Peter Hewitt, Doctoral Researcher in History at the University of Birmingham.
Queen Mab, the faery sovereign, here fills the head of a sleeping soldier with all the things he most desires:
Sometime she driveth o'er a soldier's neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five-fathom deep
Mercutio, Romeo and Juliet 1.4
Among the darker longings for ferocity in battle and the drama of the ambush, he also quite rightly desires proper clothing, plenty of wine and, perhaps most importantly, a good ‘Spanish blade’. Two such blades are in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collections. The first, a spectacular swept-hilt blade, has a cupped or shell-guard – a common feature of many Spanish hilts – and this together with the Moorish decorative scheme, encrusted with silver, suggest that this was almost certainly made in one of the great Spanish workshops that were celebrated all over Europe. The style and construction suggest a date of about 1600, but unfortunately, the makers’ name (struck into both sides of the blade) is illegible.
Less impressive at first glance, but more intriguing, is another rapier stamped with a series of perforated marks, and the makers’ name: ‘PEDRO TESCH’. On the other side is stamped the place of production, ‘SOLUNGEN’; a German town which has been making blades and cutlery since 1374.
From the 1540s to the time of Shakespeare’s death, the rapier was the epitome of sophistication – elaborately decorated, easily slung from the belt, quickly drawn and perfectly designed for rapid long-range thrusting. In the narrow streets of many Renaissance cities, a short rapier (often with a dagger in the other hand) was vastly preferable to the old long-sword and buckler (or small shield).
For Shakespeare, the weapons carried by his characters express something of their status and even age. In Romeo and Juliet, Old Capulet demands his ‘long sword’, suggesting a more medieval two-handed blade, an imposing if unwieldy item; whilst his servants Sampson and Gregory are directed to carry ‘swords and bucklers’.
Tybalt, in contrast, carries a rapier, and he is described by Mercutio as being ‘a gentleman of the very first house of the first and second cause’ – describing both his knowledge of fencing, and the codified ‘causes’ that allow a gentlemen to enter into a duel with his foe. (At least 26 works on swordsmanship and duelling practices where published in Europe between 1530 and 1640, running to hundreds of editions.). The fashion of Spanish swords explains the name stamped on the SBT rapier. Pedro Tesch is in fact Petter Tesche, who worked between 1600-1620. The Spanish stylization of his name was probably an attempt to convince English buyers that this blade was made using the ‘Catalan forge’ process that was synonymous with both strength and agility.
It is generally accepted among historians that the rapier eclipsed the more ungainly methods of fighting – the evidence certainly suggests that for young men the elongated rapier was the weapon of choice. Joseph Swetnam (1617) described it as “the finest & the comeliest weapon that euer was vsed in England, for so much cunning to this weapon belongeth as to no weapon the like.” There were detractors however. The actor William Kemp, Shakespeare’s business partner, recorded a rhyme heard from an inn-keeper in Rockland, Norfolk in 1599. This man, an enthusiastic swordsman – ‘armed at all poyntes, from the cap to the codpeece’ – saw the manners and customs associated with the new ‘cunning’ rapier as supplanting the timeworn noble virtues of strength, age and experience:
'O’ twas a goodly matter then, To see your sword and buckler men;
They would meete them every where: And now a man is but a pricke,
A boy arm’d with a poating sticke, Will dare to challenge Cutting Dicke.
O’ t’is a world the world to see, But twill not mend for thee nor mee.'
W. Kemp, Kemps nine daies wonder: performed in daunce from London to Norwich (St Paul’s: 1600).