© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This highly ornate rapier or thin sharp sword – 131cm long – was made in France around 1600. It was intended for display, not only as a weapon but also as a sign of male honour, social rank and contemporary fashion. In 16th-century Europe, rapiers were not just worn to fight, as in Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. They were also an integral part of a gentleman’s civilian costume, particularly for dancing. For example, in Timon of Athens, Chiron has a ‘dancing-rapier’ by his side (2.1.39).
In this period it was usual for the hilt (or handle) to be ostentatious like this one, which is made of steel inlaid with gold and engraved in a chain design. The blade was more often plain because it was usually hidden in a sheath or scabbard. But the blade of this particular sword is also elaborately decorated, suggesting that the owner drew it frequently, allowing it to be seen.
This blade has an intricate pattern of 96 curves and ‘teeth’ and is inscribed with the Latin phrase, ‘Valencia me fecit’ meaning ‘Made in Valencia’. This announces that it was imported especially from Spain, a country renowned in early modern Europe for its high-quality weapons. As such, it is a flashy display of the maker’s expertise and the owner’s high status, but it is also made to intimidate the opponent. In Act 5, Scene 2 Othello boasts of the ‘sword of Spain’ (5.2.251) which hung from his ‘soldier’s thigh’ (5.2.259) in battle. He now uses it to wound Iago and to stab himself, after Montano takes his first weapon.
In the first act of Much Ado About Nothing it seems that men have put aside their swords for love, parties and witty banter. Returning victorious from battle, Claudio is teased mercilessly for abandoning ‘armor’ to become a swooning lover obsessed with ‘the fashion of a new doublet’ (2.3.16–18).
Rather than weapons for combat, swords become metaphors for the cuttingly sharp words used by Benedick and Beatrice: ‘she speaks poniards [or daggers], and every word stabs’ (2.1.247–48). But this distinction between real and metaphorical swords is blurred again when Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel to defend Hero’s honour, and the prospect of violence resurfaces.
Benedick first says ambiguously that his wit is ‘in his scabbard’ (5.1.125), but then reveals that he is ready to use a real sword to ‘Kill Claudio’ (4.1.289). This threat is seemingly averted by the end of the play as they dance to celebrate marriage, but the men may still carry ornamental swords as part of their wedding costume. This might leave a lingering sense of tension as the audience has been made aware of the fine line between mere wordplay and genuine aggression, and between fashion and fighting.