Elizabethan Street Fighting

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 24

From the duels in Romeo and Juliet to a brutal mob in Julius Caesar, street fighting transforms several of Shakespeare's plays. How much, though, does it reflect (or differ from) the mean streets of his day?
Rebecca Sheir talks violence in Elizabethan times with Vanessa McMahon, author of Murder in Shakespeare's England (2004), and Casey Kaleba, an expert in Elizabethan street crime and one of the Washington, DC, area's most sought-after fight coaches for stage plays.
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published May 6, 2015. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "Murders Have Been Performed Too Terrible for the Ear," was produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. With help from Folger Magazine editor Karen Lyon, Juliet Bury at Richmond, the American International University in London, Laura Green at The Sound Company, and Jonathan Charry at public radio station WAMU.



MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. This podcast is called "Murders Have Been Performed Too Terrible for the Ear."

In the work of any writer, we can find reflections of the time and place where he or she was writing, and that’s not just when Leo Tolstoy is writing about Napoleon or Lorraine Hansberry’s characters talk to us about discrimination. It’s also true for science fiction writers who set their work in the distant future, and for writers of historical fiction like Shakespeare.

Regardless of whether it’s Cymbeline in ancient Britain or Romeo and Juliet in contemporary Verona, every student is taught that the rivalries, politics, and social mores of the period offer a window into the world of Elizabethan England. In this podcast, we’re going to take a look at one of those practices, one that shows up a lot in Shakespeare. This is a discussion about fighting: people attacking each other with knives, rocks, sticks, and tools in the tavern, in the workplace, and, especially, in the street.

We have an unusual pair of guests to talk about this unusual subject, two people who come at it from totally different directions. Vanessa McMahon is author of a 2006 book titled Murder in Shakespeare’s England. She scoured Elizabethan court records and trial transcripts to find out exactly how people in Shakespeare’s time felt and what they did about infanticide, manslaughter, and, for our purposes today, murder. Our other guest is Casey Kaleba. Casey also specialized in the subject of Elizabethan street crime, while studying for his master’s degree and as a doctoral candidate, but has applied that scholarly perspective in a fascinatingly different way. For the past 23 years, Casey has been one of the Washington, DC, area’s most sought-after fight coaches, arranging violence for more than 300 professional and academic productions. Casey and Vanessa are interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.


REBECCA SHEIR: So, Casey, let’s start with you and let’s start with a little context here. Can you give us a list of all the times we find street fighting in Shakespeare, whether it’s just discussed by characters or it’s actually happening?

CASEY KALEBA: Sure. Shakespeare gives us a huge range of violence in his plays and street fighting is absolutely touched on. So, the big one is, of course, Romeo and Juliet, which opens with a street brawl, and, then we get this sort of duel in the middle of the play. Mercutio and Benvolio argue about who started a fight, in which bar, where. In As You Like It, Touchstone talks about fights in taverns. And in Julius Caesar, we actually get this sort of roving mob that goes after Cinna the poet. So, we see street violence occurring in this sort of small section of his plays, but it plays an integral part in each of them.

SHEIR: And I know you have an explanation for why Shakespeare wrote so much about street fighting, Casey. But before we get to that, Vanessa, didn’t you say in your book that in real life, fights actually made up the majority of violent deaths in this period?

VANESSA MCMAHON: Yes, about 90 percent of homicides had a male defendant and of those 90 percent, 80 percent had male victims. So, really, you’re talking about men fighting other men. Men are expected to be violent. Men are expected to defend the hearth and home. They’re supposed to fight in wars. They’re supposed to join in the hue and cry if there’s a robbery, and get physically involved in arresting a felon, because there isn’t a police force, of course. So the fact that they are then violent when they’re in an alehouse or in an alleyway or somewhere like a workplace isn’t actually that unexpected. Although it isn’t approved of, and it isn’t okay to do that, people nevertheless tend to mitigate male violence by saying, “Well, you know, that’s kind of what men do.”

SHEIR: Now, Casey, you’ve said one of the reasons Shakespeare was writing so much about this topic was the rules had recently changed, and I want you to think about that because we’ll get back to you. But first, Vanessa, you’ve also said that the rules had recently changed when Shakespeare was writing. Can you talk about that?

