Anatomy of a Duel

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duelHello everyone!

After my last posting about judicial combat in Shakespeare’s comedies, a user commented that: “Imagining how Shakespeare learnt swordplay is as difficult as imagining how he became knowledgeable in the law, science, medicine, etc.” This user did raise a good point,. so  I’ve devoted this entry to explaining how Shakespeare could have learned about dueling without an aristocratic upbringing. To do so, he needed only to rely on The Chronicles of England, Ireland, and Scotland by Raphael Holinshed. Shakespeare clearly knew this book thoroughly; many of the incidents in his plays mirror Holinshed’s narrative. To prove my point, I’ll use examples from Holinshed. to dissect  the famous duel from King Lear, Act V, scene iii, The pattern of this duel follows many examples from historical duels chronicled in Holinshed.

Video by Digital of the duel between Edmund and Edgar from the Almeida Theater production of 2012.


Setting the Scene

The hero Edgar is fighting a duel against his evil brother Edmund, whose false accusations have forced Edgar to go into hiding. If Edgar challenges Edmund to a judicial deal and wins, he will prove his innocence. However, Edgar knows that as a fugitive, he cannot legally challenge Edmund, so he asks the Duke of Albany to challenge Edmund for him:


Part I: Exchange of Tokens:


Thou art arm’d, Gloucester: let the trumpet sound:
If none appear to prove upon thy head
Thy heinous, manifest, and many treasons,
There is my pledge. Throwing down a glove


There’s my exchange:

Throwing down a glove


Commentary: Albany accuses Edmund of treason, then throws down his glove or gauntlet. This is called, “giving token of earnest”, it shows Edmund that Albany’s challenge is serious.

Holinshed: “Thorne cast down a gantlet, which Nailer took up, upon the Sunday before the battle should be tried” (The Peaceable and Prosperous Regiment Of Blessed Queen Elizabeth. Volume 6. p. 1225).


Part II- Calling The Champion

A trumpet sounds


[Reads] ‘If any man of quality or degree will maintain upon Edmund,
supposed Earl of Gloucester, that he is a manifold
traitor, let him appear by the third sound of the


Enter EDGAR, at the third sound, armed.


Draw thy sword,
I protest,
thou art a traitor;
False to thy gods, thy brother, and thy father;


Commentary: Rather than fighting the duel himself, Albany calls for a champion to fight for him, (in this case Edgar in disguise). This practice was common even in Shakespeare’s day. Holinshed mentions an example from 1587.

Holinshed: Hereupon the said Thomas Paramore brought before the judges of the common pleas at Westminster… one George Thorne, a big, broad, strong set fellow; & Henrie Nailer, maister of defense… a proper slender man, & not so tall as the other (1225).


Part III- Giving The Lie


Say thou ‘No,’
This sword, this arm, and my best spirits, are bent
To prove upon thy heart, whereto I speak,
Thou liest.


Back do I toss these treasons to thy head;
With the hell-hated lie o’erwhelm thy heart;
Alarums. They fight. EDMUND falls

Commentary: Like today’s legal proceedings, all judicial combats began with a swearing of oaths to tell the truth. Edgar has just sworn under oath that Edmund is guilty of treason, while Edmund has sworn his brother’s oath is a lie. This was called, “giving him the lie.”  The accused gave the lie to his accuser to accept the challenge, and allow the fight to determine who was guilty and who was lying. Whoever loses will now die and go to Hell for lying under oath.

Holinshed: The Chronicle makes many references to swearing oaths in judicial contexts. Moreover, another contemporary writer Michel de Montaigne wrote an essay called “On Giving The Lie”, (1580), which echoes the churlish quality of Shakespeare’s clown Touchstone, in his speech about ‘giving the lie.’


Part IV: Doomsday


What you have charged me with, that have I done;
But what art thou
That hast this fortune on me?


My name is Edgar, and thy father’s son.
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us:

Thou hast spoken right, ’tis true;

Commentary: In Anglo Saxon the word “doom” meant judgment. Here it means judgment and death, since Edmund’s death is legal proof that that God judged him as guilty.


Hamilton kneeling down, made his hearty prayer to God, that it might please him to give victory unto the truth, with solemn protestation that he never uttered any such words of King Edward of England, (as his adversary charged him with) [King Edward the Sixth. Vol. 4, 1613].


So you can see how examples from Holinshed helped Shakespeare accurately replicate aristocratic duels like the one in King Lear without having to be an aristocrat like the Earl of Oxford. Next time I’ll talk a little about how Shakespeare’s theater training helped him learn how to fight.



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Author:Paul Rycik

Paul Rycik is a dramaturg and actor with Open Air Shakespeare NRV, Virginia.

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