Category Archives: Stage

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
Entertainment Shakespeare Stage

Why was this not call’d the Tragedy of the Handkerchief?

These fragments come from the 17th century author and literary critic Thomas Rymer (1642-1713).  Rymer’s A Short View of Tragedy, published in 1692, casts a critical eye over several well-known plays, but his remarks on Othello, to which he devotes an entire chapter, are so entertaining I decided to share a few of them here.

From all the Tragedies acted on our English Stage, Othello is said to bear the Bell away.

What ever rubs or difficulty may stick on the Bark, the Moral, sure, of this Fable is very instructive.  First.  This may be a caution to all Maids of Quality how, without their Parents consent, they run away with Blackamoors.  Secondly.  This may be a warning to all good Wives, that they look well to their Linnen.  Thirdly.  This may be a lesson to Husbands, that before their Jealousie be Tragical, their proofs may be Mathematical.

This Fable is drawn from a Novel, compos’d in Italian by Giraldi Cinthio, who also was a Writer of Tragedies.  And to that use employ’d such of his Tales, as he judged proper for the Stage.  But with this of the Moor, he meddl’d no farther.  Shakespear alters it from the Original in several particulars, but always, unfortunately, for the worse.  He bestows a name on his Moor; and styles him the Moor of Venice: a Note of pre-eminence, which neither History nor Heraldry can allow him.  Cinthio, who knew him best, and whose creature he was, calls him simply a Moor.  We say the Piper of Strasburgh; the Jew of Florence; And, if you please, the Pindar of Wakefield: all upon Record, and memorable in their Places.  But we see no such Cause for the Moors preferment to that dignity.  And it is an affront to all Chroniclers, and Antiquaries, to top upon ‘um a Moor, with that mark of renown, who yet had never faln within the Sphere of their Cognisance.

Then is the Moors Wife, from a simple Citizen, in Cinthio, dress’d up with her Top knots, and rais’d to be Desdemona, a Senators Daughter.  All this is very strange.  The Character of the Senate is to employ strangers in their Wars; But shall a Poet thence fancy that they will set a Negro to be their General; or trust a Moor to defend them against the Turk?  With us, a Black-amoor might rise to be a Trumpeter; but Shakespeare would not have him less than a Lieutenant-General.  With us, a Moor might marry some drab or small-coal wench: Shakespeare would provide him the Daughter of some great Lord or Privy Councellor.

Nothing is more odious in Nature than an improbable lye; And, certainly, never was any Play fraught, like this of Othello, with improbabilities.  The characters or Manners, which are the second part in a Tragedy, are not less unnatural and improper, than the Fable was improbable and absurd.

There is a long rabble of Jack pudden farce betwixt Iago and Desdemona, that runs on with all the little plays, jingle, and trash below the patience of any Country kitchin-maid with her Sweet-heart.  The Venetian Donna is hard put to’t for pastime!  And this is all, when they are newly got on shoar, from a dismal Tempest, and when every moment she might expect to hear her Lord (as she calls him) that she runs so mad after, is arriv’d or lost.

Never in the World had any Pagan Poet his Brains turn’d at this Monstrous rate.  But the ground of all this Bedlam-Buffoonry we saw in the case of the French Strollers, the Company for Acting Christs Passion,  or the Old Testament, were Carpenters, Coblers, and illiterate fellows; who found that the Drolls, and Fooleries interlarded by them, brought in the rabble, and lengthened their time, so they got Money by the bargain.  Our Shakespeare, doubtless, was a great Master in this craft.  These Carpenters and Coblers were the guides he followed.  And it is then no wonder that we find so much farce and Apocryphal Matter in his Tragedies.  Thereby un-hallowing the Theatre, profaning the name of Tragedy; And instead of representing Men and Manners, turning all Morality, good sence, and humanity into mockery and derision.

So much ado, so much stress, so much passion and repetition about an Handkerchief!  Why was not this call’d the Tragedy of the Handkerchief?  What can be more absurd.  Desdemona dropt the Handkerchief, and missed it that very day after her Marriage.  It might have been rumpl’d up with her Wedding sheets: And this Night that she lay in her wedding sheets, the Fairey Napkin (whilst Othello was stifling her) might have started up to disarm his fury, and stop his ungracious mouth.  Then might she (in a Traunce for fear) have lain as dead.  Then might he, believing her dead, touch’d with remorse, have honestly cut his own Throat, by the good leave, and with the applause of all the Spectators.  Who might thereupon have gone home with a quiet mind, admiring the beauty of Providence; fairly and truly represented on the Theatre.

