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Stage Combat on the Elizabethan Stage

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 ►Stage Directions:

Surely one of the most disappointing aspects of reading or studying Shakespeare’s plays remains those pesky incomplete stage directions.  Shakespeare, for instance, provided surprisingly few.  While directors make choices, sometimes counter to our expectations or wishes, editors add helpful emendations in order to assist the reader better to understand the action, bracketing the directions in order to distinguish them from those of the dramatist.1   However helpful they appear, one has but to pay close attention to the text in order to understand when and where these actions occur, given that Elizabethan stage directions appear internally within the text, so that the poetry not only expresses a mood, an instant emotion, a setting, or a scenic portrait of what we should see, but served to inform players as to what to do, where to stand, or when to enter or exit, in order to perform or to understand all the previous. 

 Apparently, stage rehearsals and preparations became rushed affairs in order to get the “product,” never confused with “art,” to reach the paying public as quickly as possible.  In the repertory system, considered plays were usually read at the tavern or other locals at night, new, accepted works rehearsed during the mornings, and current plays performed in the afternoons.  And, we should add to this that companies had at least three plays “on the boards” for performance during the week. 

 A player such as the accomplished Richard Burbage, lead tragedian and fellow of Shakespeare within the Chamberlain’s Men, and then King’s Men (when James came into power), had as many as fifty roles in his head during the year.  In an era when folks spoke of “hearing a play,” as oppose to seeing one, as is our custom today, we begin to appreciate the difference.  With such a busy season, one begins to appreciate the need for those “internal stage directions,” which inform through the poetry the motivation for the player.  Romeo’s “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” obviously indicates a need for recognition.  But Shakespeare need not write that as a direction.  However ….

 Consider the incomplete stage direction in Hamlet: “Enter Ghost.”  From where does he enter?  Because the Elizabethan Stage remained analogical (ever suggesting theatrum mundi, the “world as stage”), the hut and “above” represented heaven, below the trap “hell,” and the playing area as our “brief hour upon the stage.”  But knowing where the Ghost enters would indicate much.  In fact, that question indicates how we read Hamlet’s actions toward Heaven or to Hell. 

 Consider for instance, that appearing behind those gathered upon Elsinore’s midnight walls, perhaps rising like a ghostly phoenix from the trap in order to startle most of the audience as much as the characters on stage, one couldn’t ascertain if this were Hell or Purgatory; but, entering from above would signal God’s hand in the Ghost’s charge, dictating that Hamlet murder Claudius and enhancing the considerable dramatic irony of the play when Hamlet questions whether God or Satan guides his hand.  How did Shakespeare as poet or Richard Burbage as lead tragedian, and most likely “instructor” for the company, imagine and stage action and meaningful analogy?

 All of the above, with internal stage directions or those frustratingly brief written indications, matter more than most of us realize.  Equally as frustrating, in many of Shakespeare’s plays—and most especially the tragedies—appears in the direction “they fight,” a brief indication of where “something” appears, but we know not what.  For directors and those who appreciate Shakespeare even while reading, we imagine more than the tentative thrusts of wooden or cheap metal swords of two or more actors “representing” a fight scene.  In Shakespeare’s day, even though poets represented large masses of armies by a few players, individual fights became the stuff of conversation long after the performance ended.  Just as we imagine the apprentices, penny-public, or even gentles leaving the playhouse recollecting those lines of poetry, mulling select phrases over again and again, re-speaking and savoring ripe phrases with their sack and wine in pubs, so too the fights they witnessed would often bring them back to the playhouse as they yielded their pennies for an afternoon’s entertainment.


►Crowd Appreciation:

 Even more than the poetry, fights held special attraction for the common crowds, because the audience not only recollected but anticipated this stage combat.  Consider the importance of Hamlet’s contest with Laertes, as it reveals much about the two combatants and how Hamlet will reconcile his divided loyalties as either a flagellum dei, a “Scourge of God” (a damned soul destined and used to bring justice into the world by God), or as a “Minister of God” (one appointed, saved, and an indicator of the hand of God’s ever-present justice prior to the Judgment).  For Hamlet, he may represent one, the other, or both—wondering how he’s part of God’s plan to reconcile injustices—but in what capacity?  In other words, can the death of the innocent yet foolish Polonius figure into a plan for Hamlet’s obedience to God, or does Hamlet’s murder of the counselor, coupled with Laertes “right” to revenge, reveal Hamlet’s lost condition?  Oddly enough, such a complexity finally gives his mind peace, as he speaks of Providence and God’s hand in all prior to the “contest.”2 

 So too, the dramatic irony of what the fight portends and the scene makes known becomes palatable: will Gertrude reveal her secrets, here at the end?  How will this martial contest expose Claudius’ guilt?  And, when concluded, the moment underscores the importance of father to son relationships: Laertes dies in failed revenge, Hamlet achieves his but without the fruits, and Fortinbras not only gains revenge for his father’s defeat and death, but completes a dream for ruling of Denmark.

