It Can’t Happen Here

Jason Sanford as Othello and Kevin Kantor (They/Them) as Iago

It can’t happen here: using the far away to get up close in Othello and Twelfth Night

By Stephanie Barbé Hammer

Friends – I’m excited about this season’s productions of Othello and Twelfth Night and I’ve been thinking a lot about the remoteness of their settings. How is where they take place important?

Jason Sanford as Othello and Kevin Kantor (They/Them) as Iago
Jason Sanford as Othello and Kevin Kantor (They/Them) as Iago; ISF 2018

A lot of Shakespeare’s plays do not take place in England and it’s interesting to consider how many of them take place in Italy alone. According to Shakespeare online, not less than 13 plays take place entirely or partially in some Italian locale.

How come?

One obvious reason is that all most important art of this period originates in Italy. Italy was THE place that visual artists, musicians and writers looked to for inspiration and information.  When ISF organized a sonnet slam in Langley in April, we talked about how that quintessential English poem was actually invented and practiced first in Italy and then in France. Italy represented all that is cultured, beautiful (think of the Sistine Chapel!), sophisticated, and intellectual in the Renaissance (think of Machiavelli) so it’s no wonder that Shakespeare set his plays in glamorous, busy cities like Verona and Venice – that so many members of his audience would never actually get to visit. Going to theater – then as now – was a way to imagine yourself in a very different place than the place you lived, a way to travel without leaving your hometown. So, this exoticism would have been very attractive to the curious English audiences of Shakespeare’s plays. Remember these are audiences that know about this mysterious other continent, the “new world” that had been discovered but about which so little was known about. So, they were curious about other climes, and the theater provided them with an imaginary ship to sail to there.


But there is another reason I think as to why so many of the plays are set in a faraway country. And that is to ask questions and make suggestions that would be deemed too uncomfortable if the story were set “at home.”
Portrait of Giuliano de’Medici from the workshop of Bronzino (1503-1572)

Othello is a case in point. According to Wikipedia (admittedly, not always the most reliable source) and a UK Telegraph review of the book The Black Tudors, Africans did emigrate to England and were presences in London as early as Catherine of Aragon. Shakespeare’s interest in the Othello story points to his awareness of the presence of African citizens in England as an uncomfortable topic for his predominantly Caucasian society. What better way to get his audiences to think about emerging ideas of racial identity and empire than by putting the scene at a safe remove? And Italy was the perfect place to choose. A recent review of a scholarly book on Africans in Europe suggests the complex roles that African people played in Renaissance Italy and the complicated racial identities that certain prominent Italians may have had (namely, some of the Medici family). If the film Black Panther’s setting in a mythic African kingdom allows US audiences to think beyond the painful history of slavery in this country, it is possible that Othello’s setting in far-away Venice, may have enabled a way for English audiences to think beyond the immediacy of their own land and history. Othello challenges contemporary audiences in the US on many levels, particularly as we grapple with both Black Lives Matter and the #metoo movement. But I think that Shakespeare’s audiences were already aware of (and struggling with) issues of gender, race, and power, although those were not the terms they used. But the historicity of the concerns that haunted those audiences of the fledgling British empire explains both why the play spoke to them, and why it still speaks to us, former colonials, and the peoples impacted by those acts of colonialism.

Helen Roundhill as Viola, ISF 2018
Helen Roundhill as Viola, ISF 2018

Twelfth Night is also set on the Mediterranean, but not quite in Italy. Rather, the play takes place in a pretend country on the Adriatic coast called Illyria. So, given what we just talked about, why not Italy? Here I am guessing that Shakespeare is playing with us, giving us an equivalent of the Forest of Arden – an imaginary space which is culturally recognizable but where anything can happen. Because we are not in England, we can laugh safely at the conspiracy against Malvolio, we can enjoy the gender-swapping role play, and homosocial/sexual overtones of the interactions between the characters. We are on vacation, after all, and anything goes, doesn’t it? This is the Renaissance equivalent to the Vegas vacation where “what happens in Illyria stays in Illyria.”

But does it? How is Viola changed by becoming – even for a short space – a man? What about Olivia and her choice of love object? The joy of Twelfth Night – as is true for many of Shakespeare’s comedies – is that things may open up in surprising and irreversible ways, when we play pretend with who we think we are.