But from this Scene to the end of the Play we meet with nothing but blood and butchery, described much-what to the style of the last Speeches and Confessions of the persons executed at Tyburn: with this difference, that there we have the fact, and the due course of Justice, whereas our Poet against all Justice and Reason, against all Law, Humanity and Nature, in a barbarous arbitrary way, executes and makes havock of his subjects, Hab-nab, as they come to hand.  Desdemona dropt her Handkerchief; therefore she must be stifl’d.  Othello, by law to be broken on the Wheel, by the Poet cunning escapes with cutting his own throat.  Cassio, for I know not what, comes off with a broken shin.  Iago murders his Benefactor Roderigo, as this were poetical gratitude.  Iago is not yet kill’d, because there yet never was such a villain alive.

There is in this Play, some burlesk, some humour, and ramble of Comical Wit, some shew, and some Mimickry to divert the spectators: but the tragical part is plainly none other than a Bloody Farce, without salt or savour.

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved
Crime Execution Stage Women

A fine wit, a charming Tongue, and a humour brisk and gay


These snippets form an overview of the exploits of Mary Carleton (1634-73), one of the most fascinating women of the 17th century.  Fraudster, thief, and multiple bigamist, Mary’s life reads like a Hollywood film. Her quick wit and sheer audacity demonstrate that not all early modern women were models of convention and respectability.

Little is known of Mary’s early life.  As a young woman she married a shoemaker from Canterbury, and had two children who died.  Unhappy in her marriage, she charmed a ship’s mate into allowing her to join a voyage to Barbados, but at the last minute her plans were discovered by her husband and she was forced to abandon her travels.  Thwarted in her attempts to escape, Mary retaliated by simply marrying someone else, in fact a surgeon from Dover.  Indicted for bigamy, the case was dropped when Mary managed to convince the authorities she had at the time believed her first husband to be dead.

Following this brush with the law, Mary travelled to the continent, and quickly acquired a knowledge of several European languages. Establishing herself as Maria de Wolway, she returned to London with a flash new wardrobe and an array of fine jewels. She also carried several fake letters which attested to her ownership of rich estates and land.  Passing herself off as a wealthy eligible woman, she soon attracted the attention of several men, including an inn keeper called King.  He told his father-in-law, Carlton, of Mary’s wealth and it wasn’t long before Carleton’s son John, a lawyer’s clerk aged eighteen, had acquired some posh clothes of his own, and charmed Mary into marriage. However, once it became apparent that Mary wasn’t all she seemed, the Carletons had her dragged off to prison, where she became something of a celebrity.  She was even visited by Pepys on 29th May 1663.  Her subsequent trial was something of a farce.  The Carletons could only produce one witness, and Mary insisted on her noble status, claiming the Carletons had invented her vast wealth themselves.  She was acquitted on all charges, to the great delight of the general public.  A play about her, A Witty Combat, was soon in production, and she even appeared on stage, playing herself at the Duke’s Theatre in 1664.  Pepys records in his diary ‘saw The German Princess acted—by the woman herself … the whole play … is very simple, unless here and there a witty sprankle or two’ (15 April 1664; Pepys, Diary, 5.124).

For the next seven years Mary exploited her celebrity status and acquired a string of lovers, deceiving and defrauding them  all. In addition she created several new identities supported by more false papers. In 1670 she was caught stealing a silver tankard and sentenced to hanging, which was eventually commuted to transportation to Jamaica in 1671.  However she somehow managed to return to England, having adopted yet another identity, and she went on an audacious crime spree, committing a spectacular fraud, which gained her over £600 in cash and goods (roughly £50,000).  Mary was eventually apprehended for stealing a piece of plate, and when the turnkey from Newgate recognised her as The German Princess, she was once more incarcerated.

She appeared at her trial dressed in an Indian gown, a silk petticoat, and white shoes tied with green laces. Her hair had been crimped according to the latest style.  Having confessed her sins, Mary was hanged at Tyburn on 22nd January 1673.  Her story was told repeatedly in the years following her death, and she was the inspiration for more pamphlets than any other domestic criminal of the age. One author declared her to be ‘a Looking-glass, wherein we may see the Vices of this Age Epitomized’.

