament representatives and politicians are not permitted to use the term against a fellow or opponent in a debate (Until of course Boris Jonson was somewhat economic with the truth recently in Parliament over his attendance of parties and celebrations while we were expected to socially distance ourselves). Furthermore, MP’s are required to sit on the benches more than a sword’s length apart to prevent any dispute becoming a violent brawl that results in serious injury. If a point of honour was established (ie; casting a gauntlet or “gage” at their feet) then the accused had the choice of weapons, place and time thereby to resolve the issue with the first cut/wounding or through its entirety towards mortal combat or ultimate death. A duelling challenge is mentioned again in Twelfth Night when Sir Toby suggests: “Go write it in a martial hand; be curst and brief; it is no matter how witty, so it be eloquent, and full of invention…if thou thou’st him thrice, it shall not be amiss; and as many lies as will lie in thy sheet of paper”. And again: “For it comes to pass oft that a terrible oath, with a swaggering accent sharply twanged off, gives manhood more approbation than ever proof itself would have earned him”. The Italian approach to the ethics of duelling is defined aptly in Possevino’s “Dialogo dell’ Honore” (Venice 1559) which was followed by other fence masters in England, in particular Saviolo, Fegar and Favin. In As You Like It a reference to the manner of a challenge is made by Rosalind: “a boisterous and cruel style, a style for challengers”. Touchstone enumerates on the notion of making a challenge thus: “Of lies, some are affirmative, some negative, some general, some particular-and of the latter some are absolute, some conditional”. Indeed we see whereby one could respond to a challenge if made: “In print, by the book, a retort courteous, or a modest quip, a reply churlish, reproof valiant, the countercheck quarrelsome, the lie with circumstance and the lie direct. All these you may avoid but the lie direct; and you may avoid that too with an ‘if’. Your if is the only peacemaker; there’s much virtue in an “if”. Duelling, public or in secret was abandoned and made illegal in the reign of George III, but it was a practice known and pursued by the royal line of Kings as witnessed when Bolingbroke challenges Mowbray to single combat in the opening scene of Richard II:
Henry Bolingbroke:
If guilty dread hath left thee so much strength
As to take up my honour’s pawn, then stoop:
By that, and all the rights of knighthood else,
Will I make good against thee arm to arm,
What I have spoke, or thou canst worse devise.

I take it up; and by that sword I swear,
Which gently laid my knighthood on my shoulder,
I’ll answer thee in any fair degree,
Or chivalrous design of knightly trial.

When they refuse to take up the gauntlets thrown down the King arranges for a contest to take place at Coventry on St. Lambert’s Day, “to see Justice design the victor’s chivalry”. Similarly, in Henry VIth, Part Two a duel between a low ranked challenger Horner the Armourer and his prentice Peter in which the King asks his uncle Gloucester how he should act and is subsequently advised:
And let these have a day appointed them
For single combat in a convenient place;
For he hath witness of his servant’s malice.
This is the law, and this Duke Humphrey’s doom.

Furthermore, fencing onstage was what many young men came to see performed in London’s theatres and elsewhere. However, by the time of James Ist, when he acceded to the English throne, he resolutely denounced duelling, whether public or private, as being vain and inglorious. So much so that his contempt of duelling persuaded him to make a law against it with his; “Proclamation Against Private Challenges and Combats” in 1613. The practice of duelling did not stop of course but the honour attached to it was removed and a mortal challenge or outcome could be prosecuted in law as “wilful murder” as in the case of Lord Sanquhar who was prosecuted by the Star Chamber and when found guilty was executed for the murder of his fencing master in 1615. I also mentioned in a previous post that Ben Jonson, who had killed a man in a duel pleaded “benefit of clergy” to escape any legal consequences and that Edward de Vere accidentally killed an enraged or drunken cook at Lord Burghley’s residence when he was in his early twenties. The latter incident is alluded to in Hamlet when Polonius, who is secretly hiding behind an arras is run through by Hamlet and dies. Now having personally practised fencing and archery at school and elsewhere I am of the opinion that fencing in particular reinforces the mental faculty for contestation, counter-argument and in the elaboration of any discussion. The same physical properties of alertness, agility, speed, and feint are all extremely useful when arguing or establishing your point of view. This I suspect was also Shakespeare’s view, that the pen was mightier than the sword and he preferred to challenge his enemies and opponents with wit and ridicule, with carefully chosen words and a viable response in his own and others defence. Even in real life Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford was reluctant to accept a duel when challenged by his rival Sir Phillip Sidney when they quarrelled over a tennis match but had no choice when confronted by Sir Thomas Knyvett, the uncle of Anne Vavasour, who the Earl had gotten pregnant in an illicit love-affair. While our Stratford Shakespere only obtained a sword when he was granted his coat of arms and his family were never involved in any military or duelling encounters, rather Shakspere was prosecuted for breach of the peace, of threatening harm and brawling in London’s streets.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


Published by Leonidas Kazantheos

In the early part of my career I have worked extensively in media, the arts and theatre as an innovator and environmental conservationist and much later took on a role as an investigative journalist and commentator on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy.

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