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Elizab-Rapier-art - 9/23/17

 

"The Rapier in Elizabethan Society - As seen through the works of William Shakespeare" by Lady Elysabeth Underhill.  

 

NOTE: See also the files: Rap-Cbt-S-Hst-art, rapier-books-msg, Silver-1-man, Styles-Swrdpl-art, p-rapier-msg, Ren-o-t-Sword-art, fencing-art, Pnt-o-Measure-art.

 

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The Rapier in Elizabethan Society

As seen through the works of William Shakespeare  

by Lady Elysabeth Underhill  

 

ABSTRACT:

 

The rapier was an object of great significance for Elizabethan society.  Using Shakespeare as a primary source, this essay explores the place of the rapier in Elizabethan society and attempts to uncover the importance and meaning that this weapon had in period.  First, the carrying of a rapier is a useful way to illustrate both class divisions in English society. Next, as a foreign import the rapier was indicative of something new and fashionable for the upper class, but it was also the target of larger and more encompassing English anti-foreign sentiment, a feeling which often ran along class lines. Finally, the popularity of the rapier coincided with an increase in social violence among the upper classes of England; part of a dueling culture that was itself a quest by the elite to define themselves in a society that was changing around them.

 

 

When reading Romeo and Juliet it is easy to be struck by a feeling of inevitability as the play makes its way along its tragic course. Near the end of the first act Romeo himself foreshadows his fate in the form of a dream; "some consequence yet hanging in the stars / shall bitterly begin his fearful date / With this night's revels and expire the term / Of despised life, closed in my breast, / By some vile forfeit of untimely death" (I.iv.106-111). While God may not be steering Romeo to his death, there are real social forces that help to set the stage for the duel between Mercutio and Tybalt, an event which helps to set the play firmly on its tragic course, a course which include Romeo's death.  In the article "Draw if you be Men" Joan Ozark Holmer notes that in the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare used the rapier and the duel to comment on the common social problem of dueling and violence that permeated Elizabethan culture during his day (Holmer 178). The focus of this dueling culture was a new weapon, which had begun to make its way from continental Europe to England called the rapier.

 

              Shakespeare used the rapier in his plays to indicate several things about the society of his day. Firstly, the carrying of a rapier was an important object of self-identity for upper class young males, making the rapier a useful tool to illustrate class divisions in English society. Next, as a foreign import the rapier was indicative of something new and fashionable for the upper class, but it was also the target of larger and more encompassing English anti-foreign sentiment, a feeling which often ran along class lines. Finally, the popularity of the rapier coincided with an increase in social violence among the upper classes of England, part of a dueling culture that itself was a quest for self-identity.

 

How an object like the rapier can tell us about Elizabethan society.

 

              There is much to be learned about a time period from a study of the objects that people used or carried with them in their daily life. In the past, such mundane items often were overlooked as attention was instead focused on the larger power structures within a society, such as the family, church and state (Greenblatt 256). However, recently scholars have paid an increased attention to everyday people and objects. In her book Renaissance Culture and the Everyday Patricia Fumerton explains that objects of "everyday lifeā€¦[have] collective meanings, values, representations and practices" (Fumerton 5).  In other words, even the simplest most everyday objects are significant. By looking at these objects, learning how they were used in period, and reading about them in the literature of the time, we can learn much about what made a society and, even more importantly, its people, tick. One everyday cultural object of Elizabethan society that it is worthwhile to study is the rapier, the weapon used to such tragic effect in the duel between Mercutio and Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. The rapier may not seem like an everyday object at first; however, it is important to remember that unlike today's society, most men went armed in Elizabethan times, making weapons in general much more common objects than they are in today's society (Alyward 17).

 

Shakespeare's connection to the rapier

 

              Manuals providing instruction in the art of fencing were present in England during Shakespeare's time, and there is evidence that Shakespeare read at least one of them and consciously made use of what he learned when writing his plays. In her article Holmer notes that all of Shakespeare's plays which have the rapier and the duel as an important plot point were published after the publication of an English language fencing manual. This manual, published in 1595, was Vincentio Saviolo's His Practices, and it was composed of two books, one, which detailed the art of rapier play, and the second which described the etiquette behind the fighting of duels.[1] Holmer draws some very strong connections between Saviolo and the references to fencing in Shakespeare. These connections attempt to show that Shakespeare's use of the rapier in his plays was based on the knowledge of fencing that he gained from this manual, and also likely from his observation of the society around him. This connection gives strength to the idea that Shakespeare consciously used the rapier in his plays to good effect. The rest of this essay will explore several themes surrounding Shakespeare's use of the rapier.