“It can’t happen here,” Shakespeare is saying in these plays and also “But maybe it does and you just don’t notice.” Theater makes us notice the real world we live in by setting before us actual, breathing people who bring what is foreign and other to our doorstep.  Plan your visit to see our versions of these worlds soon!

Stephanie Barbe Hammer

Stephanie Barbé Hammer is a comp lit scholar, poet, and fiction writer who went to her first live performance at 4 (the music man). She has been going to the theater ever since. Stephanie was born in New York City and now lives in Coupeville where she spends her non-writing hours walking and searching for a dry cleaner, a department store, and someone to “tawk” to among the trees.

Discovering Shakespeare’s Forgotten Women

When I think of Shakespeare I don’t necessarily think of women. I think of kings, murderers, and fools, but women? Not so much. Lady Macbeth, sure. Ophelia and Juliet? You bet. But I think of the guys mostly: Hamlet, Brutus, Prospero, Henry the IV, and Lear. Even the minor male characters are memorable: Edgar and Kent, Hotspur, Sir Toby Belch, and my personal favorite, Caliban.

But what if Shakespeare wrote more for women? Who would those women be, and what would they say to us? Those are the questions that Scott Kaiser’s play Shakespeare’s Other Women (playing through January 28, 2018) explores. it’s an ambitious exciting project. It’s also a fun one as Kaiser has thrown a little Samuel Beckett into the mix along with Shakespeare. There are in fact two men in the play along with the 36 forgotten or misunderstood heroines; these two guys ostensibly worked on the First Folio – the published work of Shakespeare’s plays – and they are enthusiastic but somewhat clueless. Like the friends in Waiting for Godot, who sit around and wait for someone who never comes, these two while away their time before heading to a tavern by looking through a box of earlier drafts and plays in progress – Shakespeare’s marginalia, as it were.

In that box they find the speeches of Shakespeare’s other women.

What do they tell us?

A lot, actually. We hear from a dizzying array of female characters: prostitutes and cooks as well as queens, goddesses, mothers, daughters, and wives.

Most exciting to me are women I either had never heard of or who are so completely in the background of their famous husbands, that I didn’t even think to notice them.

Here are two historical figures.


Helena Bonham Carter as Lady Jane Grey.

Lady Jane Grey was queen of England for 9 days, according to Wikipedia.  This brief reign came after the death of Henry the VIII, as his son, Edward VI lay dying at the age of 15. Edward wanted to protect the Reformation from the hands of his half-sister Catholic Mary Tudor, and so he named Lady Jane – his first cousin once removed — Queen. Obviously, this didn’t last long. Both Lady Jane and her husband Guildford Dudley were executed by the irate Mary the First, otherwise known as Bloody Mary (after which the cocktail is named). Lady Jane’s speech seems to clearly echo the determined, highly individualized faith that characterized the Protestant Reformation.

Isis Phoenix as Lady Jane Grey, ISF, Shakespeare’s Other Women, 2018, Photo by Michael Stadler

“Before my God, and all of you assembled/I pray you bear witness that today/I die a true and faithful Christian woman/And that I look this morning to be saved/By no means other than the mercy of my God”

The above quote from the monologue is based on words Jane apparently really said – making this speech all the more powerful. Through drama, we glimpse a real, forgotten woman (so forgotten there is no portrait of her) and we witness (Jane’s word) her restoration as a glittering, important and — at this moment at least — heroic public figure.

Greer Garson as Calpurnia from


The other big surprise was to hear at last the point of view of Julius Caesar’s wife Calpurnia. In Kaiser’s play, she speaks to us before the dreaded assassination and tells her husband  in no uncertain terms, not to accept the crown that would make him emperor.

“Yea, put it by, with fair humility/And let the Roman people clearly see/You do not seek the yoke of sovereignty/But rather, hope to be a faithful servant/To the Republic as great Pompey was”

Kathryn Lynn Morgen as Calpurnia and G. Kent Taylor as Caesar, ISF, Shakespeare’s Other Women, 2018, photo by Michael Stadler

Reading Calpurnia, I am reminded of the power-hungry men of the present, who if they are lucky enough to have a sensible spouse, would do well to heed their warning against ambition and ego. In Calpurnia, we hear a woman skilled at rhetoric and state-craft, who — if she had not lived under patriarchy — would have been herself a powerful political leader. Calpurnia’s warning – to approach the reins of power with caution and modesty – rings truer now than ever.

