Category Archives: Actor

Actor Stage Theatre

Puppit-plays are still up with uncontrolled allowance

This fragment comes from a text published in 1643 to protest the closure of the theatres by the Puritans. Not only does it reveal some interesting details about how actors and playhouses were regarded by the authorities, it also sheds charming light on the working practices and employees of a typical theatre in 17th Century London. It’s a really delightful text. I particularly love the bitter disparaging remarks about puppet shows.

The Actors Remonstrance or Complaint, for the silencing of their Profession, and banishment from their severall Play houses. In which is fully set downe their grievances, especially since Stage-playes, only of all publike recreations are prohibited; the exercise at the Beares Colledge, and the motions of Puppets being still in force and vigour.

Oppressed with many calamities and languishing under the burthen of a long and (for ought wee know) an everlasting restraint, we the Comedians, Tragedians and Actors of all sorts and sizes belonging to the famous private and publike Houses within the City of London and the Suburbs thereof, to you great Phoebus, and you sacred Sisters, the sole Patronesses of our distressed Calling, doe we in all humility present this our humble and lamentable complaint, by whose intercession to those powers who confined us to silence, wee hope to be restored to our pristine honour and imployment.

First, it is not unknowne to all the audience that have frequented the private Houses of Black-Friers, the Cock-Pit and Salisbury-Court, without austerity we have purged our Stages from all obscene and scurrilous jests such as might either be guilty of corrupting the manners, or defaming the persons of any men of note in the City or Kingdome; that we have endevoured, as much as in us lies, to instruct one another in the true and genuine Art of acting, to represse bawling and railing, formerly in great request, and for to suite our language and action to the more gentile and naturall garbe of the times; that we have left off for our owne parts, and so have commanded our servants to forget that ancient custome, which formerly rendred men of our quality infamous, namely, the inveigling in young Gentlemen, Merchants Factors, and Prentizes to spend their patrimonies and Masters estates upon us and our Harlots in Tavernes. We have cleane and quite given over the borrowing money at first sight of punie gallants, or praising their swords, belts and beavers, so to invite them to bestow them upon us; and to our praise be it spoken, we were for the most part very well reformed, few of us keeping, or being rather kept by our Mistresses, betooke our selves wholy to our wives; observing the matrimoniall vow of chastity, yet for all these conformities and reformations, wee were by authority (to which wee in all humility submit) restrained from the practice of our Profession.

That Profession which had before maintained us is now condemned to a perpetuall, at least a very long temporary silence, and we left to live upon our shifts, or the expence of our former gettings, to the great impoverishment and utter undoing of our selves, wives, children, and dependants. Besides which our extremest grievance that Playes being put downe under the name of publike recreations, other publike recreations of farre more harmfull consequence permitted still to stand namely, that Nurse of barbarisme and beastlinesse, the Bear-Garden, whereupon their usuall dayes those Demy-Monsters, are baited by bandogs, which dare not be seen in our civill and well-governed Theatres, where none use to come but the best of the Nobility and Gentry; and though some have taxed our Houses unjustly for being the receptacles of Harlots, yet we may justly excuse our selves of either knowledge or consent in these lewd practices, we having no propheticke soules to know womens honesty by instinct.

Puppit-plays, which are not so much valuable as the very musique betweene each Act at ours, are still up with uncontrolled allowance, witnesse the famous motion of Bell and the Dragon, so frequently visited at Holbourne-bridge these passed Christmas Holidayes, whither Citizens of all sorts repaire with far more detriment to themselves then ever did to Playes, Comedies and Tragedies being the lively representations of mens actions, in which, vice is alwayes sharply glanced at, and punished, and vertue rewarded and encouraged; the most exact and naturall eloquence of our English language expressed and daily amplified; and yet for all this, we suffer.

First our House-keepers, that grew wealthy by our endevours, complaine that they are enforced to pay the grand Land-lords rents during this long Vacation, out of their former gettings; in stead of ten, twenty, nay, thirty shillings shares which used nightly to adorne and comfort with their harmonious musique their large and Well-stuffed pockets, they have shares in nothing with us now but our mis-fortunes; living meerly out of the stock, out of the interest and principall of their former gotten moneyes, which daily is exhausted by the maintenance of themselves and families.

For our selves, such as were sharers, are so impoverished, that were it not for some slender helps afforded us in this time of calamitie, by our former providence, we might be enforced to act our Tragedies. Our Hired-men are disperst, some turned Souldiers and Trumpetters, others destin’d to meaner courses. Their friends, young Gentlemen, that used to feast and frolick with them at Tavernes, having either quitted the kin in these times of distraction, or their money having quitted them, they are ashamed to look upon their old expensive friends those Buxsome and Bountifull Lasses, that usually were enamoured on the persons of the younger sort of Actors, for the good cloaths they wore upon the stage, beleeving them really to be the persons they did only represent.

Our Fooles, who had wont to allure and excite laughter with their very countenances, at their first appearance on the stage are enforced, some of them at least to maintaine themselves, by vertue of their babbles. Our boyes, ere wee shall have libertie to act againe, will be growne out of use like crackt organ-pipes, and have faces as old as our flags.

Nay, our very Doore-keepers, men and women, most grievously complaine that by this cessation they are robbed of the priviledge of stealing from us with licence. Our Musike that was held so delectable and precious, that they scorned to come to a Taverne under twentie shillings salary for two houres, now wander with their Instruments under their cloaks, into all houses of good fellowship, saluting every roome where there is company, with Will you have any musike Gentlemen?

For our Tire-men, and other that belonged formerly to our ward-robe, with the rest, they are out of service: our stock of cloaths being a sacrifice to moths. The Tobacco-men, that used to walk up and downe, selling for a penny pipe, that which was not worth twelve-pence an horse-load, being now bound under Tapsters in Inns and Tippling houses.