MCMAHON: Yes, yes. In terms of the law, from the end of the 14th century onwards, you get a series of judicial decisions, which happened over an extended period of time. But certainly, by the time Shakespeare was writing, you get a new de facto law of manslaughter. All homicide is murder, but there are ways of mitigating that into something else. But that really only applies to men. Women don’t get access to these kinds of things.

So, for example, men are supposed to act with hot violence and sudden anger. They’re reacting to intense provocation in a way that women are never expected to react. And really the only acceptable response as a woman to that kind of aggression is to flee, whereas men actually aren’t supposed to just run away. They are supposed to be strong defenders of their family and their honor and their name and, although they aren’t encouraged to fight, and certainly they aren’t encouraged to be violent or to kill, nevertheless people do somewhat expect them to react in that way.

SHEIR: Well, that brings us to the other rule that had changed. The one you were talking about, Casey. It involves a sharp rise in the number of men in England who were claiming the right to be considered gentlemen. Can you talk about that?

KALEBA: Yes. So Vanessa’s brought up a lot of really interesting points. One is the sort of shift in the judicial code. One is the expectation of male violence. And another is this sort of shifting ground for men in Shakespeare’s day. Up until, really, this time period, if you had a sword, by and large you were an aristocrat, and the weapon was a tool for war. The aristocracy that was going off to war, the knights, the actual ‘sirs’ of the social class, know when you’re allowed to use a sword. You’ve been granted permission; you’re in a violent war. That’s when you’re allowed to use it, but other than that, the use of arms is a crime, unless you can justify your actions in some way.

And the middle class is growing, it’s rising, and they want all of the things that the aristocrats used to have. They want to have houses that have titles attached to them. They want to own property. They want to have servants. And they want to have this sort of last great symbol of the aristocracy, the right to bear arms. So, they’re traveling in populated areas with weapons that, as a class, they haven’t really used before. So, what you see is this huge rise of rulebooks. You see this guide to when you can draw your sword, when you’re not allowed to, when is it honorable to kill someone, when should you excuse this?

And you see this reflected in the plays over and over again. Touchstone talks about the lies circumstantial and the retort churlish, these steps you go to, in order to start an actual fight. And you see in Romeo and Juliet this sort of constant conversation. “Is the law of our side if I say 'Ay'?” in the opening scene. So there is this large question about when are you allowed to use force and when are you not? And when is it morally right? When is it socially protected? When is it illegal? And these lines are overlapping and not very clearly defined.

SHEIR: Casey, you’re talking about the sword. How does that differ from the rapier?

KALEBA: So, they’re both what we would identify as swords, if we walk into a museum and said, “There is a full case of swords over there." The rapier is smaller, thinner. It is better steel. It is a little bit faster than what we sort of think of as an English sword. They’re both excellent, but they were designed to solve different problems. If you’re going out with a thousand of your closest friends to go into a melee or a battle, then a pretty heavy hacking weapon is really useful, but the rapier is a much more precise weapon. We’re now talking about the thrust as a legitimate attack, as opposed to simply cutting or cleaving. Your targeting is getting much more precise and you’re getting wounds that are now inside the body, instead of outside the body. And the rapier is used on the battlefield, but primarily it is an urban weapon. It is what is going to transform into what we think of as modern fencing.

SHEIR: Vanessa, I know you’ve read a lot of witness testimony from criminal trials. Do we in fact see a lot of fights with rapiers at the time, fights that end up in manslaughter?

MCMAHON: No, we don’t, actually, and one of the reasons for that is partly because, if you’ve got a bit of influence and a bit of money, often, you may not come to court. But secondly, people are very aware of the story you need to tell in the courtroom, if you want to get off. Everybody wants the bravado and the kudos that comes from having been involved in a fight, or certainly, some men do. But they certainly don’t want to pay for that with their lives.

