Showcasing over 40 items from the Higgins Armory Museum, the largest collection of medieval arms and armor outside of Europe, with 34 books, manuscripts, and works of art from the Folger collection, the exhibition centers on Shakespearean plays in which arms and armor figure prominently while also exploring “real world” weapons and fighting techniques from the period. “Now Thrive the Armorers” aims to “show things people were wearing, and what people were reading,” says curator Jeffrey Forgeng. The exhibition will be open from June 5 through September 6.
The tragic fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes in Hamlet, Tybalt and Mercutio’s bloody duel in Romeo and Juliet, and the grisly showdown between Hotspur and Prince Hal in Henry IV pivot on the use of weaponry with dramatic and fatal consequences.
Armor construction and design changed significantly from the thirteenth century to the sixteenth century, a trend that influenced combat from private duels to major international campaigns. Mounted knights lost their importance as infantry units became the primary fighting force. Firearms were increasingly dominant, and it was becoming impossible to wear armor heavy enough to stop a musketball. Plate armor, which consisted of metal plates covering the wearer’s torso and limbs, reached peak production rates, yet soldiers were shedding their armor on campaigns. As a result, battle armor became less extensive and, in some cases, more aesthetic.
“They hung onto armor long after it had lost its usefulness. And I think that’s cultural and emotional. So a knight putting on armor in the sixteenth century is protecting himself for a real fight, and also associating himself with knights of the semi-legendary past,” Forgeng said.
With a change in weaponry and armor came a change in military structure. Armies once led by aristocratic knights now resembled modern military bureaucracies. In civilian life, private duels and armed insurrections were seen as serious threats to social stability, and popular opinion swung against those who took the law into their own hands. Violence as a means to enforce justice and ensure stability became the prerogative of the state, not individuals.
Exhibition highlights include a deadly and highly versatile medieval longsword, a gauntlet worn by King Philip of Spain (husband to England’s “Bloody Mary”), and a stunning suit of field armor believed to have been owned by Henry Herbert, the second Earl of Pembroke. Military treatises with state-of-the-art advice on weapons and tactics, fencing manuals, and depictions of armor—including designs for both the battlefield and for fashion—from the Folger collection will also be displayed.
“Now Thrive the Armorers”: Arms and Armor in Shakespeare juxtaposes the changing nature of combat in early modern England with the varied roles that weapons and those who wield them play in Shakespeare’s texts. Arms and armor—both onstage and in the field—tell the complex stories of cultural transformation that illuminate the violence, glamour, and conflicts in Shakespeare’s plays and his world.
About Folger Shakespeare Library
Folger Shakespeare Library is a world-class center for scholarship, learning, culture, and the arts. It is home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection and a primary repository for rare materials from the early modern period (1500–1750). Folger Shakespeare Library is an internationally recognized research library offering advanced scholarly programs in the humanities; an innovator in the preservation of rare materials; a national leader in how Shakespeare is taught in grades K–12; and an award-winning producer of cultural and arts programs—theater, music, poetry, exhibits, lectures, and family programs. By promoting understanding of Shakespeare and his world, Folger Shakespeare Library reminds us of the enduring influence of his works, the formative effects of the Renaissance on our own time, and the power of the written and spoken word. A gift to the American people from industrialist Henry Clay Folger, the Folger Shakespeare Library—located one block east of the U.S. Capitol—opened in 1932. Learn more at www.folger.edu