Other surprises await you should you venture out to see Shakespeare’s Other Women and it’s a thrill to learn of these female characters, and to learn to know them better.  Tickets available here!

Stephanie Barbe HammerStephanie Barbé Hammer is a comp lit scholar, poet, and fiction writer who went to her first live performance at 4 (the music man). She has been going to the theater ever since. Stephanie was born in New York City and now lives in Coupeville where she spends her non-writing hours walking and searching for a dry cleaner, a department store, and someone to “tawk” to amongst the trees.

What is Shakespeare’s First Folio?

The title page of Shakespeare's First Folio.

Have you heard the news? In January 2018, ISF will expand its horizon into winter programming with the professional premier of Scott Kaiser’s new play, Shakespeare’s Other Women: A New Anthology of Monologues, giving voice to text Shakespeare might have written had he provided more for his female characters to speak.


This timely story weaves together an anthology of 36 new monologues, written in iambic pentameter, in Shakespeare’s vernacular, set in the historical moment upon the completion of Shakespeare’s First Folio of collected works. Shakespeare’s Other Women explores the female experience that exists beneath the surface of Shakespeare’s works, acknowledging the repression of female voices throughout history.  But what is the First Folio?  Why is it important today?

The title page of Shakespeare's First Folio.

In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, two of his colleagues from the King’s Men acting company (John Heminges and Henry Condell, the characters who frame the structure of Shakespeare’s Other Women) put together the first collection of Shakespeare’s work and called it “Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies.” We now know this collection as Shakespeare’s “First Folio.” Folio refers to the paper size: books were printed on folded sheets in either quarto (folded twice into quarters) or folio (folded only once, in half) formats. Folios were larger and more expensive to print than quartos. They were usually only printed for important texts.


The First Quarto of Hamlet, printed 1603

We know that at least 17 of Shakespeare’s plays were printed as quartos during his lifetime. Printing and copyright were very different in Elizabethan England. It was common for poets to publish their work for public consumption, as Shakespeare did with his sonnets, but plays were printed far less frequently, were not copyrighted to their authors, and certainly were not considered high literature. Shakespeare’s quartos were likely not published by Shakespeare himself, but by colleagues of his from his acting company. Some plays were printed in multiple quarto versions, which differ drastically from one another (compare Hamlet’s “To be or not to be, that is the question” vs ”To be or not to be, ay, there’s the point!”). It is impossible to know which, if any, quarto versions accurately represent what the author intended.

It is presumed that Heminges and Condell used published quartos, actors’ prompt books, Shakespeare’s manuscripts, and working drafts to compile the works contained in the First Folio. Without their effort, the 18 plays for which no quarto versions exist (including Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Twelfth Night), might have been lost to time. This leaves us to ponder what they didn’t include.  Shakespeare’s Other Women offers one idea.

Shakespeare’s Other Women runs Thursday-Sunday, January 18-28, at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts’ Zech Hall in Langley, WA. Thursdays are Pay-What-You-Will; Friday-Sunday tickets are $15.  Showtimes are Thurs/Fri/Sat at 7:30PM, Sun at 2:00PM.  Tickets available now!

resumeHeadShotOlena Hodges, ISF (Aside) Editor, is ISF‘s Artistic Director and is a founding acting company member.  Favorite roles at ISF include Rosalind (As You Like It, 2010 and 2016), Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing, 2013),  and Juliet (Romeo & Juliet, 2011).  Other regional theaters: the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Olena received a BFA in performance from Southern Oregon University and is a graduate of Circle in the Square Theatre School.

The Passionate Pilgrim 1.16: Salathiel Pavey and the Boy Players

Interior of the first Blackfriars Theatre

Years he numbered scarce thirteen

When fates turned cruel,

Yet three filled zodiacs had he been

The stage’s jewel;

And did act, what now we moan,

Old men so duly,

Ah, sooth, the Parcae thought him one

He played so truly.

Jonson, Ben, The Pity of it.


But for Ben Jonson’s famous epitaph excerpted above, we would know nothing of the young player named Salathiel, or for that  matter, not much more of the scores of children forced to play for the amusement of the upper classes of the English Renaissance.

