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VocalEyes - New Place

Swept-Hilt Rapier, 1600-1620.



 ‘to Mr Thomas Combe [KOOM] my sword’

Combe was a member of a wealthy family in Stratford-upon-Avon and a close friend of Shakespeare’s. Having inherited his father’s coat of arms, Shakespeare was entitled to carry a sword in public as a symbol of his status.

This spectacular sword is known as a swept-hilt rapier, the handle, or ‘grip’ being protected by a sweeping metal guard. A fine band of steel curves down around the user's hand to one side of the handle from the oval shaped pommel at the top. Two thirds of the way down it splits into two scrolling forms which join a shallow cup-shape - called a "basket guard" - just above the blade. Sticking out from either side of this cup are pieces called ‘quillions’, or cross guards. In this example, they, too, curve gracefully. The decoration of the hilt is elaborate, with each piece encrusted with silver, in a delicate abstract pattern suggestive of foliage. So as well as being designed for protection, hilts were designed to impress.

This was almost certainly made in one of the great Spanish workshops that were celebrated all over Europe. The style and construction suggest a date of about 1600, but unfortunately, the makers’ name which is struck into the slim, two sided blade is illegible.

From the 1540s to the time of Shakespeare’s death, the rapier was the epitome of sophistication - elaborately decorated, easily slung from the belt, quickly drawn and perfectly designed for thrusting, parrying or stabbing.

For Shakespeare, the weapons carried by his characters express something of their status and even age. In Romeo and Juliet, Old Capulet demands his ‘long sword’, suggesting a more medieval two-handed blade, an imposing if unwieldy item; whilst his servants Sampson and Gregory are directed to carry ‘swords and bucklers’.

Tybalt, in contrast, carries a rapier.

The fighting style of the rapier led to the art of fencing, where the opponent's thrust could be avoided just as much by the movement of the feet and the body as by the parries of the sword. Sometimes a rapier was used in combination with a dagger, especially when the individuals were in close contact. Occasionally a cloak would take the place of the dagger. Rolled around the left arm twice, thrusts were pushed aside by the cloak. It could also be used to envelope the opponent or entangle the opponent’s sword. The period of the rapier was the most quarrelsome, with men fighting each other for trivial reasons, or for no reason at all but the fun of it.