Her epitaph reads as follows:

Under this Cannopy of Stone,
Who lies? if you would have it known,
‘Tis German Princess, no worse Body,
Come now to her last Hole, at Noddy:
She was a Woman Great and High-born,
But late advanc’d higher at Tyborn:
Where by the Hangman, and the Carter,
She was Instaul’d Lady o’th Garter:
She came a Lass, as far as Bantam,
And now she sups with Margret Trantam.

Sources: Janet Todd – DNB; Memories of the life of famous Madam Charlton (1673)


© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved

Ben Jonson Playwrights Poetry Shakespeare Stage

That Shakespeare wanted Arte, and sometimes Sense

In 1618 the playwright Ben Jonson undertook to make an exhausting journey from London to Edinburgh on foot. While in Scotland he spent some time at the home of the poet William Drummond, who made notes of his conversations with Jonson which were eventually published in 1711. Drummond’s notes serve as a most revealing source for Jonson’s own life, however the following fragments are some of the more gossipy
information Jonson shared with Drummond. They make for compelling reading, shedding light on Jonson’s personal opinion of his fellow poets and playwrights.

Spencer’s stanzas pleased him not, nor his matter, the meaning of which Allegorie he had delivered in papers to Sir Walter Raughlie.

Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging. But he esteemeth John Donne the first poet in the World, in some things: his verses of the Lost Chaine he hath by heart; and that passage of the Calme, That dust and feathers doe not stirr, all was so quiet. [He] affirmeth Donne to have written all his best pieces ere he was 25 years old.

That next to himself only Fletcher and Chapman could make a Masque.

That Shakespeare wanted Arte, and sometimes Sense.

His acquaintance and behaviour with poets living with him: Daniel was at jealousies with him. Drayton feared him, and he esteemed not of him. That Francis Beaumont loved too much himself and his own verses. He beat Marston, and took his pistoll from him.  That Markham was not of the number of the Faithfull Poets, and but a base fellow.  That such were Day and Middleton. That Chapman and Fletcher were loved of him.  Overbury was his first friend, then turn’d his mortall enemie.  That the Irish having robd Spenser’s goods, and burnt his house and a little child new born, he and his wyfe escaped, and after, he died for lack of bread in King Street, and refused 20 pieces sent to him by my Lord of Essex, and said, ‘He was sorrie he had no time to spend them.’

Sharpham, Day, Dekker, were all rogues.

Francis Beaumoment died ere he was 30 years of age.

Donne’s grandfather, on the mother side, was Heywood the Epigrammatist.

Walter Raughlye esteemed more of fame than conscience

Marston wrote his Father-in-laws preachings, and his Father-in-law his comedies

Sir Philip Sydney was no pleasant man in countenance, his face being spoiled with pimples.

He said to Prince Charles of Inigo Jones, that when he wanted words to express the greatest villaine in the world, he would call him an Inigo.

His Epitaph, by a companion written, is

Here lyes Benjamin Johnson dead,
And hath no more wit than goose in his head,
That as he was wont, so doth he still
Live by his wit, and evermore will.

An other:

Here lyes honest Ben
That had not a beard on his chen.

And this which is (as he said) a picture of him-selfe.

I doubt that love is rather deafe than blinde,
For else it could not bee,
That shee,
Whom I adore so much should so slight mee,
And cast my sute behinde.

I am sure my language to her is as sweet,
And all my closes meet
In numbers of as subtile feete
As makes the youngest hee
That sits in shadow of Apollos tree.
O! but my conscious feares,

That flye my thoughts betweene,
Prompt mee, that shee hath seene
My hundred of gray haires,
Told six and forty yeares,
Read so much waste, as she cannot embrace
My mountaine belly, and my rockye face,
And all these, through her eies, have stopd her eares.

January 19, 1619

Ruddiman, Thomas, Ed., The Works of William Drummond of Hawthornden, Consisting of Those which were formerly Printed and Those which were design’d for the Press. Now published from the Author’s Original Copies, Printed by James Watson, Edinburgh (1711)
Patterson, R.H.F., Ben Jonsons’s Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden, Blackie & Sons, London, Glasgow, Bombay (1923)

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