 With such importance placed upon the scene, we must acknowledge that the combat remains preeminent: so, with such magnitude, how did they fight?  What did they do, how would it appear, and how long did it take?  With unfortunate directional brevity, we have only “they fight.”  So now consider that Shakespeare realizes how important this contest remains to his action, yet the time for such consideration remains all too short: show it as the high point of the work: on the road, in the playhouse, or at Court—but get the money, get them talking, and move on to the next crowd-pleaser. 


►Recalling Famous Contests:

Undoubtedly, according to his own strengths and those of his fellow players, Burbage would consider how the fight would take shape; recall that these players represented the finest in England, skilled acrobats, emulators of nature—as Hamlet commands and Burbage demonstrates—and quality swordsmen.3 They could draw upon recognized “prize fights” in London, when skilled fighters would prove their martial abilities in seeking that most-respected of degrees, “Master of Fence.”

To qualify for this honor, combatants came from all over the British Isles to test their metal in London, qualifying with seven weapons, those not only from their own day, but medieval arms as well.  Proving oneself by what the forefathers used respected not only the time-honored right to bear arms, but paid service to the progression of weaponry, from long to bastard sword, from pole-axe to pike.  Such was the skill of combatants that one recognized contestants and masters from their awkward walks (cut hamstrings or tendons) to eye-patches, missing fingers, or proud scars.  All instruments required shielding against fatality, but contests proved brutal, sometimes lethal, nonetheless.

Many of these duels remained famous, or infamous, and Elizabethans fondly recollected them, since they loved martial battles and the spectacle of violence.  Recall that not far from where the Chamberlain’s Men played at the their new Globe, entrepreneurs constructed a bear-baiting pit, so that when Macbeth says “They have tied me to a stake, / And bear-like I must stand the course,” Burbage metaphorically references the sounds of the bears and barks of the dogs, battling one another in another amphitheatre not far away, with the sounds of that gruesome contest carrying on the wind.


►A Love For Violence:

Within the city, the courtyard area of St. Paul’s served for public executions, such as that of Father Garnet (who took the alias Mr. Farmer), the infamous “equivocator” of the Porter’s speech concerning hell; here, years earlier, Londoners had celebrated the defeat of the Spanish armada sent against them, and here they rejoiced at the death of traitors.  Public executions became holiday events, travelers on London Bridge passed rotting heads, and felons or offenders to the Crown bore marks of branding, cropped ears, noses, or worse.  By all accounts and by any standard, the age represented one of brutality, spectacle, and an appreciate for both.

Everyone seemed to love fencing and fighting, from the queen to the lowly apprentice.  With the right to own and bear arms long established in England, from the early 12th century, folks were required to own a weapon according to their position and station in life.  Certain kinds of arms remained prohibited, and because London had no standing police force, officials forbad large congregations, except for church and sanctioned events.  The record of apprentices going well beyond the bounds of civility and social norms bears this out, with one “outbreak” taking as long as months to bring under control.  After attending a play, they destroyed the playhouse and its properties, only to branch out beyond the City, growing wilder and bolder in significant numbers.  When finally put down, most faced the most extreme of executions, which decimated the ranks of soon-to-be-skilled workers and craftsmen. 

In fact, the great numbers of humanity in one location represented a prevalent draw to the theatres in London.  With laws against congregating in the streets, at the theatre one could come across all spectrums of society in enormous numbers.  So too, the City and Crown had laws against fighting, but the martial contests and the theatre provided outlets for this desire, given the country’s duty of learning skill with a weapon.  While bearing arms had two ramifications, established the right and distinguishing rank, consider that the theatre provided spectacle, crowds, skilled matches, and violence, all of which Londoners either knew or wished to see.  But then, so did the fencing contests to establish “Masters of Fence,” which provided all the above, yet did not “feign” its action or provide daily fare.


►Martial Contests:

Crowds came yearly to London to witness contests that awarded the much-coveted “Master of Fence,” with combatants having to establish themselves by means of seven weapons, those current and those of older times.  Matches proved the training, stamina, quick-wit, and bravery of contestants, for even though required, shielding of rapier, for instance, meant a small ball attached to the point, or the tip curved back to prevent its cutting flesh; however, the edges of larger weapons proved razor sharp, so that even with gloves one might feel the cut as the edge sliced leather, and then flesh.  Of course, gloves provided more protection than that afforded legs, arms, or face.  Equally, the pommel of a weapons handle, the thick, metal round end, afforded another means to render an opponent dazed or unconscious.

