To promote this summer’s Ithaca Shakespeare shows, I wrote the following piece trying to share some context on the weapons we use on stage.
One of the innovations of Renaissance drama was the recognition that scenes of physical conflict can convey a character’s virtues, foibles, or identity more vividly than words alone. In ancient Greek drama, by contrast, violent actions typically took place off-stage, literally “ob-scene,” though blood effects to show the aftermath of the violence were commonplace. Later, medieval passion plays similarly featured great violence, but were likely more focused on the pageantry and shock of gore and suffering than exploring the intentions or motivations of characters thrust into violent circumstances. Shakespeare not only showed his audience violence, but did so with great variety: his text alone refers to rapiers, daggers, poignards, longswords, halberds, falchions, and bucklers. Not all of these weapons were inherently used on stage, but like the rest of Shakespeare’s language, his familiarity with a wide range of specific vocabulary allows his choices to reflect the characters’ identities and circumstances of their combat. Rapiers, for example, were civilian, dueling weapons associated with the upper classes, while longswords and polearms would have been military armaments, used by soldiers, nuances that his audience would likely have recognized. The area which housed the Globe Theater also hosted sword master’s tests, which often included a challenge match wherein the applicant would take on any comers, and two of Shakespeare’s actors specifically mentioned swords in their wills. Although most modern audiences are much less familiar with swordplay than Shakespeare’s audiences would have been, we try to apply a similar thought process in our choices of weapons; for Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s fight in Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, we’ve decided to use rapiers in order to better evoke both the combative and playful aspects of their relationships.
The swords that we use in Ithaca Shakespeare Company, while clearly not antiques, are similar to historical swords in that they are made from high-carbon steel (and therefore prone to rusting, but less brittle than stainless steel). Despite this rough similarity in material and shape, our weapons tend to be shorter and heavier than the originals. These design differences have a few advantages for us. Firstly, the shorter blades give our actors more room on the stage and make it easier for a camera to capture the full scene of both combatants. Film takes this tendency even further; on film, the swords used for fight scenes are often substantially shorter than the “same” swords are when held or worn by the character in a scene without another combatant to fit within the camera’s frame. Secondly, our swords are typically heavier than antique weaponry because we need them to last much longer. A Renaissance duelist who fought six duels in his lifetime was considered a master; we’ll do nine performances of each show this summer alone, as well as dozens of rehearsal sessions before each performance. Shaving a fraction of a second off the speed of a strike might be worth the increased risk of a sword breaking if one’s life were on the line, but slightly slowing the pace of the fight makes it easier for the audience to follow the action. The challenge for our actors, however, is that they have to learn to wield these heavier weapons without getting too winded to deliver their lines. Additionally, though our swords have somewhat duller edges than their historical counterparts, the added mass does add to the danger if a performer were to be struck. Our actors have been training consistently since May to not only learn the choreography, but also build the conditioning and efficiency that they need to perform these fights safely and effectively every time.