The boys’ companies was one of the grim realities, not at all secret, of the Elizabethan stage. In fact, Elizabeth signed into law the right of theatrical companies to impress boys who were attractive into their service, just as men could be taken from the streets and impressed (ie: forced) into service in the army or the navy.

Interior of the first Blackfriars Theatre
Interior of the first Blackfriars Theatre

The boys’ companies enjoyed two vogues of popularity. The first vogue began more or less benignly. Records show that the choir boys of Chapel Royal at Windsor were performing plays as early as 1516, and the choristers of St. Paul’s Cathedral by 1525 but it was not until the reign of Elizabeth that these groups began to form into professional companies. In 1576, Richard Farrant, then Master of the Children of the Chapel (ie: Windsor), began presenting indoor performances at Blackfriars. This first Blackfriars theatre was closed in 1584 because the plays were too politically daring. Meanwhile, the Children of Paul’s, or St. Paul’s Boys, were having great success of their own, presenting plays by John Lyly geared towards the courtly audience.

These companies consisted of 8-12 boys of various ages and “types”. The masters of the companies trained the boys in singing and acting, as well as in grammar and rhetoric. The masters were also directors, designers, and costumers and, it must be admitted, promoters of the boys in their charge. Quoting Dr. Bart van Es in a June, 2013 article about the scholar’s Oxford study, BBC correspondent Sean Coughlan reported:

[there] seems to have been sexual exploitation, both in the staging of these children’s performances and how these child actors were viewed by Elizabethan audiences. . . . the children’s companies were “bizarre” and “dubious” and should not simply be seen as a peculiarity of the Elizabethan era.

In other words, these companies were not what we think of today when we talk about children’s theater. Parents were explicitly excluded and the children were more in the position of slaves than students. In fact, as Dr. van Es showed, Henry Clifton, father of thirteen year old Thomas Clifton, filed a suit to retrieve his son from captivity at Blackfriars and complained that other children had been abducted from “sundry schools of learning” and apprentices had been seized from where they were training “against the wills of the said children, their parents, tutors, masters and governors”. It is not known whether or not Mr. Clifton was able to recover his son.

Even Hamlet remarked on the strangeness of these companies:

“What, are they children? Who maintains ‘em? How are they escorted? Will they pursue the quality no longer than they can sing? Will they not say afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common players – as it is most like, if their means are not better – their writers do them wrong to make them exclaim against their own succession?

“‘Sblood, there is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find it out.”

Hamlet, II.2.344-50 & 365-6.

G. Topham Forrest - “Blackfriars Theatre: Conjectural Reconstruction” by G. Topham Forrest, The Times, 21 November 1921, p. 5. Drawing of the second Blackfriars Theatre according to legal descriptions of the times
G. Topham Forrest – “Blackfriars Theatre: Conjectural Reconstruction” by G. Topham Forrest, The Times, 21 November 1921, p. 5. Drawing of the second Blackfriars Theatre according to legal descriptions of the times

The boys’ companies initially fell out of favor in 1589 due to their involvement in the Martin Maleprate controversy, a series of anti clerical pamphlets and performances for which John Penry was eventually held responsible and executed in 1593. The companies experienced a resurgence of popularity after Richard Burbage, of all people, leased the second Blackfriars Theatre to the Children of the Chapel around 1597. The boys performed many important, less sexually overt plays by prominent playwrights such as Marston, Dekker, Middleton, Chapman, Webster, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher. After the performance of Eastward Ho (1605), by Jonson, Marston, and Chapman, the Children lost their royal patronage, because of a passage about Scots in Act III which offended King James so much that he had the authors briefly imprisoned. The playhouse ceased to be productive and by 1613, the interest in boys’ companies was so diminished that they were finally absorbed by adult companies.

This is not to say that the abuse of child actors ended. After all, boys continued to play female parts until the shutting of the theaters by the Puritans in 1642.

The children’s theaters were justifiably a source of scandal throughout the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. They gave an infinite amount of ammunition for those who saw all theaters as hot beds of degeneracy and sedition. Even today, far from the politics of the era, it is not difficult to view them as sordid institutions open to constant abuse.

Salathiel Pavey probably fell victim to the various plagues that struck London in those days, sewage and waste disposal being little understood arts at the time. On the other hand, he could just as easily have fallen victim to some form of venereal disease.