The minimum time of training to become a Master of Fence remained fourteen years.  In the trial, the candidate was tested using 7 different weapons; all the masters within 30 miles of London were brought to the site for the test.  For period information see DeLacasa, Rich Cabinet... and James Aylwerd, Master of Arms.

Old soldiers returning from combat often taught for a meal, drink, etc.  By 1540, Henry VIII gave a patent for the promotion of schools of fence.  Roger Ascham said in 1545 that all were learning fence along with their other studies.

Haberdashers sold weapons.  England was perpetually under a threat of war and all men had to be ready.  England never approached the code duello of Spain or France, though the Italian manners of fence and fighting were becoming ever more popular in England.

London Masters of Fence put on shows in theatres for prizes and drew huge crowds.  Sword and Buckler were more established English weapons, but the London masters were more frequently teaching rapier and dagger.  There's no recorded instance of a foreign Master playing a prize in a London theatre setting.  The Londoners had a monopoly, apparently; yet there were many foreign Masters operating schools and giving private lessons.

The Backsword was 30 inches long with a wicker basket to protect the hand, made of wood, in which two combatants beat one another to draw blood.  They aimed for the places where bone was just under the skin—elbows  knees, behind the ears, etc.

Weapons included the staff (6 feet long with tips of bone or metal—Pole Arms are staffs with blades on the end, such as spikes, etc.), the long sword (ridiculed by Shakespeare in Romeo as a weapon of old men, though Masters had to learn it—it was the standard weapon in England for 600 to 700 years; it was a two-handed weapon and could protect the standard bearer), the short sword, rapier, cudgel, dagger, poniard, and bastard sword (which could be used with one or two hands—it would appear in a medieval history play).  "Broad Sword" is a modern term; there's no allusion to one in Elizabethan times.

Other than the rapier and dagger, the single-handed sword was most often used.  It was used from the 1300s as a cut and thrust instrument and very popular.  Cunning and training were necessary for its proficiency because one had to search out the openings (chinks) in the armor.

The Foil is not the epitome of anything but "foil combat"; it is not the refinement of weaponry.  The rapier became refined and more sophisticated, as did other weapons.

The single-handed sword was taught in such a way to learn how to grapple, to use the hilt, etc.  The face, armpits, belly, groin, or back of the knee were the vulnerable points.

A Target was a shield with a leather strap, often used with a thrust instrument such as a sword.

A Buckler was a round shield—12 to 24 inches—with a handle in the center to be used with a rapier or a sword.  The Buckler only had a handle; the Target had a strap and handle.

Patrons loved rapier and dagger.  It cost one as much as 100 pounds a year for private instruction.  People would also meet in private to learn secret moves, paying perhaps an addition 10 pounds for the privilege.

In using the rapier, one tries to stay back while coming in, using quick footwork and feints.  The poetry and skill in the eloquence of the moves was much admired.

At first the short sword and rapier were difficult to tell apart.  In the 16th century many of these medieval weapons were becoming transformed into similar type weapons.  The short sword is a short, flat, two-edged sword that comes to a point, held by one hand and about 31 inches in length.  The rapier was 36 inches to 4 feet in length and gradually became thinner, used for thrusting rather than cutting--but its edges were razor sharp.  A Poniard is a French dagger—an offensive weapon that was longer, sharper, and more narrow than the English dagger), which was used with the French rapier.

How were the fights choreographed?  No descriptions exist.  In very little time, fights would have to be staged in addition to the other stage action.  Perhaps prizefights were interspersed in plays as breaks in the action, or preceded or followed the plays.  Stage fights probably looked like dramatized prize fights.  More than 20 Masters of Fence were teaching in London in Shakespeare's day.  Richard Burbage (lead tragedian in Shakespeare’s company, the Chamberlains’/Kings’ Men) may have invited his Master to come into the theatre to help stage the fights on stage, but no evidence exists to support any of these conjectures.  It may be safer to assume that the actors choreographed the fights they were involved in, using what they had learned from Masters.

On the stage, a logical sequence of violent actions that tell a clear story is necessary.  The image of the fight is everything—it must be poetized so as not to appear humorous.  All fighting looks humorous if it were not for the serious intent.  Each character would fight in a particular fashion: combative skills, character, mood, reason, etc., must enter in.  What are the limitations and the skills of those involved? Of the space?  Maximum effect with the minimum of effort is essential.

Fighters must go for the vulnerable areas of the opponent and the element of surprise is essential.  One must take advantage of space—backing one against a pillar or door, for example, or going for height, such as a table or chair.  No one fought on a straight line, but would work for the weak side of the opponent.

To gain an advantage over an opponent, one would consider time or tempo (each movement has an increment of time), space, and the physique of the opponent.

A stock number of moves were probably drawn upon by Burbage, which were then changed by perspective.  Sound—groaning, etc.—is equally important for creating an illusion.