Nay such a terrible distresse and dissolution hath befallen us, and all those that had dependance on the stage, that it hath quite unmade our hopes of future recoverie. For some of our ablest ordinarie Poets, in stead of their annuall stipends and beneficiall second-dayes, being for meere necessitie compelled to get a living by writing contemptible penny-pamphlets

To conclude, this our humble complaint great Phoebus, and you nine sacred Sisters, the Patronesses of Wit, and Protectresses of us poore disrepected Comedians, if for the present, by your powerfull intercessions we may be re-invested in our former Houses, and settled in our former Calling, we shall for the future promise, never to admit into our sixpenny-roomes those unwholesome inticing Harlots, nor any female of what degree soever, except they come lawfully with their husbands. The abuses in Tobacco shall be reformed, none vended, not so much as in three-penny galleries, unlesse of the pure Spanish leafe. For ribaldry, or any such paltry stuffe, as may scandall the pious, and provoke the wicked to loosenesse, we will utterly expell it. Finally, we shall hereafter so demeane our selves as none shall esteeme us of the ungodly, or have cause to repine at our action or interludes.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Actor Shakespeare Stage

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.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Actor Highway Robbery Theatre

Thou hast a good presence upon a stage

  Elizabethan actor & clown Will Kempe (1600)

These fragments come from a curious account of an accidental meeting between the notorious highwayman Gamaliel Ratsey and a group of travelling actors.  During the encounter, Ratsey, who was executed in 1605, offers some acting advice to the players. Although his only qualification for doing so appears to be the fact he had spent time attending the London theatres, the account reveals some fascinating glimpses into the life of the itinerant 17th century actor.

Gamaliell Ratsey and his company, travailing up and downe the Countrey (as they had often times done before), came by chance into an Inne, where that night there harbored a company of Players.  Ratsey, framing himselfe to an humor of merriment, caused one or two of the chiefest of them to be sent for up into his chamber.  I pray you (quoth Ratsey) let me heare your musicke, for I have often gone to playes more for musicke sake, than for action.  For some of you are not content to do well, but striving to over-do and go beyond yourselves, oftentimes (by Saint George) mar all.  Yet your Poets take great paines to make your parts fit for your mouthes, though you gape never so wide.  Others I must needs confesse, are very well deserving both for true action and faire deliverie of speech, and yet I warrant you the very best have sometimes beene content to go home at night with fifteen pence share a peece.  Others there are whom fortune hath so well favoured, that what by penny sparing and long practise of playing, are growne so wealthy that they have expected to be knighted, or to sit with men of great worship, on the Bench of Justice.

Well, musicke was played, and that night passed over with such singing, dancing, and revelling, as if my Lord Prodigall hadde beene there in his ruines of excesse and superfluitie.  In the morning Ratsey made the players taste of his bountie, and so departed.  About a weeke after, he met with the same Players, although he had so disguised himselfe with a false head of hayre and beard that they could take no notice of him, and lying as they did before in one Inne together, he was desirous they should play a private play before him, which they did.  Ratsey heard their play, and seemed to like it, and very liberally out with his purse and gave them fortie shillings, with which they held themselves very richly satisfied, for they scarce had twentie shillings audience at any time for a Play in the Country.  But Ratsey thought they should not enjoy it long, although he let them beare it about till the next day in their purses.  For the morning beeing come, and they having packed away their luggage, and some part of their companie before in a waggon, he discharged the Inne, and followed them presently.

Ratsey, having learned which way they travailed, he being very well horsed, and mounted upon his blacke gelding soone overtooke them.  And when they saw it was the Gentleman that had beene so liberall with them the night before, they began to do him much courtesie, and to greete his late kindnesse with many thankes.  But that was not the matter which he aimed at: therefore he roundly tolde them, they were deceived in him, he was not the man they tooke him for.  I am a souldier (sayth he) and one that for meanes hath ventured my fortunes abroade, and now for money am driven to hazard them at home.  I am not to be played upon by Players: therefore be short, deliver me your money. They began to make many faces, and to cappe and knee.  He bade them leave off their cringing and complements, and their apish trickes, and dispatch, which they did, for feare of the worst, seeing to begge was bootlesse.  And having made a desperate tender of their stocke into Ratsey’s hands, he bade them play for more, for (says he) it is an idle profession that brings in much profite.

And for you, sir (says he to the chiefest of them) thou hast a good presence upon a stage, methinks thou darkenst thy merite by playing in the country.  Get thee to London, for if one man were dead, they will have much neede of such as thou art.  There would be none in my opinion, fitter than thyselfe to play his parts: my conceipt is such of thee, that I durst all the mony in my purse on thy head, to play Hamlet with him for a wager. There thou shalt learne to be frugall (for Players were never so thriftilie as they are now about London) and to feed upon all men, to let none feede upon thee; to make thy hand a stranger to thy pocket, thy heart slow to perform thy tongues promise. And when thou feelest thy purse well lined, buy thee some place or Lordship in the country, that growing weary of playing, thy money may there bring thee to dignitie and reputation: then thou needest care for no man, nor not for them that before made thee proud, with speaking their words upon the Stage.  Sir, I thanke you (quoth the Player) for this good counsell, I promise you I will make use of it; for I have heard indeede of some that have gone to London very meanly, and have come in time to be exceeding wealthy.

Gestures for miming (1644)
© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved
Actor Shakespeare Theatre

Hath not a Jew eyes?

I’ve been revisiting The Merchant of Venice recently, and the fragment below is from Michael Radford’s 2004 film production, in which Al Pacino delivers one of the most moving portrayals of Shylock I’ve seen.

Shylock’s soliloquy (quarto, 1600)
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