Swords of Shakespeare: “Hurt Him in Eleven Places”

How much did Shakespeare know about contemporary Italian rapier fencing?

William Gaugler follows the clues from his plays into the Italian fencing literature of the 16th and 17th century.

by William M. Gaugler,

Professor Emeritus, Classical Art and Archaeology, San José State University; Maestro di Scherma and Honorary Member, Associazione Italiana Maestri di Scherma and Accademia Nazionale di Scherma, Naples

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.”1

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 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).

Fig. 1: Marozzo's Target Points

It is noteworthy that in the two books on Italian rapier technique available in English in the late sixteenth century, the translation of Giacomo di Grassi’s Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l’arme si da offesa come da difesa (Venetia, 1570), as Giacomo Di Grassi his true Arte of Defence (London, 1594), and Vincentio Saviolo, His Practice (London, 1595), figurative representations, such as those in Marozzo and Fabris are omitted.  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 (Fig. 1), or early in the following century, with a copy of Fabris (Fig. 2).  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.

Fig. 2: Fabris

Precision in the placement of cuts is, in fact, an essential element in scientific swordplay, for it also indicates where parries must be set in opposition to cuts, and where feints should be directed to draw parries so that they can be eluded. Here it is interesting to note that the technical words, montante and fendente, along with botta, stoccata, stramazzone, and imbroccata, are retained in the modern Italian fencing vocabulary.2

That the thrust to the center of the target is implied can be seen in an illustration in Joachim Meyer’s Gründliche Beschreibung der Freyen, Ritterlichen und Adelichen Kunst des Fechtens (Strasburg, 1570) showing the kind of target recommended for school use by Marozzo.3  In Meyer’s illustration (Fig. 3) a swordsman with a blunted practice rapier, under the guidance of a teacher, is depicted delivering a point thrust with a lunge to the center of a wall target,4which consists of a large circle with eight lines radiating from the center and marked with letters of the alphabet, A to H.  The vertical, diagonal, and horizontal lines duplicate the direction of the cuts shown in Marozzo’s and Fabris’ illustrations.  And by adding an additional upper and lower vertical cut the number ten is attained. It’s generally believed that the German fencing master, Meyer, learned rapier play in Italy.

Fig. 3: Joachim Meyer

The Bard’s audience probably included individuals trained by one of the Italian fencing masters residing in London in the late sixteenth century. Any technical errors would have been noticed. The Bard is likely to have chosen his weapons carefully, and, in every case, with a particular type of stage combat in mind. For instance, in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Osric specifies rapier and dagger; and the prince, having agreed to fence, calls for foils (we assume these to have been the practice arms known in Italy as the spada da gioco and pugnale).5  Then, as Hamlet and Laertes choose weapons, Laertes remarks:  “This is too heavy; let me see another.”  And Hamlet observes:  “This likes me well,” and asks:  “These foils have all a length?” Without a doubt, an astute spectator or swordsman, would have known that the weight and length of a weapon could result in an advantage or disadvantage to its user.

Italian fencing terms, it would seem, were fashionable in Elizabethan England.  For instance, in Romeo and Juliet Mercutio, enraged by Romeo’s gentle reply to Tybalt’s belligerent words, shouts:  “O calm, dishonourable, vile submission!  Alla stoccata carries it away.”6  That is to say, that the thrust will resolve matters.  Then, dying from Tybalt’s sword thrust, Mercutio exclaims to Romeo:  “…a braggart, a rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic!”  Here, Shakespeare seems to have in mind the illustrations with geometric figures found in Camillo Agrippa’s Trattato di scientia d’arme, con un dialogo di filosofia (Roma, 1553).  Agrippa states clearly that the profession of fencing is governed by points, lines, times, and measures, which, in a certain way, develop out of mathematical considerations, or geometry.7

Whether or not the playwright, having heard the phrase, “hurt him in eleven places,” decided to employ it in his play merely for the delectation of fencing connoisseurs, as he did classical references for the delight of exceptionally well-educated members of his audience,8 or had a genuine knowledge of fencing theory, is an open question.  There were Italian fencing masters living and teaching in London during the Bard’s time.  The English fencing master, George Silver, a contemporary of Shakespeare, in his A Briefe Note of Three Italian Teachers of Offence identifies the masters by name, saying that “The first was Signior Rocko: the second was Ieronimo, that was Signior Rocko his boy, that taught Gentlemen in the Blacke-Freyers, as Usher for his maister in steed of a man.  The third was Vincentio.  And Vincentio was Vincentio Saviolo, whose book is cited above, and may have been known to the Bard.

The eleventh action with which to hurt was the straight thrust to the center of the target.  This offers a clue to the kind of swordplay the playwright intended for the encounter between Tybalt and Mercutio—actions based on use of the point.  Mercutio is hit by Tybalt, as Romeo attempts to intervene.  Then after Tybalt departs, Romeo says to his wounded friend:  “Courage man; the hurt cannot be much.”   And Mercutio comments:  “No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve….”   And the dying Mercutio then asks Romeo:  “Why the devil came you between us?  I was hurt under your arm.”

