Fight Choreography

Rehearsal Tools of the ASC – Fight Choreography

“I have no words,
My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain 
Than terms can give thee out!”
- Macduff, Macbeth V.viii.6-8

Illustration from Joseph Swetnam’s The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence (1617), showing combat with a rapier and dagger.

Shakespeare’s plays are full of swordfights and battles.  London audiences in Shakespeare’s day loved an onstage duel or battle; the excitement of seeing a skillful display of fencing was an entertainment draw almost on par with the play itself. Thus, the vast majority of plays produced during this time involved some sort of stage combat. For the early modern actor, this required being extensively trained in the art of fighting with both a rapier (a slender two-edged sword) and a dagger, elegant Italian weapons which had replaced the more cumbersome swords of the medieval period. Long hours of intense schooling and practice went into perfecting these skills. The actor had to first master the basics of fencing: the use of the rapier in one hand for striking, and the dagger in the other for parrying, or thrusting at close-quarters from the wrist and forearm, and aiming at his opponent’s eyes or below his ribs. Not only that, an actor also had to learn to do all of this effectively without actually wounding his opponent. The result was a balancing act of first learning authentic combat moves, and then learning how to fake them.[1] 

The weapons and fighting techniques on display within Shakespeare’s works are, for the most part, not as familiar to modern audiences as they would have been to audiences of the Renaissance. During the early modern period, the sword was part of one’s everyday ensemble, carried by almost every male citizen of the rank of gentleman or higher, and the threat of violence was an ever-present fact of daily life. This casual attitude towards bearing arms is evidenced in the writing of William Harrison, a sixteenth century Englishman, who said, “Seldom shall you see any of my countrymen above eighteen or twenty years old to go without a dagger at the least at his back or by his side. […] Our nobility wear commonly swords or rapiers with their daggers, as doth every common servingman also that followeth his lord and master.”[2]

Another interesting example of the Englishman’s outlook to daily existence with regard to the imminent possibility of life and death combat is seen in Joseph Swetnam’s 1617 instructional manual, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence. Chapter titles in this work include “Fearful examples of murder, with advice to avoid murder,” “Which showeth unto whom skill belongeth, with the fruits of drunkenesse,” and “The cause of quarrells, and what preparation you ought to be prepared with to answer a challenge.”[3] In such a hostile environment, it is of little surprise that a London audience looked with a critical eye on any fighting that occurred on the stage. Audiences were accustomed to graphic violence during the early modern period as one of the most popular forms of entertainment at this time was bear baiting.  In this violent sport, several dogs would be unleashed on a chained bear in the middle of an amphitheater, similar to the outdoor playhouses of the period.  The animals would fight to the death and spectators would gamble on the results.  Given the prevalence of this sport, early modern audiences would have been used to gruesome acts being performed in front of them.  

As author Marchette Chute says, “The average Londoner was an expert on the subject of fencing, and he did not pay his penny to see two professional actors make ineffectual dabs at each other with rapiers when the script claimed they were fighting to the death.”[4]  Extra limbs and body doubles were manufactured to throw on stage during fight scenes to make battles seem more severe.[5]  The possibility of severed limbs strewn across the stage certainly brings a morose image to mind at the second scholar’s line in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, ‘see, here are Faustus; 
limbs all torn asunder by the hand of death’ (V.ii.6-7). 

Combat was realistic, rather than stylized, by early modern standards.  Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) was written to dispel the special effects and fighting taking place on stage, as they were suspected as being the result of witchcraft. The fact that Scot must deconstruct the methods behind these weapons suggests that they were often performed (in the theater or otherwise) with a sense of realism that had an impact on the audience.  While people undoubtedly exhibited various reactions to the use of blood and violence on stage, it seems that sword fights created quite a spectacle in early modern theaters.[6]  

Along with choreographic excellence, theatrical fights also often required the use of special effects in their demand for blood and gore. Animal blood was most likely used for stage blood at this time, which was readily available on the streets of London from butchers. The use of blood would have glimmered on stage in the indoor playhouses because of the candlelight. Most stage directions call for blood to be applied before entering the stage, probably on the hands and face in order to preserve the expensive costumes. 

Actors had to be adept at sleight of hand, since they were performing in close proximity to the audience and in broad daylight or shared lighting. A good dose of sheep’s blood was often used by actors to add to audience enjoyment, and sheep organs might be used as a substitute for human organs, as well as for especially horrific scenes. For a realistic stabbing effect, for instance, a hollow-handled knife with a retractable blade would be used by the attacker, while the victim would be furnished with a bladder of blood hidden inside his costume. Real knives were also used with supplementary protective plates.[7] 

Bodkins were also used to make fight scenes realistic.  Scot described how to make a bodkin in his manual: ‘Take a bodkin so made, as the haft being hollowe, the blade thereof may slip thereinto a soone as you hold the point upward: and seeme to thrust it into your head, and so (with a little sponge in your hand) you may wring out blood or wine, making the beholders thinke the bloud or the wine (whereof you may saie you have drunke verie much) runneth out of you forehead. Then, after the countenance of paine and greefe, pull awaie your hand suddenlie, 
holding the point downeward; and it will fall so out, as it will seeme never to have been thrust into the haft: but immediatlie thrust that bodkin into your lap or pocket, and pull out an other plaine bodkin like the same, saving in that conceipt.’[8]  

