From Fencing School to Theatre

The video below is an in depth documentary on The Globe Theatre.  It is intriguing, and it covers in detail the history of this most famous of theatres, but sadly it only briefly touches on The Sam Wanamaker playhouse, which actually represents a history every bit as interesting and historically relevant.  The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a reproduction of the old Blackfriars Theatre, and was added to the Globe in 2014.  It is mentioned in the documentary. The original Blackfriars Theatre (not the reproduction housed at The Globe) was converted out of the fencing school of one Rocco Bonetti, who married Eleanor Burbage in 1571. When Eleanor died in 1574, her brother Robert Burbage seized her house and goods, and Rocco had to use his influence with the Privy Council to see these returned to him. He leased the building that would become the Blackfriars Theatre in 1584, and was noted for teaching the highest members of society, charging as much as fifty times as much for instruction as the indigenous English Maisters could. His students included such illustrious characters as Lord Peregrin Willoughby and Sir Walter Raleigh. The school hall was decked out in finery, the coats of arms of the students being on display, alongside a clock and a writing desk complete with stationary. He died in 1587 as a result of (yet another) challenge outside his school, where he was felled by a cut to the leg by one Austen Bagger, who then proceeded to stamp on his fallen opponent. Bonetti later succumbed to his injuries.

It may be a coincidence that it was James Burbage, father of Richard Burbage, who purchased Bonetti’s old school in 1596 and used the premises to create the Blackfriars Theatre, but it is likely that this was brought about through Rocco’s family connections to the Burbages through his wife, Eleanor. The Blackfriars Theatre was the most prestigious theatre of its time and was a testament to the grandeur of Bonetti’s school. The Globe, when it was built in 1599 by James Burbage’s son Richard Burbage, along with William Shakespeare, was considered a more traditional throwback by comparison.

Image – Stage of The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

This connection, through the Burbages, to Shakespeare is further reinforced by a line in Romeo and Juliet, where Mercutio describes Tybalt as ‘the very butcher of a silk button’, which refers to a statement made by the very same Master Rocco Bonetti, who famously claimed that he could thrust an Englishman upon any button on his doublet.

A theatre audience of the time would have differed significantly from what you might expect in a modern theatre crowd. Eating, drinking, jeering and cheering from the stands was the norm. In fact it may help to imagine the worst of the fans at a local football match emptying into a theatre after their celebrations in local pubs without checks or searches. Not only was everyone armed, but in English society any man who would call himself such would be expected to go about his business in such a manner.

This public would therefore have been very conscious of the differing applications of violence at the time, and a performance involving a duel on stage that did not live up to lifelike expectations would have suffered as a consequence. This was something of which the writers were, of course, aware, and so both the writing and the performance reflected this. Actors would train under prominent fencing masters to ensure that they had become convincing experts with the sword.

Image – Achille Marozzo’s Opera Nova (1536)

In the play, Romeo’s friend Mercutio persistently derides Italian affectations and fencing in his narration, yet we know that all the noble protagonists are equipped with rapiers. The term ‘rapier’ was used merely to characterize the complex hilted Italian blade, and differentiate it from the English style. It is conceivable, therefore, that Mercutio and the Montagues fought with rapiers but according to the English style, the company of Maisters being known to teach its use as well. For that reason it is possible that the opposing families of Montagues and Capulets may in fact also represent opposing schools of fencing theory.

The worlds of stage and fencing entwine to create a clear view of the dangerous world Londoners inhabited in the Elizabethan era. Following the death of Bonetti his school was taken over by one of his students, recorded only as ‘Jeronimo’, and Jeronimo was joined there in 1590 by Vincente Saviolo. Saviolo was a native of Padua, a former captain who served in Venice and as a Mercenary across Europe, who quickly outshone Jeronimo. It is not known whether these two opened another school following the expiry of Bonetti’s lease on the Playhouse in 1593, but we do have records showing that they were known to be teaching at court during this period. The two continued their cooperation until Jeronimo was slain in a further challenge in 1594. He was chased down on horseback as he was travelling with a lady friend in a coach by an Englishman known only as ‘Cheese’, who had an apparent quarrel with him. In Elizabethan England travelling in a coach was considered effeminate and reserved for women and the elderly, making this a likely romantic assignation. Jeronimo was thrust through the body twice, and died.

Image – Ridolfo Capoferro’s Gran Simulacro (1610)

Insights given to us by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson and their contemporaries are much more fascinating when we understand the world in which they lived. Playwright Ben Jonson killed famed actor Gabriel Spenser in a duel in 1598, just two years after Spenser killed another man (James Feake) with his sword under questionable circumstances and one year after both Jonson and Spenser had been imprisoned for their parts in the seditious play The Isle of Dogs. Ironically, The above mentioned Romeo and Juliet was published a year earlier in 1597, and the play could be viewed as less of a teen drama, and more of a social commentary on the endemic dueling culture in London at the time. Playwright Kit Marlowe was stabbed to death in what was supposedly a brawl over a bill, but evidence has been unearthed pointing to his engagement in espionage under Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham.

 Coming back to 2019, both The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and The Globe Theatre are treasure troves of insight to those who wish to understand Elizabethan Theatre. In the documentary below, it is repeatedly mentioned that ‘this’ is a place where Shakespeare makes sense. “Interaction of the audience…”, “The audience is a character in the play…”, and from this author’s own experience, that is indeed the case.

Image – Stage of The Globe Theatre

Anyone who has ever been bored rigid by one of Shakespeare’s baffling comedies needs to re-experience these at The Globe, where the performance is not only entertaining but actually still funny over 400 years after the plays were first written. Understanding the context of period terminology or symbolism further enhances the immersion, such as the horns on the head of Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, also known as ‘cuckolds horns’ (watch the documentary).

If you are interested in learning more about duelling in the age of Shakespeare, please join us at www.tempus-fugitives.co.uk