Theatre and Film, Johnny Carson School of


Date of this Version



Published in INSIDE SHAKESPEARE: ESSAYS ON THE BLACKFRIARS STAGE, edited by Paul Menzer (Susquehanna University Press, 2006), pp. 132-146. Copyright (c) 2006 Susquehanna University Press.


Attempting to determine the nature of staged combat during the Elizabethan and Stuart periods is a difficult venture, for very few descriptions of stage fighting exist. Most plays from these periods, even when a moment of combat is central to the plot, simply describe swordplay as "They fight." Yet dueling was common to the theatrical venues of the day, not just in period drama, but also in contests between skilled professional fencers and instructors called Masters of Fence or Masters of Defence. Known as "playing a prize," or "prize fighting," competitions between these masters attracted substantial crowds. Beginning as amateur, yet public tests of ability, prize fighting eventually took on the full trappings of professional entertainment. Theatrical events in their own right, the popularity of these prizes appears to have exerted a considerable influence on the theater of the day. Examination of the prizes, the publications of the masters, and the play texts of the Elizabethan and Stuart periods reveals a strong connection between the combat seen in plays, and that of the prizes of the Masters of Fence.

To illuminate the association between the theater and fencing, it is necessary not just to look at the texts of the plays but also to look at the history of prize playing, as well as the theatrical event of the prize fight itself. Earlier scholarship has either discussed the prizes as part of fencing history, or only looked at specific fencing scenes in period plays. Placing the drama in context with prize fighting allows a fuller comprehension of the relationship between the two. Audiences that frequented the theater were also those that attended prize fights, and would have been familiar with skill at arms. It is likely, then, that prize competitions served as a model for the theatrical combat of the period. Therefore, the simple phrase, "They fight," almost certainly describes staged combat that appears realistic, dangerous, and deadly. Specific instructions are given solely when the combat takes on special characteristics, sometimes for comic effect. Authors expected a skilled level of swordplay without needing to specify how the combat should be played, often employing descriptive dialogue that necessitated specific and complex fencing techniques. Writers used stage fighting to reveal aspects of plot and character temperament, and assumed both the actors' ability and the audience's knowledge of swordplay for its effect. Not only did stage combat reflect the struggles seen in the fencing masters' playing of prizes, authors relied on the audience's familiarity with fighting technique to reveal social commentary and hidden character.