The sub-genre of the debate drama in which abstract conceptions or inanimate objects engage in a kind of literary debate or verbal contest seems to have been especially popular at the universities during the early seventeenth century. Andrea Guarna's Grammar War, in which the characters were warring parts of speech is an early popular example, first performed in 1591 and printed in 1635. The abstract conception literary debate play could be highly elaborate and complex, as is the anonymous Lingua, or the Combat of the Tongue and the Five Senses for Superiority, first published in 1607, but simpler versions of the genre were also popular. A Merry Dialogue Between Band, Cuff, and Ruff; Work for Cutlers, or a Merry Dialogue Between Sword, Rapier, and Dagger (1615); Wine, Beer, Ale, and Tobacco, contending for Superiority (1630); Boot and Spur (1611-1617); and Gown, Hood, and Cap (about 1611) are some of the most illustrative of the genre. Where plays such as Lingua might occupy an entire evening, these works tended to be shorter and more comic, performed as parts of shows or entertainments.

a synoptic, alphabetical character list


A "ghost character". A concave blade or ax used chiefly by the military until the seventeenth century. Bill never appears on stage, and seems to function chiefly as a vehicle for elaborate puns. Dagger describes him as a "notable sturdy villain" and a "tall fellow," comparing Bill's size and visibility to his own, and says Bill "will quickly be wood," suggesting use of the weapon will soon go out of fashion. Sword participates in the wordplay, promising to "pay [Bill] soundly."


A "ghost character". The string or cord portion of the weapon used to shoot arrows. Like Bill and Gun, Bow-String does not appear on stage, but is the subject of heavy wordplay. Rapier cites Bow-String's primitive technology, calling him an "old soldier," and Sword hopes to "tickle Bow's nock," or posteriors.


A short, stout, bladed weapon used for stabbing and thrusting, frequently in tandem with larger weapon such as a rapier or sword. "Dagger" also figuratively refers to a braggart or braggadocio, which accurately describes this character, who attempts to mediate the fighting between Sword and Rapier while boasting of his own ability as a weapon. After pointing out the faults of his fellow characters, Dagger offers to decide the "controversy" over which weapon is superior, calling himself an "impartial judge," and rules that Sword shall be the primary military weapon and "general of the field," while Rapier shall be swathed in velvet and live "quietly and peaceably" at court, since dueling is now illegal. If Sword is absent, Rapier may fight in his place, and Dagger will back them both.


A "ghost character". The weapon consisting of a metal cylinder through which bullets are discharged with the aid of gunpowder. Gun does not appear onstage in the play, but Dagger refers to him as a "bouncing fellow," alluding to Gun's ungainly and loud movements (the other weapons in the play are comparatively silent when used in dueling). Rapier calls Gun a "nobody" and sneers that any child can "make him roar." Anyone can fire a gun, but the other weapons require skill to use properly.


A "ghost character". Gunpowder. Powder does not appear onstage, and like Gun, Bow-String, and Bill, functions as a vehicle for the speaking characters' puns. Though Rapier calls Powder a "vile bragger" who does nothing but "crack," Dagger argues that Powder is an "excellent politician." Sword believes Powder is all "flash" and no substance, but the three agree that he was formerly a "Parliament-Man," ostensibly establishing Powder's responsibility for the Gunpowder Plot, in which he attempted to "undermine" Parliament.


A small, light, sharp sword, used primarily for thrusting or stabbing, rather than cutting. Often used with a dagger in fighting. The play's conclusion suggests that Rapier was primarily used for dueling rather than warfare. Rapier contests Sword's assertion of superiority throughout the play, but eventually agrees to Dagger's terms.


A large single- or double-bladed weapon with a sharp point. According to Dagger, Sword is of greater antiquity than Rapier, since Sword "derives his pedigree from Morglay, Bevis of Southampton's sword" as well as "from St. George his sword, that killed the dragon."

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