Next:     Julius Caesar

PeteHeadshotDr. Peter Hodges holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Washington (class of ‘75), an M.A. in Directing and a Ph. D. in Literature from The City Graduate Center of The City University of New York City, New York (1986 and 1992).  Dr. Pete (as he is sometimes known among his friends) is a 30 year veteran of the Wall Street wars, author and producer of more than a dozen plays, a novel, and a critical study of Sadakichi Hartmann’s plays.

The Passionate Pilgrim 1.15: A Little More on Burbage

Burbage’s acting style is frequently compared with the technique that many Hollywood actors use today called method acting. This comparison is imprecise, to say the least, as The Method, as it is sometimes called, relies on a modern understanding of psychology which leans heavily on childhood experience to investigate sub-text in the process of exploring and building a character.

In the Elizabethan age, to the contrary, individuals were believed to be constituted of “humors.”  As Richard C. Harrier observed:

“. . . it is necessary to work within the context of Elizabethan English in which the heart could and did think, and the fluids of the body were one with the moods of the spirit.”

Harrier, R. C., Jacobean Drama, Norton, p. viii.

Robert Armin, Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino CA.
Robert Armin, Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino CA.

In this view of humanity, individuals are taken as they present themselves, with various insights by their observers into the ways in which they behave and possibly mask their underlying intentions. The idea of searching their motives to some previous state, such as past or even primal experience, is not considered. Childhood itself, in the Elizabethan view, was a more or less neutral state and adulthood arrived much earlier than is now understood, at about the age of puberty.

Burbage and his followers, therefore, should not be confused with modern acting techniques. It is quite enough to recognize that his leap from Alleyn’s bombastic style to something that more closely held “a mirror up to nature” was revolutionary.

In fact, Burbage appears to have had an effect on the plays and playwrights as well. Jonson’s Every Man in his Humor declared this movement away from the bombast typical of Marlowe and Kyd  toward more realistic concerns and As You Like It responded. As Peter Farey points out:

“Marlowe’s style is essentially declamatory, his characters talking at people, rather than talking with them, as Shakespeare’s characters do.”

Farey, Peter,  Hoffman Prize Essay, 2008.

Burbage’s influence did not stop there. As a leading shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, he had the opportunity to influence the selection of actors for the company. The apparent dismissal of Will Kempe is a major example, but he appears to have naturally sought out actors who either shared or learned to work in his innovative mode. Among the actors who joined the company under his supervision we can include:

Robert Armin,
Robert Armin,

Robert Armin, who replaced Will Kempe as leading clown and who Leslie Hotson claims: “If any player breathed, who could explore with Shakespeare the shadows and fitful flashes of the borderland of insanity, that player was Armin.”

John Lowin, who apparently was the man who seconded {ie: understudied)  Burbage in Othello, Volpone and The Alchemist. In all likelihood it was Lowin who played Iago to Burbage’s Othello, Mosca to his Volpone, and Subtle to his Face

Henry Condell who is generally listed shortly after Burbage and Heminges in most of their productions. With Heminges, he published the First Folio.

John Heminges, who was a secondary player in the company, but was an editor of the First Folio, and also the Company’s financial manager.

Augustine Phillips
Augustine Phillips

Augustine  Phillips, one of the six sharers in the Globe Theatre when it was built, in 1598–9. In 1601, he was the representative of the company called to testify before the Privy Council about their involvement with the rebellion of the Earl of Essex; the Chamberlain’s Men had been paid by supporters of the Earl to perform Shakespeare’s Richard II before the abortive coup. Phillips’ testimony seems to have assuaged whatever anger the court may have felt towards the players; they were not punished, and indeed played for Elizabeth at Whitehall on 24 February 1601, the night before Essex was executed.

If Burbage had this much control over his actors and his playwrights, it strikes me that it is not implausible that he also had some measure of control over how his company’s plays were presented. Which is to say that moving away from  productions which featured actors who pushed their way to center stage to project their speeches, he would naturally have been interested in developing more complex stage pictures, with moving focus. This could not have reached the level of modern stagecraft, but the awareness of it would inevitably, in my view, have resulted in much more compelling staging than what came before. I doubt very much that he would have been satisfied to merely arrange the rest of his company like furniture and drapery but would have called upon them to pay attention to the speakers, to react appropriately and help the audience understand the story.