 

The rapier as an indication of status and place in society

 

              Beginning well back in its history England had a tradition of an armed populace. This tradition can be traced back as early as 1181 with the Assize of Arms, a declaration which listed the weapons and armor that every man should possess for the defense of his country (Alyward 2). According to J.D. Alyward in his book The English Master of Arms, this declaration in essence "ratified the time-honoured right of free men to bear arms, and they endowed the different ranks of society with what were, in effect badges of their estate" (Alyward 7). Thus, in the extremely class conscious English society, the status of a person was able to be identified by the type of weapon he carried and the armor he wore.

 

              Throughout Shakespeare we see the rapier represented as an upper class weapon and used to emphasize class differences. In The Merry Wives of Windsor we see the gentleman character of Doctor Caius call for his servant Rugby to pick up a rapier. However, Rugby, a member of the lower class, tells his master that he cannot fence (II.iii.12-14).  Another, much more detailed example can be found Romeo & Juliet. In act 1 scene 1 Sampson and Gregory, two servants to Lord Capulet, enter onstage carrying swords and bucklers, while the officer and citizens who enter midway through the scene only carry clubs, bills, or partisans.[2] Throughout Romeo and Juliet the only characters who actually use a rapier are the young nobles, Tybalt, Mercutio, and Romeo (I.iv.55, III.i.84, IV.ii.57). In this first scene we also see the fighting itself split along class lines. Tybalt and Benviolo fight each other with the rapiers, leaving the serving men of the two houses to fight among themselves.

 

              In Shakespeare, there are several instances where the rapier is used, not as a weapon, but as an important accoutrement in the attire of a gentleman or noble. The first examples occurs in the Tempest when Prospero asks Ariel to fetch his rapier; "Ariel, / Fetch me the hat and rapier in my cell. / I will discase me, and myself preset / As I was sometime Milan." (V.i.84-86). In this scene Prospero is preparing to take up his role again as the Duke of Milan, after having lived in exile for many years. The fact that he considered his rapier an essential part of his attire and asked for it specifically shows us the significance of this artifact to his position in society. A second example occurs in The Merry Wives of Winsor when Doctor Caius calls for his rapier as he is getting ready to go to court, "Come, take-a your rapier and come after my heel to de-court" (I.iv.57-57).  Again we have the rapier being portrayed as an essential piece of a gentleman's attire, so important that he calls for it specifically just as Propsero did.

 

In addition these specific examples, we can find mention of the rapier connected to many noble characters in Shakespeare's plays. Demetruis, a prince in Titus Andronicus (II.i.54), Sir John Falstaff , a knight, in the second Henry the Fourth play (II. iv. 204), Rodrigo, called a gentleman in the character list of Othello (V.i..2), Don Armado in Love's Labor's Lost, and Lord Fitzwater in Richard the Second  (IV.i.39-40) all wear or use a rapier. Several of the above examples are quite obviously anachronistic; the rapier was not used in England during the time of Henry the Fourth or Richard the Second . However, as Hugh Long states in his dissertation on the rapier in English drama, Shakespeare uses the rapier in these cases regardless of its historical appropriateness, precisely because this object was such a powerful signifier of class status (Long 78).

 

The fashionable foreign rapier and English xenophobia

 

              Rapiers and the unique style of fighting that went with them were an import from continental Europe, specifically Italy. Rapiers were introduced by the upper class, who would travel to the continent and while there, pay to learn this style of fighting (Lowe 19, Vale 63).  Over time it became an expected part of a young gentleman's education to learn how to fence. In Shakespeare, we see an example of a young man going abroad in the character of Laertes in Hamlet. A foreigner who met Laertes while he was abroad traveling praised the young man to his King "For art and exercise in your defense / And for your rapier most especial" (IV.vii.97-98).

 

               Even though the rapier was accepted in English society by the elite, it remained in general a foreign weapon for some time. In fact, the dominant trend in English Renaissance drama was to represent the rapier as either a weapon used by a foreigner, such as the French Doctor Caius in the Merry Wives of Windsor, or to use the rapier in plays that were set on the Continent, such Romeo and Juliet which was set in Italy (Long 74). Shakespeare also indicates that English society had a less than full acceptance of the rapier when he refers to several characters who fence as "fashionmongers" or those who follow after what is fashionable (Much Ado About Nothing, V.i.94 and Romeo & Juliet, II.iv.34). Far from being a compliment, when read in context, the word fashionmonger is meant as a derogatory term. The members of English society who most resented the foreign rapier were members of the lower and middle classes who responded xenophobically to all continental influences, seeing objects like the Italian rapier as "an attenuation of English sturdiness" (Vale 20). This negative reaction on the part of most Englishmen prevented many foreign fencing masters from settling in England. Saviolo, the author of the fencing manual that Shakespeare likely read was one of only three foreign fencing masters to come to England to teach during the Elizabethan era (Low 179). Those who did come to England often suffered harassment from the locals. There are records of an Italian fencing master named Rocco Bonetti, appealing to the Privy Council for relief from the harassment of a group of Englishmen. (Alwyard 43).

