No Chinks in the Armor on Display at Folger Shakespeare Library
At the Folger Shakespeare Library, there’s a splendid exhibition called “Now Thrive the Armorers: Arms and Armor in Shakespeare” that appeals to a wide audience: buffs of the Bard, for sure; historians with a military bent; antique aficionados; devotees of renaissance fairs and medieval mavens who like to dress up and act out life in another era; and of course children, especially young boys, whose blood might run a little faster at the mere mention of knights and brave warriors.
It’s also a display for those of us once-young boys who have never quite gotten the feel for today’s high-tech, often violent videogames like “Resident Evil” or “Grand Theft Auto,” where you slay thousands of alien monsters or pretend you’re a mobster stealing cars. Some of us grew up on not necessarily gentler stuff, but very different stuff — Robin Hood, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Ivanhoe and castle sets with knights and serfs and archers and marchers.
So instead of watching super-assassin Angelina Jolie kill a circle of bad guys with a magic rip-through-the-head bullet, we watched Errol Flynn portray the dashing Robin of Loxley as he dueled with Sir Guy of Gisborne on the castle steps, or Robert Taylor’s Lancelot swooning over Ava Gardner’s Guinevere, or Tyrone Power taking on Orson Welles in “Prince of Foxes.”
For people like us (we few, we happy few), an exhibition like this is a time capsule that ignites memories and resurrects childhood toys of a bygone era. Here we have jousting lances from the medieval and renaissance periods, broadswords old with wear and weariness, fencing foils that might have been used by Hamlet or Romeo, as well as the full weaponry and armor worn by English knights in battles against the French.
These tools of warfare used during Shakespeare’s time are among 40 items on display that have been brought over from the Higgins Armory Museum in Massachusetts, the largest collection of medieval arms and armor outside of Europe. The medieval weaponry dates from the 15th to the 17th century and is complemented by 34 books, manuscripts and works of art from the Folger’s own collection. The result is both a treasure trove of toys for grownup boys as well as a historical road map of how evolving weaponry from armor to gunpowder changed the ways in which war was fought.
At the same time, these weapons also figure heavily in Shakespeare’s work, especially his historical plays, which range from “Richard II” to “Henry V” — highly flavored dramatizations of the War of the Roses (the civil war for royal supremacy in England) and the One Hundred Years’ War between the English and French.
It’s a fact that the French more or less finally prevailed in driving the English from their foothold in France at the conclusion of that century-long war. But don’t expect to hear about that victory in Shakespeare’s plays, which focus more on English triumphs. And there is no greater triumph in the English imagination that Shakespeare immortalized than the Battle of Agincourt, where the French aristocratic cavalry rode impatiently and impetuously into battle and were destroyed by mud and Henry V’s English longbow archers.
Here we have those longbows on display, as well as the swords, daggers, lances, breastplates, helmets and foot armor that might have given the French a tough time at Agincourt, which they’d probably just as soon forget about.
But more than bringing up sore French feelings, this exhibition reflects on how changes in weaponry and attitudes affected the social order of the times. In major battles, only the names of aristocrats were mentioned as being lost, along with the general numbers of commoners killed. The heavy armor also signified one’s status, whether it be a king, prince, duke or lowly fighter. Archers, for instance, did not wear armor, nor did the infantry men who were more easily killed.
However, the mighty longbow, and later the musketball, changed all that and made armor nothing more than another clunky costume from back in the day. Aristocrats still clung to it though — and to their folly. Take Sir Henry Herbert, the second earl of Pembroke, an Elizabethan courtier who would wear a “three-quarter” suit of armor to battle, which covered warriors from head to foot. At the battle of Zutphen in 1586, Herbert neglected to wear his thigh armor and was hit by a bullet and bled out.
With weaponry evolving and armor becoming more aesthetic than practical, the military structure also shifted as armies once led by aristocratic knights began to resemble modern military bureaucracies. Likewise, those private battles that Shakespeare often depicted — duels between tough young men itching for a fight or mercenary warriors like Othello and Iago — gradually faded as the public turned against men who took the law — and the sword — into their own hands.Jousting though remained in vogue as a remnant of chivalry long after medieval times — a way of venting testosterone for lords and kings that even today remains a popular attraction at renaissance festivals.
This richly detailed exhibition keeps that tradition alive. Here, you can almost hear the sweaty shouts of dueling young men, the thundering stomps of horses, the clash of broadswords, a lance hitting steel armor — and pretty soon, you’re a boy again. En garde!
Now Thrive the Armorers: Arms and Armor in Shakespeare through Sept. 9 Folger Shakespeare Library 201 East Capitol St., SE For more information, please call (202) 544-4600 or visit www.folger.edu.
About the Author
Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.