So you need to tell a story in which you didn’t come to the fight with your weapon ready. You didn’t come intending to kill someone, because that’s murder. There’s no mitigation for that. So, people tell stories where they use knives, but they use knives that they had on their person. So they use small knives that they had on their person for eating apples. There are such a wide plethora of weapons within the actual records that Shakespeare should have had fun, really. Because I’ve had people killed with frozen legs of lamb, and with carpenter’s rulers, and sacks and sticks and large rocks. They were out in the fields playing and they hit someone with a large rock. And you even get some gunfire, as well. People are looking at guns. They’re so excited. They’re new. They’re new technology, like us all now, gathering around to look at the new technology. Oops, it’s gone off! They’re dead.

Or, they talk about, in their anger, they picked up a sword, but the sword was sheathed, and they had no intention of hitting them with the unsheathed sword. They were going to just use it like a club, but someone grabbed the sheath of the sword to try and stop them, and the sword was accidentally taken out of its scabbard, and then off they went and killed somebody. Or they may just say that they were holding the sword in their defense, because they were so frightened, and they held it in front of them in their defense. And then often, and you get this story really quite repeated within the records, the poor victim runs onto the sword of their own volition. So they bear no responsibility for what happened. They were just holding the sword and the other person ran onto it.

SHEIR: With the leg of lamb, can you give that defense in court, that the person ran into your leg of lamb and, therefore, they got killed?


KALEBA: I tried everything I could. I’m sorry, your Honor. [LAUGH]

MCMAHON: That would have been great! If only they had said that, that would have been fantastic! [LAUGH] I would have loved that. No, it was someone stealing someone else’s leg of lamb and running off with it. So he went and grabbed it back from them and swung it around his head and smacked him with it, as any other blunt object. But, of course, what he’s saying is, “I didn’t mean to kill him. This was hot anger.”

SHEIR: Passion.

MCMAHON: So people are telling very clever stories that the jury would understand, and although, legally, they wouldn’t necessarily be able to get away with that crime, the jury listening to it, juries are all men, they’re listening to it and they may feel some sympathy, and they may be inclined just to acquit. And, of course, if they acquit, there’s nothing the judge can do anyway.

KALEBA: If I could jump in on that, there’s two points that I think are really important here. One is that, as late as the 1570s, trial by combat was still part of the British judicial system, but, at the same time, dueling was illegal. So there’s this paradox built in that, if you are under the guise of the law, killing someone can be justified, but if it happens to start in anger, or somebody gets too drunk or it’s out in the street, then you can be penalized for the exact same activity. So for men there really is this paradox that they’re trapped in. And a lot of them are, and I’m not trying to at all make them victims, but they’re jumping the gun in some cases, and just saying, “Well, I was going to kill them anyway. I’m just saving time by not going to the law first.”

And I think what Vanessa brings up is a really valuable point, which is that there are actually conflicting value systems here. It’s really valuable to look at honor as sort of a commodity. That it’s something that can be given to you, but it’s given to you by a social organization of your peers. It’s other men who are saying that you are an honorable man or that you have done a dishonorable thing. You can’t go off in the darkness alone and do something honorable and expect to get five points of honor for it. If no one sees it, it never happened, or the legend has to precede you.

And, what we see historically, is that judicial systems, courts and police systems, take that system of authority and enforcement away from individuals and give it to the state. And what we’re looking at in Shakespeare’s day is the, sort of the moment where that’s pivoting for England: Where the individual enforcement of law and righteousness and morality is still with the individual, but you see the beginning of a judicial system that is going to take over the authority of enforcement of moral values. So you see people getting into street fights to protect their honor for things that today or 200 years later you would have gone to the courts or the police for. But, as Vanessa said, there is no police force yet. We get a couple of constables in Henry IV and Much Ado About Nothing, but we do not have anything close to a police force that we would recognize today.

MCMAHON: And constables are not as we would recognize them, either. It’s a voluntary post. You’re obligated to do it, but you don’t get paid for it, and you just turn up. And in terms of honor, you’re absolutely right. People don’t get points for honor, and also their actions are often interpreted in very different ways by lots of different members of society. So the courtroom is a bit of a bun fight, really. People are fighting over different conceptions of honor and what may seem perfectly permissible to your comrades in an alleyway in the middle of the night, when you’re all slightly the worse for wear for drink, does not seem the same in a rather more sober courtroom in front of all of your neighbors, men and women combined, in the daylight. All of these things would change, so the meanings of different events would change in the space that they happened in, but also at the time of day that they happened in, and in the company that people are with.