 

              In Shakespeare we can easily see other examples of these anti-foreign feelings. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, the character of Shallow makes fun of the foreign Doctor Caius, mocking his "distanceā€¦passes, [and] stoccados " (II. i.12-13).  This disdainful tone, combined with the references to foreign fencing terms, indicates Shallow's dislike and disproval of Doctor Caius and his foreign fencing. However, once again, the best example of this phenomenon can be found in Romeo and Juliet. Mercutio, representing the English viewpoint pokes fun at Tybalt and his foreign fencing style several times in act II scene IV of Romeo and Juliet. Mercutio starts by calling Tybalt "the very butcher of a silk button" (II. iv 24). This comment references an Italian fencing master who came to England to teach and who boastfully, and to the annoyance of many Englishmen, claimed that he was skillful enough to hit any man on their button (Alyward 39). It is a comment that represents excessive pride and boastfulness on the part of a foreigner. After this comment Mercutio says many more insulting things about Tybalt. Mercutio starts off by insulting Tybalt and his acquisition of foreign ways, saying that he is "The pox of such antic, lisping, affecting  / fantasticoes- these new turners of accent!" (II. iv.29-30). Mercutio then goes onto comment more about the despicable nature of those who turn toward foreign influences, at one point insisting that Tybalt has whored himself out to this new fashion, calling him "a very good blade, a very tall man, and very good whore!" Mercutio then comments that it is a very "lamentable" thing that people like Tybalt cannot be content with the old way of doing things, that he is one "who stand[s] so much on the new form that [he] cannot sit at ease / on the old bench."  (II.iv. 31-35).

 

The Rapier, the Nobility, and Dueling Culture

 

              In her book Manhood and The Duel, Jennifer Low notes that the "English duel of honor" became popular around 1580 when the rapier entered into English society (Low 1).  The rapier can be defined as sword with a long blade designed to be used primarily with thrusting attacks. Over the course of the Elizabethan period rapier blades became increasingly narrower and longer. This extreme length and the narrowness of the blade made the rapier unsuited for military use. Thus, instead of being worn into battle, the rapier was worn as an everyday accessory by civilians. This meant that in addition to being a mark of fashion, the rapier was easily available for individuals to use the weapon for violent purposes. (Norman 19, 29). The reality was, as Sidney Anglo states in his book The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, that the rapier was a weapon was "designed solely for the injury and slaying of one's neighbors" (Anglo 100).  Indeed, every gentleman that trained in the use of this weapon did so with the idea in mind that he might one day be called upon to use this weapon in a duel.

 

               The duel was a ritualized extralegal form of combat between two individuals according to a generally accepted code of rules. According to Low, dueling was a phenomenon that was limited to the upper classes of society, and the upper classes used the duel to attempt to solidify their self conception of their social status in a changing world (Low 5).This occurred because during her reign Elizabeth I sought to break up the influence of some of the great houses in England. She was successful to a large degree and over time a gentleman's lineage became less and less important. As a result upper class youths sought other ways to elevate their status and reaffirm their self identity. The duel, introduced to Europe by the rapier, was one method that a young man could use to gain honor, social standing, and to prove himself to his peers (Low 96). For young gentleman the duel recalled the "heroic ideal" of past events such as the joust, trial by combat, and medieval romantic chivalry (Low 5). As the duel gained in popularity this social violence became problematic.  Elizabeth's government started to become alarmed by the increasing number of deaths, and various efforts were undertaken to halt the spread of dueling, such as declarations limiting the length of blades that could be worn, and personal interventions by the queen herself, including the imprisonment of combatants (Vale 65).  We see this concern on the part of the government portrayed in Romeo and Juliet by the Prince who declares any further violence between the two houses illegal (I.i.100).  However it was not until 1613 and the reign of James I that dueling was officially declared illegal in England (Low 1). 

 

              The duel plays a significant part in several of Shakespeare's plays. By looking at how Shakespeare portrays the duel, one is able get a glimpse of how the duel was both practiced and perceived by English society. The formalized ritual of the duel starts off with a challenge. If the individual so challenged accepts, the duel is scheduled to take place at a time in the future to be determined by both parties. In Much Ado About Nothing we are able to see this challenge given and accepted.

 

Benedick: "You are a villain; I jest not; I will make it good how you dare, with what you dare, and when you dare. Do me right, or I will protest your cowardice.

              Claudio: "Well, I will meet you, so you may have good cheer (V.i.145-152)

 

The proper cause for a duel, according to the second book of Saviolo's fencing manual, is the lie. Someone is dishonored or slandered and it is that person who offers a challenge (Low 11). In Much Ado About Nothing Claudio offered up the lie by his slander against Hero, and Benedick is challenging this slander on her behalf. The action of the duel is a very masculine one. If Claudio were to refuse this challenge it would call his manhood into question, as Benedick implies when he states that he will call Claudio a coward if he does not accept the challenge.

