Sunday was one of my favorite days of the year: the day when the Folger Shakespeare Library opens up its backrooms to the public and serves up cake and swordfighting in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday.
We brought two boys with us – our friends’ children, age 7 and 10 (perfect ages to appreciate the offerings).
I love sitting in the library, listening to classical quartet (this time, it was two violins, cello, and flute) and then going and looking at some of the paintings. The Folger has a wonderful collection of art about Shakespeare, like paintings of scenes from his plays or portraits of Shakespearean actors, as well as portraits of Shakespeare himself (mostly posthumously painted). Their crowning glory is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth (the ‘Seive’) and one of her one-time favorite, Robert Dudley (which was, sadly, not on display).
The fight director for the Folger gave a couple of presentations on historical fighting techniques, with references to Shakespeare. Of course, the boys were rapt.
A couple of notable things stuck out with me. Firstly, that swashbuckling used to be a sort of insult. A swashbuckler didn’t know how to fight. A ‘swashing’ blow was a reflexive swing which, if it landed on a buckler, made a lot sound and fury, signifying nothing (do you see what I did there?).
Secondly, in Romeo and Juliet, they keep asking Mercutio if he’s hurt, because they cannot tell. Mercutio was stabbed with a continental rapier, which creates a small wound – what would now be called a sucking chest wound. While terrible internal injuries have been suffered, it won’t actually bleed. Romeo literally cannot see a wound, so doesn’t know that Mercutio has been dealt a fatal blow.
Thirdly, he noted a scene in Julius Caesar where Caesar exits the stage to take care of some bureaucratic matter and then the conspirators enter the stage and engage in some silly dialogue about whether some person giving them the eye means that they’ve been uncovered. He said that was not something to build tension – there’s already plenty of tension and, arguably, the scene actually deflates some of the tension. No, it is entirely intended to give the actor playing Caeasar time to attach some Elizabeth special effects – namely a bladder filled with blood – around his chest. And when, having done the deed, the conspirators decide to get their hands bloody and walk the streets to show they are not ashamed or hiding their action, it was actually a stagecrafty way to help mop up the blood on the stage.
Finally, there was a roundabout argument for gun control. Shakespeare lived in the first age when the growing middle class would walk to streets with swords – that they often weren’t trained to use. Fights were more deadly, as a consequence. He argued that Shakespeare was constantly commenting on the culture of weapons and violence. At the end of Romeo and Juliet, an entire younger generation of two families have been killed as a consequence of escalations resulting from a culture of weapons and violence. Literally, it snowballs from anger at Romeo crashing a party held by a rival family and ends with a trail of corpses.