KALEBA: And you actually get a brilliant example of what you’ve just described in Romeo and Juliet. So in Act III, Scene I, you get the confrontation between Mercutio and Tybalt and Romeo, and they don’t understand why the fight isn’t starting. Tybalt thinks he’s challenged Romeo. Mercutio knows about the challenge, but Romeo doesn’t. Romeo backs down from the challenge, which is exactly what you described earlier. He really shouldn’t back away from this and still be manly. Mercutio steps in, they have a fight, and, at the end, everybody who knows why the fight began has either run off or is dead, and you have the character Benvolio, who’s left alone as the only witness. The whole town comes in and he’s asked to explain what happens and you essentially have this courtroom taking place on stage. And, as Benvolio tries to describe a fight that we, the audience, have just seen, you get the Capulets and Montagues interpreting the motivations and the reasons for what has just happened and the outcome in completely different ways, and Shakespeare’s staging the ambiguity and confusion of violence and these codes of honor, and he’s playing out exactly how bad this situation can get, if we just rely on these very ambiguous subjects.

MCMAHON: In Romeo’s defense, if I could for a moment, [LAUGH] the fact that he resists the urge to fight is actually a really classic response within law. People are supposed to say, “But I didn’t want to, and I tried everything,” because what they’re trying to stress is their own innocence. If push comes to shove, they will stand up, as Romeo did. They will stand up and they will do it. But they’d rather not, because they are aware that they exist within a broader society, in which people actually don’t want to live in a world where everybody kills somebody else for the smallest slight at their honor. They live in a broader society that actually does want to be orderly, but they’re caught up in a set of circumstance where they’re not permitted to do that.

SHEIR: We keep talking about Romeo and Juliet, which brings me to a point I want to bring up about violence in the abstract versus violence in reality. So with Romeo and Juliet, for example, Casey, we tend to think of it as a play about love, but I know you’ve said you actually see it as a play about violence.

KALEBA: Yeah, I find very much that the love story is a subplot, and perhaps that’s because, as a fight director, I interact with the play whenever somebody picks up a sword and stops talking very beautifully. But it’s difficult not to see this shadow of violence hanging over the play, and I think Shakespeare actually gives us a whole cross-section of early modern violence.

You have, on the one hand, domestic violence with Lord Capulet and his daughter, that’s certainly either suggested or explicit. You find servants who are traveling to the market armed, expecting violence. You find this sort of middle-class teenager group of Mercutio and Benvolio and Romeo and Tybalt, who are traveling armed and talk about seeking out violence, and you find them sort of negotiating the problem of what it is to be masculine. And I think Shakespeare plays out all of these forms of violence to their logical conclusion. And if it starts somewhat comical, with a fight in which, in the play, nobody is actually injured, he plays out all of the violence to its very tragic conclusion. What you have in the play is an entire generation killed, and the last scene is their parents mourning all of the dead children, and I don’t think that’s an accident, and I think he’s using the violence to tell us a story.

SHEIR: Casey, what’s your sense then? Were people sick of men murdering each other in the streets? I mean at what point, at what point did people just start thinking, you know this is getting out of hand? Enough.

KALEBA: That’s going to take a very long time. Dueling, formal dueling, is not going to be outlawed until well into the 19th century. So this idea that men are allowed to defend their honor, and that men are allowed to define when their honor has been violated, is going to continue for a very long time, and I’m not entirely sure that we are free of it today.

One of the things I think that Shakespeare does really, really well in his plays is take that at face value and say, “All right, so this is a thing that men do.” And Shakespeare takes that at face value, and says, “All right, well, let’s just see where this goes. Let’s say 'yes' to everything. And if we say 'yes' to all of these codes of honor, if we say 'yes' to the skill of arms, if we say 'yes' to traveling in the streets with weapons and challenging anyone because their beard is too long or too short, let’s just see what happens to the individual, to the generation, to the greater population. Let’s say 'yes' and see what happens if we let this sort of mad, homicidal system carry on.”