In spite of these safety measures, combat onstage could occasionally be dangerous as combat offstage, as this account from a seventeenth century Englishman’s diary indicates: “It is reported that Harris has killed his associate actor, in a scene on the stage, by accident. It was the tragedy called ‘Macbeth,’ in which Harris performed the part of Macduff, and ought to have slain his fellow actor, Macbeth; but during the scene it happened that Macduff pierced Macbeth in the eye, by which thrust he fell lifeless, and could not bring out the last words of his part.”[9] These kinds of accidents, while rare, were not unheard of in early modern theater. 

For ease of production, individual duals were often favored over mass battles on the stage. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth feature famous one-on-one duals. When they do appear, large-scale staged battles in Shakespeare’s works often include directions for “alarums” and “excursions,” which would simply have involved men running back and forth across the stage, as with the sounds of trumpets, martial music, clashing weapons, and shouts offstage to indicate unseen conflict between massive groups, while the central protagonist and antagonist would stop to fight the key battle center stage. The bulk of the action, however, was left up to the audience’s imagination.[10] When they do appear, these larger battles are usually based on historical events with which the audience would have been familiar, and they are featured primarily in Shakespeare’s history plays. Scenes from the Hundred Years War in Henry V and Henry VI and the Battle of Bosworth Field in Richard III are some examples of this. Yet even large battles are often broken down to an individual level. In Richard III, the climactic battle is between King Richard and Henry, Earl of Richmond (the future Henry VII), individual representations of their opposing armies and causes (V.v.).  

Links to the ASC

When speaking about choreographing Shakespearean fight scenes for modern audiences at the Blackfriars Playhouse, Colleen Kelly, the American Shakespeare Center’s fight director, says that the main goal is to be both safe and dramatically effective – the same, Kelly believes, as it would have been in Shakespeare’s time. Just as it was in Shakespeare’s day, combat techniques in the modern Blackfriars must be adjusted for a stage where audience members can view from all angles and even sit on the stage to witness the action. It is therefore important that no one should be in danger. As fight director, Kelly looks for simple ways to add interest and variety to stage combat, such as utilizing a technique of fighting in set “corridors” on the stage, to create movement without endangering spectators. Another method, Kelly explains, is to create eight counts of choreography and then start each combatant on a different count to create, effectively, a round of fighting. Another similarity which actors at the American Shakespeare Center share with Shakespeare’s troupe is the fact that they are influenced by a short rehearsal period. While actors who possess previous combat training are likely to be scheduled for more advanced fights, the goal for all the actors is “to learn the fights quickly and safely and to look good doing them,” Kelly states.

Most importantly, Kelly adds, a fight must tell a story and further the plot, although the brief stage directions in Shakespeare’s works, such as “they fight” or “kills him,” leave much room for dramatic interpretation. These open-ended instructions mean that Kelly has to “do her homework,” as she puts it, in order to thoroughly understand the plot points and characters involved in that particular scene. Yet directions for a fight may also frequently be found embedded within Shakespeare’s dialogue itself. One example which Kelly cites is the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. Mortally wounded, Mercutio rebukes Romeo, saying, “Why the dev’l came you between us? I was hurt under your arm” (III.i.102-103). Here, as Kelly points out, the fight choreographer is provided some creative license, as she has the power to portray the character of Tybalt in two very different ways: as an honorable duelist who accidentally struck Mercutio in the confusion of Romeo’s intervention, or an opportunist who ignobly attacked his opponent while he was distracted.     

Although modern audiences are not as familiar with the technical details of swordplay as a Renaissance audience would have been, they are certainly as capable of enjoying the thrill and spectacle of an onstage duel. A contemporary audience may also appreciate the multifaceted function of such action – how it propels a plot, reveals character, or provides an action-packed finale. 

Frontispiece for The Maid’s Tragedy, an early seventeenth century play by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, illustrating a grizzly duel.

[1] Marchette Chute, Shakespeare of London (New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1949), 86-87.
[2] William Harrison (writing between 1577-1587), quoted in Robert E.  Morseberger, Swordplay and the Elizabethan and Jacobean Stage (Salzburg, Austria: Institute für Englische Sprache und Literatur Universität Salzburg, 1974), 3. 
[3] Joseph Swetnam, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence (London, UK: 1617), “A Table of the Contents.” 
[4] Chute, 87.
[5] Phillip Butterworth, Theater of Fire (London: Society for Theatre Research, 1998), 157. 
[6] Scot, 200.  
[7] Chute, 87-88.
[8] Scot, 288. 
[9] From The Journal of Thomas Isham, from 1 November 1671 to 30 September 1673, quoted in Gamini Salgado, ed., Eyewitness to Shakespeare (New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1975) 56.
[10] Morseberger, 80-83.