Hadst thou not played some kingly parts

Henry Peacham’s sketch of a scene from Titus Andronicus (1594)

Today Shakespeare’s England is delighted to bring you a post from Professor Stanley Wells. Stanley is Honorary President of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies in the University of Birmingham, Honorary Governor Emeritus of the RSC, General Editor of the Oxford and Penguin editions of Shakespeare, Trustee of the Rose Theatre, and member of the Council for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. He has published widely on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. In other words, a Shakespeare Legend. What follows is an illuminating new piece on Shakespeare as an actor which first appeared in The Stage.

We’ve been celebrating great Shakespeare actors of the twentieth century. But who came first in the line? Could it possibly have been Shakespeare himself? It’s usually supposed to have been Richard Burbage, who seems to have created, for example, the roles of Romeo, Hamlet, Lear, and Pericles. But the possibility that it was Shakespeare himself is intriguingly implied in a new book by Katherine Duncan-Jones, Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Swan of Avon. Pointing out that the First Folio, printed in 1623, seven years after he died, includes a list of ‘the names of the principal actors in all these plays’, she suggests that the fact that Shakespeare comes first may ‘imply that he had been a leading performer in every single play included in the Folio.’ It’s a bold claim. Does the heading to the list really have to mean that all the actors named in the list had appeared in all the Folio’s 36 plays?  Actually that is impossible. For instance, one of the actors named is Nathan Field, who was not born until 1587, and so would have been an infant when Shakespeare started writing. And another actor in the list, Laurence Fletcher, didn’t join the company until 1603.

Still, there’s no doubt that Shakespeare was an actor. He along with Richard Burbage and the great comedian William Kemp received payments for plays performed before the Queen in December 1594. This shows that he belonged to an acting company, and almost certainly that acting was part of his duty. He is named unequivocally as an actor in the printed list of ‘The principal comedians’ for Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour (acted in 1598) and of ‘the principal tragedians’ in Jonson’s Sejanus (which bombed heavily when it was acted in 1603). I think ‘comedians’ and ‘tragedians’ in these lists simply mean that the actors named were playing in a comedy and a tragedy, not that they were specially known for one kind of acting rather than another. Also, in a document (known as ‘the York Herald’s Complaint’) of 1602 a sketch of his family’s arms is annotated ‘Shakespeare the player’, which may (or may not) be a bit of a slur. A poem by John Davies of Hereford published in 1610 begins ‘Some say, good Will, which I in sport do sing, / Hadst thou not played some kingly parts in sport /Thou hadst been a companion to a king ….’ This clearly refers to his acting, but it is headed ‘To Our English Terence Mr Will. Shakespeare’, where the reference to the Latin dramatist no less clearly relates to him as a playwright. So there’s documentary evidence that he acted, at least from time to time, from 1594 until the performance of Sejanus, in 1603. Davies’s poem shows that he was still thought of as an actor in 1610 though not necessarily that he went on acting till then.

There are also some early anecdotes. In 1699 an anonymous writer said he ‘was a much better poet than player.’ On the other hand John Aubrey, writing in the mid-seventeenth century, says that Shakespeare, ‘inclined naturally to poetry and acting, came to London, I guess about 18: and was an actor at one of the play-houses, and did act exceedingly well.’ A bit later, in the first attempt at a biography of Shakespeare, published in 1709, Nicholas Rowe said that after he ‘was received’ into an acting company ‘his admirable wit, and the natural turn of it to the stage, soon distinguished him, if not as an extraordinary actor, yet as an excellent writer.’

 Shakespeare as actor (Samuel Ireland)

What parts did he play? There’s no hard evidence, just a few rumours. Rowe said ‘I could never meet with any further account of him this way than that the top of his performance was the ghost in his own Hamlet.’ Somewhat later the antiquary William Oldys (1696-1761) claimed to have heard from ‘one of Shakespeare’s younger brothers, who lived to a good old age’ that he had had seen Shakespeare play a role which is clearly that of Adam in As You Like It. This anecdote is highly suspect because none of Shakespeare’s brothers lived to an old age.

Since As You Like It and Hamlet had been written by the date of Sejanus, the anecdotal evidence does nothing to extend Shakespeare’s likely acting career beyond 1603, and Jonathan Bate, in his book Soul of the Age, deduces from that that he ‘stopped acting around the time of the 1603-4 plague outbreak.’ He supports this by citing some inconclusive annotations to an early copy of the First Folio and, more significantly, with the fact that  ‘a recently discovered list of “Players of interludes” in the records of the royal household’, dated 1607, lists Burbage and other members of the King’s men but not Shakespeare. ‘If he was acting’, says Bate, ‘he would unquestionably have acted at court’(356).

Well, that’s only negative evidence. Duncan-Jones, more positively, cites an annotation not mentioned by Bate in a 1590 edition of Camden’s Britannia which refers (in Latin) to ‘William Shakespeare, manifestly our Roscius.’ The annotator was born about 1596. Roscius was the great actor of ancient Rome, so it does look here as if Shakespeare were being recalled primarily as an actor and that it could refer to late in his career. More significantly, Duncan-Jones draws attention (256) to the first line of the elegy by William Basse on the death of Shakespeare which is ‘Sleep, rare tragedian Shakespeare, sleep alone.’ The word ‘tragedian’ could mean a tragic playwright, but as Duncan-Jones says there is ample evidence that it could also mean an actor – not necessarily even a tragic actor. Shakespeare himself uses it in this sense in Hamlet and elsewhere.

To my mind then there is good presumptive evidence that Shakespeare was still thought of as an actor at the time of his death, and therefore that he continued to act after 1603, probably till close to the end of his career. But did he regularly take major roles in his plays or in those of other men?  In other words, was he a star actor? The two greatest luminaries of the tragic stage in his time were Edward Alleyn, who worked for the rival company, the Lord Admiral’s Men, and Richard Burbage. We know quite a bit about them. In the case of Alleyn, this is mainly because of the survival of Philip Henslowe’s papers. We know a number of the roles that Burbage played, partly because of an epitaph which names many. We have no such evidence for Shakespeare. Admittedly whether evidence survives is a matter of chance. But we cannot with certainty name a single role that Shakespeare played, and my guess is that he continued to act through most of his career – to that extent I agree with Duncan-Jones rather than with Jonathan Bate – but that he was not a star actor and did not necessarily take roles even in all of his own plays. So Burbage remains on his throne

Professor Wells’ latest book, Shakespeare Sex and Love is a fascinating exploration of love, sex, and romance in Shakespeare’s lifetime, providing new insight into the ways in which the discourse of sexuality and love was negotiated by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. An erudite and scholarly book, but one which is also enormously entertaining, occasionally rude, and very good fun. You can purchase a copy here.

You can read Stanley’s regular blog posts at Blogging Shakespeare and follow him on Twitter.

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3 Comments

  • June 18, 2011 - 12:28 am | Permalink

    I love all that intellectual detective work. You would think that, if you wrote a great play, and you were an actor, well surely you would want the best parts for yourself. Though For some reason I see Shakespeare doing parts like Ophelia’s father or Malvolio from Twelfth Night. Just a personal opinion. Great post, thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • Anonymous
    June 17, 2011 - 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating post. To think Shakespeare might have actually played some of his own characters brings a whole new dimension to the plays. They aren’t necessarily characters that I would have assumed he would take the role of, either, and it shows his modesty – he didn’t just take the lead roles.
    Thank you for a wonderful post.

  • Anonymous
    June 17, 2011 - 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Excellent blog post Professor.

  • Comments are closed.

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