And I think you see that in play after play after play, that Shakespeare’s actually largely critical of this system, that he has clowns making fun of these codes of honor. So Shakespeare takes this at face value, and says, “All right, this is crazy, right? This is… It’s not just me, right? This is crazy. Let me write a play and let’s all look at this and talk about it and at the end of this, can’t we say that this is crazy? There has to be another way to solve our problems.”

SHEIR: Vanessa, at what point did people start saying, “This is crazy. We’ve got to find another way to solve our problems?”

MCMAHON: Again, I don’t think they really have. I don’t think we have now, to be perfectly honest. I still think now it’s much easier to present a manslaughter defense in court, if you’re a young man who is angry and confused. They tried their best with all kinds of different penal systems, and really you were balancing your life on the line, because you went into court charged with murder, for which the penalty was to be hanged, and you could hope that the jury would mitigate your crime. You could hope that the judge would agree to some other kind of penalty. But actually your reality was very dicey that this may not happen, and that was your life on the line. And you may want to present a great story, in which you were the wronged party and you were really innocent, but you were taking a huge risk. So I suppose society was trying even then to mitigate what they saw was a very disruptive and disorderly crime.

But in a society where you expect young men to go to war, and when you later on expect them to act as policemen, and as defenders of the home, and of people who keep their servants and their wives and their children in order, which they’re expected to do physically, by physical violence, most people find it very difficult to draw a line and say, “Okay, they’re expected to be this violent, but anything over the line, they can’t be.” So you’ve got this fuzzy area, and that’s the point of the court, that they’re trying to work out where on earth we are on this line. So what should we do with them?

SHEIR: So, Casey, you are, of course, a fight choreographer and I guess, as we’re recording this, you’ve been working on your 38th production of Romeo and Juliet…


SHEIR: …something-something like that? Amazing. As a fight choreographer, can you talk about what you concentrate on, in terms of getting it right when you choreograph a fight? For instance, does it help you to know all these different factors that went into fighting during Shakespeare’s time?

KALEBA: "Getting it right" is sort of a nebulous term, because we have to sort of decide what "right" actually means. One of the struggles you have when you are trying to stage Shakespeare today is that he writes into his plays all of these cues and clues that an Elizabethan audience would have read in a very different way than we do today. So in the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, the servants come out with swords and bucklers. And, to an Elizabethan audience, that would have identified them by class, it would have identified them, in some ways, in where they were traveling in London, because on Sundays, there was a large field out at Smithfield, where men would get together and simply fight all day. They would have their swords and their bucklers and their sticks and their pikes and axes and they would sort of have a recreational battle, and so one of the arguments that’s been put forward is that’s actually where Sampson, Gregory, and Abram are headed at the opening of the play, is they actually are on the way to a fight, and a fight breaks out.

But to a modern audience, that doesn’t read in any way. When we see a buckler come onstage, it’s a prop to us. If we saw a machine gun come onstage, we would understand that weapon in a totally different way than a handgun. So one of the things I’m trying to do, as a fight director, is actually create the world of the violence. What are the rules? And when are they violating those rules? So knowing the history is very useful. It’s often useful to talk to an actor to say, “Well, this is why this character said the line in the original text. Here is this actual code of behavior that we can trace the exact line to.” But often we’re having to recreate the code of violence to be something that a modern audience would even be shocked by or would read in the same way. There are a lot of altercations in Shakespeare that today I don’t think we would look at the same way. We might be more shocked by it. We might be less shocked by it.

SHEIR: I think many of us would say that, compared with Elizabethan England, today we live in a more civilized time. But perhaps it’s not as cut and dried as that?

KALEBA: [LAUGH] No, I’m not sure that it is. I’m sitting here listening to Vanessa and just nodding along with everything she says.


KALEBA: This gray area in between the state authorizes the use of violence, and, on the other hand, sort of individual personal protection, you’re being threatened clearly. The gray area between those two, it changes in size as we go through time. But I think she’s absolutely right, this point at which you are allowed to use force, this sort of inherent problem that, as humans, we struggle with. We have the ability to do lethal harm, but we also have the mind that prevents us from doing that, or we can see a better solution. That’s where the confusion is, and that’s, I think, where Shakespeare roots a lot of his characters and puts a lot of his plays, is in this confusion.