In this period of innovation, of a swiftly moving competition between artists, patrons and politicians, who were always watchful of challenges to them from outsiders, Burbage stands as a bulwark against repression and as a leader of free expression. It is no wonder that he was revered by his audience.

Next:     Salathiel Pavy and the Boy Players.

PeteHeadshotDr. Peter Hodges holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Washington (class of ‘75), an M.A. in Directing and a Ph. D. in Literature from The City Graduate Center of The City University of New York City, New York (1986 and 1992).  Dr. Pete (as he is sometimes known among his friends) is a 30 year veteran of the Wall Street wars, author and producer of more than a dozen plays, a novel, and a critical study of Sadakichi Hartmann’s plays.

The Passionate Pilgrim 1.14: Richard Burbage

Portrait of Richard Burbage, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you overstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so o’redone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.

Hamlet, III.2 17-24

Richard Burbage (1567 – 1619) played Hamlet when the play debuted in (about) 1602. The performance is legendary and it must have amused him to be giving this advice to the actors of his own company on the stage that he and his brother Cuthbert built and owned.

Portrait of Richard Burbage, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
Portrait of Richard Burbage, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Portrait of Richard Burbage, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Burbage more or less grew up on stage. His father, James, a joiner (ie: a building contractor) from Stratford who shortly became a theatrical impresario, and also founded the first successful permanent playhouse, was a famous theatrical entrepreneur. This background gave him gave him a real head start in the constantly changing and growing London theatre world.  Many scholars believe that he worked backstage as well as making his way through the ranks of the younger players, possibly playing female roles.

Burbage got around, possibly working with the Earl of Leicester‘s company in the mid 1580s when he was still a teenager. (Could he have visited Elsinore with Will Kempe in 1586?) He probably was acting with the Admiral’s Men in 1590, with Lord Strange’s Men in 1592, and with the Earl of Pembroke’s Men in 1593; but most famously he was the star of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men which became the King’s Men.

What seems to have made Burbage’s acting style significant was that it was not only a stark departure from the ranting of Alleyn and the antics of Kempe, but that he made the effort to assume  the identity of his character and maintained that identity not only when delivering his lines, but in all his other stage work as well. Which is to say that he stayed in the scene and supported it throughout. Actors in the Alleyn or Kempe mold, who primarily sought center stage and largely ignored the action when they weren’t in the middle of it, were simply not as believable as Burbage.

It is not at all difficult to see how Hamlet would prefer to work with Burbage over other actors because he understood that “The play’s the thing . . . .”

Once he reached an age where he could compete for the major roles, Burbage swiftly became more popular than Alleyn, his closest competitor. He played the leads in Hamlet, Othello, Richard III, and King Lear. In addition, he played the lead in Jonson’s Volpone, and Subtle in The Alchemist. For John Marston he played The Malcontent, for John Webster  he starred in The Duchess of Malfi) and in The Maid’s Tragedy for Beaumont and Fletcher .

For all his success onstage, Burbage did not die a wealthy man. He left his wife an estate of 300 pounds, not an inconsiderable sum, but nothing compared to the fortune that allowed Ned Alleyn to establish his famous college. Also unlike Alleyn, Burbage never quit the stage. On the other hand, when he died in 1619, there was such outpour of grief that it threatened to overshadow the official mourning for the death of Queen Anne ten days prior.

Next: A Little More on Burbage

PeteHeadshotDr. Peter Hodges holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Washington (class of ‘75), an M.A. in Directing and a Ph. D. in Literature from The City Graduate Center of The City University of New York City, New York (1986 and 1992).  Dr. Pete (as he is sometimes known among his friends) is a 30 year veteran of the Wall Street wars, author and producer of more than a dozen plays, a novel, and a critical study of Sadakichi Hartmann’s plays.

The Passionate Pilgrim 1.13: Will Kempe

William Kempe (right) from Nine Days Wonder (1600)

“And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them. For there be of them that will themselves laugh to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered.”

Hamlet, III, 37-42

Directors thinking they should try to trim the length of Hamlet often excise this and the remainder of Hamlet’s famous speech in order to get on with the story. When they do so, they are flying in the face of the author’s very specific advice.