Mathematical computations based on size and the lengths of one’s body were diagrammed on the floor by the Spanish for their salons.  Five feet was the common length for a rapier.

Short Sword: a cutting weapon; cut and thrust.  Rapier: thrusting, primarily; but cutting as well—thrust and cut.

Three different buttons were used on rapiers for training, including bending over the end of the metal, flattening the end like a button, and large golf-ball size coverings in leather.

Passing and blocking actions would often purposely grab the hand or wrist of the opponent, which would then cause the other to move closer and do the same; thus they would disarm one another and switch weapons.

Defense was most often moving forward in parrying and attacking--not by retreating.  See Paradox of Defence, by George Silver (1599).

Creating a posture was called a "ward": an opening posture prior to the fight.

The foible of the blade is the thinnest section of the blade, the most likely to break.  The forte of the blade is the strongest or thickest section of the blade, the most dependable.

"Punta reverso" is a thrust from the left side (as mentioned in Romeo and Juliet).  A "Fleche" (which means "arrow") is a running attack.

The counter response often ended the match—quickly—because one opponent had already committed himself.  Some prizefights on stage were very long; but our sense of street fights is that they were short.  One avoided first commitment unless he saw something as the two circled one another.

After a thrust, one must use cutting tactics because he's now too close to bring the weapon back—or he grabbed for the wrist or the blade and tried to disarm his opponent.

Measures:    Outer (preparation);

Middle (attack: based on foot/weapon distance);

Inner (able to touch the opponent's hand)

"Foyne" means to fence.

The English style uses more cutting styles than does the French.

"Volta secreto" (secret move): taught by masters. 

Audiences would yell during prizefights; but no spectator was permitted by law to speak or make a noise during a fencing match.

"Demi-volt": a small turn—response—in which the opponent had to keep his balance.

In Hamlet, the combatants would undoubtedly aim between neck and waist, which would be proper etiquette in a match; but as it continues they go for legs, which would indicate the increased intensity of the fight and its nastiness.

Moves of the fencer:

1) Parry one (coming out of the scabbard to block)

2) Parry two (to the outside right)

3) Parry three (above right)

One could strike with the dagger or the pummel; anything counts as a "hit."  In Hamlet, however, the private duel rules are for points and the dagger doesn't count as a "point"—only the rapier (check the character Osric for the rules of the match)

 By 1623, the nobility dropped the dagger and used on a single weapon in a match.

 In staged fighting, the sound should come after the technique, never on for proper effect.

 *For this and additional information, one should consult the following:  See Combat Mime by Joseph Martinez, and The Swords of Shakespeare.

 What many young actors fail to realize with regard to modern play texts is that the



 1.       bracketed stage directions reflect the actions taken by the first actors in       the first successful staged production of the script; thus, those who follow, eager to fulfill the most necessary actions of the script and to do justice to the script, errantly emulate someone else’s decisions at that emotional moment—actions marked down by a stage manager in most cases.  What good directors tell their actors is to make the actions or choices their own, without reliance on another’s decisions.  However, as is usually the case, unknowledgeable readers of the script fail to understand these technicalities, slavishly attempting to follow the actions of another, while misunderstanding the intentions driven by alien emotions, or failing to understanding that the dramatist had not written these directions.  If I may, that’s the problem with modern drama: the written text has imposed a need to understand not only the dramatist’s many directions, but other “signals” as well. 

         When the drama relied upon poetry, with its reliance upon imagery as opposed to
         symbolism, the stage directions and actions became embedded in the text, and all
         good, seasoned players knew how to read and react to them.  Even today, readers of
         Shakespeare fail to understand that bracketed directions come from the text’s editor,
         not Shakespeare, whose own directions remain free of the bracket.


2.     If, as many have observed, Elizabethan protagonists come to understand some “self-knowledge” that comes at the cost of death (admittedly, a contentious idea that proves true in some instances but not others), then Hamlet pays the price for a seemingly simple, if considerably complex thought about life: he learns that not to know all about life and questions of the hereafter and our actions before God provides release, respite, and that such release adheres to a greater plan by God, wherein the restraint of our knowledge puts us within His hand and purposes. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus suggests as much, suggesting that a degree of greater knowledge puts our souls into jeopardy: what we define as “free-will” either indicates a traditional drama of humanity’s choice, or becomes in Marlowe’s hands an incomparable satire on what mankind knows, but can’t express.  In effect, the entire play serves as an ambiguous stage direction.


3.     Consider that the clowns often were “Masters of Fence,” or the finest of swordsmen.   Perhaps their “wit contests,” in which they insulted members of the crowd in order to draw response and to thus to demonstrate their ready skills of verbal abuse, and other crowd-pleasing activities at the expense of the few, made it necessary to have a reputation for swordsmanship and the ability to sustain it.


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