Now put your shields before your hearts, and fightCoriolanus, Act 1, Scene iv.
With hearts more proof than shields
Shakespeare uses the word “shield” over 30 times, often as a verb meaning ‘to protect.’ However, there are a few very important references to this ancient tool of defense, and constructing one can teach you a lot about the history of a culture, and that culture’s methods of waging war.
A Brief History of Shields
The seven-fold shield of Ajax cannot keep
The battery from my heartAntony and Cleopatra, Act IV, Scene 14.
As the quote above from Antony and Cleopatra mentions, the shield has been around since the dawn of history, certainly since Roman times. The Romans prized their large shields called scuta, which they used in defensive formations as the soldiers crashed through their enemies’ defenses.
In medieval times, Anglo Saxons and Vikings used new and more sophisticated shield formations in some of the most important battles in early British history. This included the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which ended the Anglo-Saxon era when the English abandoned the protection of their shield wall to chase the Norman invaders, who then annihilated their forces and proclaimed their leader William of Normandy, conqueror of all England.
In this excellent video, historian and fight choreographer Mike Loads traces the history of medieval shields and shows step-by-step how to make an authentic Anglo-Saxon shield!
[Enter SAMPSON and GREGORY, of the house of Capulet, armed with swords and buckles]
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet begins with servants armed with swords and small shields called bucklers. These shields were designed to be used in single combat (duels) and were very light and agile. According to Mike Loads, young men would wear their swords and bucklers on their hips and make a loud racket as they walked through the streets. The shield proclaimed that they were armed and dangerous. This macho swaggering is the origin of the term “swashbuckling,” which is probably how these servants see themselves since they spend the first scene of the play trying to pick a fight.
What Is heraldry?
Just as the sound of a buckler announced to the world that a young man was armed and ready to fight, the design on a nobleman’s shield announced his status, his house, and his family motto. The popular historical consensus is that once the medieval knight arrived on the battlefield, they started using their shields and tabards as a colorful display; one that made it clear that they were noble. In war, a knight or other nobleman could collect a hefty ransom if they captured another knight alive, so if you belonged to a rich noble house, your brightly decorated shield could save your life on a battlefield in more ways than one.
Each heraldric design would be registered in the College Of Arms, and many of them are still on record today. In Shakespeare’s Pericles, a group of knights presents their shields to King Simonides and his daughter Thaisa right before a joust and she reads their mottos. The shields are like the knight’s ID tags and help the princess know whom to award the prize money once the jousting is over:
Simonides. Are the knights ready to begin the triumph? First Lord. They are, my liege; And stay your coming to present themselves. Simonides. Return them, we are ready; and our daughter, In honour of whose birth these triumphs are, [To Thaisa] 'Tis now your honour, daughter, to explain The labour of each knight in his device. Thaisa. Which, to preserve mine honour, I'll perform. [Enter a Knight; he passes over, and his Squire] presents his shield to the Princess] Simonides. Who is the first that doth prefer himself? Thaisa. A knight of Sparta, my renowned father; And the device he bears upon his shield Is a black Ethiope reaching at the sun The word, 'Lux tua vita mihi.' Simonides. He loves you well that holds his life of you. Pericles, Act II, Scene ii.
How to make your own shield!
Since shields are an important part of Shakespeare’s plays, here’s how you can make a shield activity at home or in the classroom.
Making the basic shape
If you want to make a buckler, you need a round surface a little bigger than a dinner plate. You should be able to hold it and move it like an extension of your fist. If you want to make a basic 14th-century type shield like the ones I have below, cut out the familiar, ‘state of Ohio’ shape below. I made mine about 11 inches long, and 10 inches wide. I used cardboard but you can also use paper or wood or metal if you have real craftsperson talent.
Choosing a color and design
I got a lot of good information on how people chose designs for their shields by visiting English Herritage.org’s Guide to Heraldry: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/guide-to-heraldry. The website has a lovely catalog of the colors and designs real knights and barons and lords used to make their shields/ coats of arms stand out. You can choose a simple background with a plant, animal, etc. in the foreground, or you can divide the shield into a cross, a diagonal line called a Fess, or into a triangle called a chevron.
The Personal Touch
You need not be constrained by historical precedent in coming up with your shield. Like any canvas, the only limits on your shield design are your imagination. Check out these designs I made with my kids!
Most mottos are single lines of text (usually in Latin), that illustrate what is important to the house that sports it. For example, Richard II’s motto was: “loyalté me lie,” (“Loyalty binds me.”). You could come up with a simple motto and Google Translate it into Latin or French, etc.
Now that you have your shield, with its own unique motto and design, it can be a useful tool to explain how people saw themselves in Shakespeare’s day. Nowadays we mainly see ourselves as individuals, but this kind of heraldry illustrates how knights, nobles and servants saw themselves mainly as part of a house, with its own values, its own traditions, and sometimes an us vs. them mentality against other houses.
This kind of household mentality is of course, at the core of Romeo and Juliet and the Wars of the Roses cycle of plays, and Shakespeare uses heraldry to illustrate this mentality. Look how the knights in the tournament scene from the 2013 film are dressed in their houses’ colors and the nobles and servants are also wearing those same colors:
Like sports fans who wear the jerseys of their favorite teams, shields and heraldry proclaim the allegiance of the servants and nobles who belong to powerful houses/ kingdoms. This kind of emblem can help students understand a piece of medieval and renaisance history, and how that history shapes our own mentalities today.
- English Heritage Guide To Heraldry: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/guide-to-heraldry