I know we’re here talking about street fighting, but a play like Macbeth is all about a character who doesn’t understand when he’s allowed to use force, and who cannot see a way out of any situation, except through violence, and you see these characters all through the play, these male characters who have the ability to do harm. They have the social status to do harm. These are a lot of upper-class characters and middle-class characters who are often inflicting harm and damage on people lower in the social strata than them, and they’re struggling with when they are allowed to do this, and what the consequences are for them and for everyone around them.

SHEIR: So, Vanessa, what do you think in terms of so-called civilized behavior, looking at today versus Elizabethan times?

MCMAHON: I agree. I don’t think there is as much difference as we would like to think there is. In terms of Elizabethan disorder, all of life was kind of disorderly. There were lots of rules. The legal system gave you all these rules of how you’re supposed to behave in certain circumstances, but the reality is that every circumstance is so very different, and I think that’s what Shakespeare does for us really, really well. He shows us the specificity of each individual circumstance, how you can get hemmed into corners. And, actually, it’s really difficult to act in different ways, and you might want to act in different ways and you might try, but life’s kind of like that. It creeps up on you and shocks you and sends you in ways you hadn’t expected to go. So life could be entirely disorderly in the middle of the night, and then back to the ordinary, orderly life during the day, and it seems as if nothing has really happened.

And I think we can still see that on our streets now, if you go out on Friday or Saturday night after dark. It’s a very different set of spaces than if you’re going out in the middle of the day, when, you know, ordinary law-abiding people and small children, etcetera, are around and about. Things are very different, depending when you’re there, but it would change all the time and I think people just live in this swelling ocean of constantly changing circumstance, and they’re trying to navigate it. And most of them are trying their best, actually, to follow the law and to not break the law, because, as I said, people don’t particularly want to die, they don’t want to be branded, they don’t want to be transported, they don’t want to have any of these awful things happen to them. But, life is kind of like that, I guess.

KALEBA: You know it’s interesting that you mentioned sort of darkness and day. One of the things we talked about at the Folger when we did our production of Othello here is that every single act of violence in the play takes place in darkness, and that can’t be an accident, and they’re almost all rooted in confusion or the wrong person is attacked in almost every case. And during the day in the play, everything is very tranquil and all of these characters get along with a sort of forced civility. But the moment night falls in that play, Shakespeare writes a very violent world.

MCMAHON: It’s the hidden and the disguised. I think that’s what nighttime gives us. It also gives us almost, not entirely, but almost exclusively, male spaces because women tend not to be out in the middle of the night. There are women around, but they tend not to be very respectable women, or they tend to be hurrying women, who are hurrying away, back into the private and the hidden inner sanctums.

So the nighttime is a very dangerous space. It’s about drink, it’s about narrow alleyways, and it is laced with more menace, and I think an insult delivered in the dark is a much more potent thing than an insult delivered in a marketplace in the light. And, actually, oddly, women tend to be insulted during the day on their doorstep, because they want it to be heard. Men tend to be insulted in different spaces. And women are insulted in those spaces because they’re female spaces, and men are insulted in the dark and in alehouses or in entirely male workspaces because they’re male spaces. And people are reacting to their own definitions of masculinity and femininity, which are not in opposition to each other, but are actually being defined in and of themselves.

SHEIR: Vanessa, Casey, thank you so much for talking with me today.

KALEBA: Oh, thank you. It’s been a great pleasure.

MCMAHON: Thank you. Absolutely.


WITMORE: Vanessa McMahon is the author of Murder in Shakespeare’s England, which was published in 2006. Casey Kaleba is one of the Washington, DC, area’s most sought-after fight coaches. They were interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

"Murders Have Been Performed Too Terrible for the Ear" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Folger Magazine editor Karen Lyon, Juliet Bury at Richmond, the American International University in London, Laura Green at the Sound Company, and Jonathan Charry at public radio station WAMU.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.