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From the History Books

Was William Shakespeare Really a Gun Writer?

by Garry James   |  October 26th, 2011 11

William ShakespeareTo today’s average theatergoer, it should come as no surprise that firearms and the entertainment business are virtually joined at the hip. When you think back on it, it almost seems that motion pictures might never have made it past the Kinetoscope stage if it were not for the frequent depiction of promiscuous gunplay.

But movies were only following a long tradition of the plot/prop use of firearms going back virtually to the invention of guns themselves, and no early playwright took greater advantage of them than William Shakespeare.

Now he was by no means the first to mention guns in his works. Geoffrey Chaucer, in the poem “House of Fame” (1380,) wrote about early small arms, and even described the “infernal” sulfurous smell of black powder:

As swift as pellet out of gone

Whan fyre is in the poudre ronne

And swiche a smoke gan out-wende….

And hit stank as the pit of helle….

Tradition has it artillery was first seen at the Battle of Crecy in 1346, and only some 30 years later Chaucer felt comfortable that his audience was familiar enough with firearms to include a mention in them in his verse. One must remember, in the 14th century, information didn’t travel all that fast when it did at all, and most individuals’ experience was limited to areas not too far outside the environs of their local villages.

Many authors before and during the 17th century knew about guns and employed them as props – Christopher Marlowe in “The Tragicall Life and Death of Dr. Faustus” (1604), for instance. But Shakespeare, with his prodigious output, really took advantage of them – cannons and other artillery are cited in a number of plays such as “Macbeth,”  “Hamlet,” “The Tempest,”  “The Life and Death of King John” and “As You Like It.”

Now, historical authenticity was not necessarily all that important, or even properly understood on the Elizabethan stage. For instance, in “King John,” cannons are described as being used close to two centuries before they ever appeared on the battlefield. In “Henry IV, Part 1,” Sir John Falstaff is noted as having a pistol (actually it turns out to be a bottle of sack – sherry – in his gun case) at the Battle of Shrewsbury, which took place well before the first pistol was ever invented.

In “Henry IV” and “Henry V,” there is a character, Pistol, who in the latter play while displaying his ire describes the working of an early flint-and-steel handgun – “Pistol’s cock is up and flashing fire will follow.” – again, well before such things had been devised. I remember having an instructor in my Shakespeare class in college try and ascribe a bawdy connotation to that brief passage. When I tried to explain to her that Shakespeare was actually describing a flintlock pistol – I say flintlock, because a wheelock’s cock , or “dog,” has to be in the down position to fire the piece – I was chastised, ridiculed and told I didn’t know what I was talking about.

Academia hasn’t changed much in 45 years. Now, I will own that Shakespeare might have meant it as a double entendre, but if you check the bellicose manner in which the line was supposed to be delivered, I rather doubt it.

Appropriately enough, Shakespeare’s greatest warlike play, “Henry V,” probably has the greatest firearms references, most famously when Chorus describes siege guns:

And the nimble gunner

With linstock now the devilish cannon touches

And down goes all before them.

Here, we have proper historical context as artillery was used during Henry’s 1415 campaign in France, both at the Siege of Harfleur and the Battle of Agincourt. The Bard got it right. In fact, there is a stage direction telling the special effects guys to shoot off chambers – small pot-shaped mortars – as Chorus finishes his speech.

These chambers were responsible for one of the more famous firearms episodes in Shakespearean history. During a performance of “Henry VIII” on June 29, 1613, stagehands, following the instruction in Act 1, Scene IV, “Drum and trumpet, chambers discharged,” set off their pyrotechnics, which were located in the “heavens” of the Globe Theatre. They caught the thatch roof on fire and started a conflagration that in less than two hours burned the entire playhouse down – fortunately with no loss of life.

As far as I know, as a result of the accident, there was no hue and cry for more gun regulations – they just built another theatre and blithely continued on as they had been before. Will knew a good thing when he had it.

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