Curator: Jeffrey Forgeng (Higgins Amory Museum), with Bettina Smith (Folger Shakespeare Library)
Arms and armor feature prominently in Shakespeare’s plays, as emblems of identity, as objects of display, and as implements of conflict. The clash of swords, the clank of armor, the roar of cannon reverberate through the texts, heightening the urgency, tension, and drama during critical scenes. The role of armor was undergoing a complex transition in Shakespeare’s day. The production of plate armor was at its peak, yet soldiers were shedding their armor on campaign. Firearms were increasingly dominant on the battlefield, and it was becoming impossible to wear armor heavy enough to stop a musketball. Those in power scrambled to ensure production of the new gunpowder weapons, while lamenting the resulting decline of traditional chivalric values. Armies once led by armored knights now looked more like modern military bureaucracies. In civilian life, private duels and armed insurrections were seen as serious threats to social stability. Yet in reality, state power and popular opinion were together undermining the private use of violence that had once been accepted as a birthright of the medieval warrior aristocracy.
Including books from the Folger collection, this exhibition features a large selection of some of the most important arms and armor from the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts. Together they capture an era in which the nature of warfare was rapidly changing yet the chivalric ideal still retained a powerful hold on the Renaissance imagination.