Since the action was tightly executed and unseen, it very likely was a thrust, rather than a cut; and the fact that it was fatal indicates deep penetration, as is possible only with the sword point at close quarters.  Indeed, Italian fencing masters stressed the advantage of using the point.  In the English edition of Giacomo di Grassi we read:  “Without all doubt, the thrust is to be preferred before the edge-blowe, aswell because it striketh in lesse time, as also for that in the same time, it doth more hurt.”10   The playwright seems to have been aware of this, and so it can be surmised from the above quoted lines that the swordplay for Romeo and Juliet was choreographed to replicate the small and precise movements of serious rapier fencing.  To perform these the swordsman had to grip his rapier correctly, that is, with the index finger over the crossbar.11

If actors failed to hold their weapons properly, and to simulate the close blade work typical of dueling practice, but instead resorted to wide and purposeless blade movements, beating steel, and cutting and thrusting in the air, they probably would have been openly ridiculed by members of the audience.  In a real encounter a skilled swordsman dispatches his adversary as quickly as possible to avoid the risks taken with prolonged swordplay.  On the stage, of course, the fencing sequences can be deliberately lengthened to add excitement and drama to the performance.  Nonetheless, such protracted combinations of fencing actions must make sense by following the logical order from attack to parry and riposte to counter parry and riposte, etc.12  Twisting and turning, kicking the opponent, jumping up and down, and clowning, as is common in much of today’s theatrical swordplay devised by “fight arrangers,” would probably have been highly offensive to Elizabethan spectators.13

Finally, one must ask who advised Shakespeare on fencing matters, introduced him to Italian fencing theory, and developed fencing sequences for his plays?  Unfortunately, we cannot, at present, identify a specific individual.14  But the fact remains that Sir Toby Belch’s statement in Twelfth Night provides unequivocal evidence that the playwright’s perception of swordplay was influenced by the most up-to-date Italian fencing theory, and that, in this comedy, where the characters might well have been reasonably portrayed as inept fencers, even comical in their parody of a duel, a profound statement concerning fencing theory is introduced:  “hurt him in eleven places.”

Footnotes:

1Act III, Sc. II. 38-40.

2Giorgio Pessina e Ugo Pignotti, La sciabola (Roma, 1972) 36, 52-53, 67.  In contemporary sabre fencing the traditional third exercise for developing dexterity carries the sabre in a circular, clockwise vertical motion toward the imagined opponent’s genitalia, similar to the montante of Marozzo and Fabris.  But this low target area is not valid in contemporary sabre competition, so the modern molinello montante (ascending circular cut) is delivered from the left and right, to the antagonist’s sides, just under the arms.  And the fendente (descending cut) passes in a vertical movement over the opposing point to the top of the adversary’s head.

Precision in placement of the cuts implies further knowledge on the part of skilled swordsmen in the Bard’s audience concerning execution of the cutting actions indicated on Marozzo’s target.  They would think immediately of the point of movement or pivot in the arm used to perform the cut, the section of the blade employed for delivery of the cut, and the sawing or slicing motion of the cut, depending upon whether it was pushed forward or pulled backward.  Fabris (2nd ed. Leipzig, 1713) Libro Primo, Cap. 7, 18-19, says that some fencers effect the cut by using the shoulder, others the elbow, and still others, the wrist.  He recommends the wrist because it least exposes the body, and is the most rapid.  Moreover, cuts are executed with the furthest portion of the cutting edge of the blade, that is, the third or quarter nearest the point.  In this regard see the English translation of di Grassi in James Jackson, Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals (New York, 1972) 21-22.  Di Grassi notes:

I haue said elsewhere, that the sword in strikinge frameth either a Circle, either a part of a Circle, of which the hand is the center.  And it is manifest that a wheel, which moueth circulerly, is more forcible and swift in the circumference then towards the Center.

And Ridolfo Capo Ferro Gran simulacro dell’arte e dell’uso della scherma (Siena, 1610) 40, indicates that the cuts should be performed in saw-like fashion (à segatura).

3Marozzo, Third edition (Venetia, 1568), Libro Primo, Cap. 1, 3.  …del detto segno, il qual sera segnato nel muro, alqual segno gli sera nelli suoi luochi le littere, che dimonstrano tutte botte principale, che si fanno con la spada….  

4The fencing school setting, and details in the student’s placement and figure, are of special interest.  Linear perspective was fascinating to Renaissance artists, as is evident in this illustration, where perspective is employed in the floor pattern.  A footprint marks the beginning in the guard position before the right foot is carried forward, approximately one shoe-length, for the lunge.  And the student’s right hand is turned to Italian second hand position, or pronation, with the palm facing down, and the back of hand facing up.  Now, there is a practical reason for teaching the pupil to thrust with the hand in this position, for when the sword is drawn quickly from its sheath, and the arm fully extended in one motion, with the point of the weapon threatening the adversary, the hand turns naturally from first to second hand position for the thrust.