 

            While Shakespeare shows us the formalities of the duel in Much Ado About Nothing, in Romeo and Juliet we see Shakespeare make a much more significant social comment about the duel in Elizabethan society because Shakespeare portrays an improperly conducted duel. Saviolo's instructions on the duel encourage men to reserve the duel for "just occasions" and to not let "rage" be the primary motivator (Holmer 175). While Claudio and Benedick's duel was begun as a result of a lie, in Romeo and Juliet the duel between Tybalt and Mercutio occurs solely out of anger, and not out of a legitimate sense of having been wronged.

 

Tybalt:  "What, drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word /As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.  / Have at thee coward!. (I.i.72-74).

 

Mercution and Tybalt also fight right at the time the challenge was made, rather than properly naming a time and place to conduct a  formal duel. The brawl at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet foreshadows this violence born of anger as we see the Prince denounce the combatants in the first scene of the play, saying "What, ho! You men, you beasts, / that quench the fire of your pernicious rage / With purple fountains issuing from your veins!" (I.i. 86-88). By showing us this scene of violence and following that in the play with the duel between Mercutio and Tybalt Shakespeare represent the tragic nature of the social violence that was so pervasive during his time. 

 

***

            The numerous references to the rapier in the plays of Shakespeare indicate the importance of the rapier in English society. Through the examination of the way Shakespeare uses the rapier in his works we have come to learn much about English class and national identity. Doubtless further examples exist in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries which could be used to shed further light on English society.

 

Footnotes

 

[[1]] Romeo and Juliet (1594-1595), Much Ado About Nothing (1958-59), Hamlet (1600), were all likely published after the publication of Saviolos manual. In her article "Draw if you be Men" Holmer uses Saviolo's manual to date the writing of Romeo and Juliet to 1595. For evidence she cites the presence of Italian fencing terms in Romeo and Juliet that can only be found in Saviolo's book, not in any other English language fencing manuals. She also uses the fact that aspects of the dueling code from Saviolo's manual appear in Romeo and Juliet as evidence that Shakespeare was both influenced by this book and that he wrote the play after this book was published (Play dates from PBS's "In Search of Shakespeare" website, Retrieved on April 23, 2008 from http://www.pbs.org/shakespeare/events/list.html.)

 

[2] The last two are types of pole arms

 

 

Works Cited

 

Aylward, J. D. The English Master of Arms: From the twelfth to the twentieth century. London: Routledge, 1956.

 

Anglo, Sidney. The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.

 

Barnet, Sylvan, ed. The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare. New York: Harcourt Brace  Jovanovich, Inc.

 

Fumerton, Patricia. "A New New Historicism." Renaissance Culture and the Everyday. Ed. Patricia Fumerton and Simon Hunt. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1999. 1-17.

 

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1980.

 

Holmer, Joan Ozark. "'Draw if you be Men'": Saviolo's significance for Romeo and Juliet"  Shakespeare Quarterly 45. 2 (1994): 163-189. JSTOR. Arcadia University Lib. Glenside, PA 28 April 2008.

 

Long, Hugh K. Choose Your Weapon: A study of the evolution and acculturation of the rapier in English Renaissance Drama. Diss. California State University, Northridge,  2004.

 

Low, Jennifer. Manhood and the Duel: Masculinity in Early Modern Drama and Culture. New York: Palgrave, 2003.

 

Norman, A. V. B. The Rapier and Small-Sword 1460-1820. London: Arms and Armour Press.1980. 1972.

Vale, Marcia. The Gentleman's Recreations: Accomplishments and pastimes of the English gentleman 1580-1630. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1977.

 

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Copyright 2010 by Larissa Gordon. <laralu at gmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.

 

If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.

 

<the end>



[1] Romeo and Juliet (1594-1595), Much Ado About Nothing (1958-59), Hamlet (1600), were all likely published after the publication of Saviolos manual. In her article "Draw if you be Men" Holmer uses Saviolo's manual to date the writing of Romeo and Juliet to 1595. For evidence she cites the presence of Italian fencing terms in Romeo and Juliet that can only be found in Saviolo's book, not in any other English language fencing manuals. She also uses the fact that aspects of the dueling code from Saviolo's manual appear in Romeo and Juliet as evidence that Shakespeare was both influenced by this book and that he wrote the play after this book was published (Play dates from PBS's "In Search of Shakespeare" website, Retrieved on April 23, 2008 from http://www.pbs.org/shakespeare/events/list.html.)

[2] The last two are types of pole arms



Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
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Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org