A discussion of hand positions can be found in Fabris (2nd ed. Leipzig, 1713), Libro Primo, Cap. 4, 6-7, and Ridolfo Capo Ferro (supra n. 2) 32-33.  For modern descriptions of hand positions consult Giorgio Pessina e Ugo Pignotti, Il fioretto (Roma, 1970) 4-6, figs. 5-10; William Gaugler, The Science of Fencing (Bangor, 2004) 6-7, figs. 4-9.

5Act V, Sc. II, 151-152, 182, 277-278.

6Act III, Sc. I, 79-109.

7Parte Prima, Cap. 2, 3.  …punti, linee, tempi, misure…et nascono in certo modo da consideration` mathematica, o sia pursola Geometria.

8That Shakespeare knew Greco-Roman mythology well, and was able to share details with the more learned members of his audience, is evident in plays such as The Tempest.  There, he introduces in Act IV, Sc. 1, 60-133, Iris, who speaks of Ceres, calls her “most bounteous lady,” and mentions her attribute, wheat.  Venus, too, and her son, meaning Cupid, are cited; and, without stating the name of Proserpina or Pluto, the Bard speaks of “dusky Dis my daughter got.”  Then he tells of Venus “Cutting the clouds towards Paphos and her son, Dove-drawn with her,” and “Hymen’s torch be lighted; but in vain:  Mars’s hot minion is return’d again.”  And finally, “Juno and Ceres whisper seriously,” and Iris addresses the “nymphs, call’d Naiades, of the windring brooks.”

The average Englishman, with modest schooling, attending a performance of Shakespeare’s play would probably not have been familiar with references to Ceres’ attributes, or known that her daughter was Proserpina, Queen of the Underworld, and that Venus, accompanied by her son, drove a “Dove-drawn” chariot through the sky to her Cypriot home at Paphos.  In these lines the Bard, of course, alludes to the abduction of Proserpina, and the love affair of Venus and Mars, stories that could be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (5. 385-571; 4. 169-189).

9Regarding the question of a fencing school in Blackfriars consult Linda Carlyle McCollum in Blackfriars’ Journal, “The Fencing School in Blackfriars.”

10Jackson (supra n. 2) 40.  Italian text, 21:  Senza dubio alcuno la punta si deue preporre al taglio; si perche ferisce in minor tempo, come anco per che ferendo in minor tempo fa maggior danno….    

11The manner of gripping a rapier in order to guarantee maximum point control and accuracy in delivering thrusts was of critical importance.  By placing the index finger over the crossbar this could be achieved.  To protect the exposed finger a guard ring was added between the crossbar and the heel of the blade.  The blunt portion of the blade between the ring and crossbar was called the ricasso.  By touching the blade, that is, the ricasso, the swordsman was able feel every vibration caused through contact with the opposing steel.  Marozzo’s illustration for Cap. 94 shows this placement of the index finger over the crossbar and behind the guard ring.  The same is seen in the Italian edition of di Grassi, 41.  For a complete discussion regarding placement of one or two fingers over the crossbar, that is, the index finger or the index and middle finger, refer to Francesco Antonio Marcelli. Regole della scherma (Roma, 1686) Libro Primo, Cap. 12, 39-40, fig. 2.  A translation of this passage into English, as well as the Italian text, can be found in William Gaugler, The History of Fencing:  Foundations of Modern European Swordplay (Bangor, 1998) 48-49, 442-443, n. 10.  By the nineteenth century two fingers were generally placed over the crossbar in Italian weapons.

12The logical sequence of fencing actions, as they actually occur in combat, can be found in synoptic tables.  For point actions refer to Pessina e Pignotti (supra n. 4) 139-177, and Gaugler (supra n. 4) 135-177; and for point and cutting actions see Ferdinando Masiello, La scherma di sciabola (Firenze, 1902) 163-255.

13Such a travesty of swordplay involving use of incorrect weapons, and characterized by buffoonery, occurs in the dueling scene of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film of Hamlet, with Mel Gibson playing Hamlet, and Nathaniel Parker, Laertes.

14However, we do know that the celebrated comic actor, Richard Tarlton, a contemporary of Shakespeare, was sponsored by Henry Nayler, and publicly certified a fencing master on 23 October 1587.  The document states:

Mr tarlton was a lowed a mr the xxiijth

of octobere vnder henrye nayllore mr

1587/ -ordenary grome off her

majvstes chamber

Tarlton was mentioned in 1583 as a player in the original Queen’s company, where he remained until his death in 1588.

See Craig Turner and Tony Soper, Methods and Practice of Elizabethan Swordplay (Cabondale, 1990) 17; Herbert Berry, The Noble Science (Newark, 1991) 5-8, 33, 53-55.

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