There are two things to consider here. One is meddling with the text. The other is the tendency of some actors to vamp, to add extra action, business which attracts attention to themselves and away from the play and to selfishly steal the scene.

We have seen how Ned Allyen was accused of the first fault. Will Kempe was the prime example of the second offense.

William Kempe (right) from Nine Days Wonder (1600)
William Kempe (right) from Nine Days Wonder (1600)

In his time, Kempe was as famous for his stage jigs as for his acting in regular drama. The jig, a kind of rustic cousin to commedia dell’arte, featured partially improvised song-and-dance routines, juggling, gymnastics, physical comedy, mimicry and what is today referred to as shtick. If Hamlet’s advice is any guide, Kempe and his type of actor had a bag full of antic improvs that could be inserted at any moment in any play whenever the actor thought he could milk the moment. This made Kempe popular with his audience but probably did not endear him with his other actors who stuck closer to the script.

About this type of acting, Hamlet further observes:

And then you have some again that keeps one suit of jests, as a man is known by one suit of apparel; and gentlemen quote his jests down in their table before they come to the play; as thus, ‘Cannot you stay till I eat my porridge?’ and ‘You owe me a quarter’s wages’, and ‘My coat wants a cullison’, and ‘Your beer is sour’, and blabbering with his lips, and thus keeping his cinquepace of jests, when, God knows, the warm clown cannot make a jest unless by chance, as the blind man catcheth a hare.

III.2 43-53

As an actor, Kempe is specifically identified with two roles: Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing and Peter in Romeo and Juliet. In addition, various parts that he may have played include: Costard in Love’s Labours Lost, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lancelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, and Cob in Ben Jonson‘s Every Man in His Humour. Some commentators suggest that Kemp also played Falstaff which in my view is unlikely. Falstaff is a comic role, in parts, but has more dimension than Kempe’s reputation suggests he could have understood or sustained.

Wood carving of Will Kempe in Chapelfield Gardens, Norwich
Wood carving of Will Kempe in Chapelfield Gardens, Norwich

Kempe first appears in correspondence between Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s spymaster, and Sir Philip Sydney, nephew of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, patron of Leicester’s Men for whom Kempe performed starting in about 1585. In that same year, Kempe accompanied two other future members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, George Bryan and Thomas Pope, to Elsinore where he entertained Frederick II of Denmark.

In all likelihood Kempe was the model for the character Yorick, the skull of the clown unearthed in Hamlet (1603). Kempe, a founding member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, had been forced out of the company by 1599 and is believed to have died in 1603 after making a strange, antic tour of England, known as the Nine Days Wonder in 1600. Was Yorick an homage, a jest or both?

Regardless, Hamlet makes it clear that he wants nothing to do with Kempe’s improvisational manner of acting which relied too much on antic jigs and departed too much from the life of the text.

In my view, what Hamlet is advocating is a more natural style of acting, a style that relied less on bombast (Alleyn) or extemporaneous clowning (Kempe) than on “holding up a mirror to life”. This type of actor was a radical change from what had preceded him on the English stage. It was a type of actor who worked from within, not from without, who lived the character rather than merely projected it.

The actor Hamlet was talking about was Richard Burbage.

Next:     Richard Burbage.

PeteHeadshotDr. Peter Hodges holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Washington (class of ‘75), an M.A. in Directing and a Ph. D. in Literature from The City Graduate Center of The City University of New York City, New York (1986 and 1992).  Dr. Pete (as he is sometimes known among his friends) is a 30 year veteran of the Wall Street wars, author and producer of more than a dozen plays, a novel, and a critical study of Sadakichi Hartmann’s plays.

An analysis of AS YOU LIKE IT (Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia / Transgender in Shakespeare / Transgenderism in Shakespeare / Shakespeare Transgender / Transgender AS YOU LIKE IT / Shakespeare Transgender

Wonderful insight into gender and transgender in As You Like It. Rosalind certainly finds her voice and her freedom as a male in Arden. Our current production investigates this in several ways.

Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia

An analysis of AS YOU LIKE IT (Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

“Aimer grandement quelqu’un c’est le render inépuisable.”

—Paul Valéry, Cahiers (1944. Sans titre, XXVIII, 524)

In the wrestling match between Nature and Fortune, it is Fortune that chokeholds her opponent and flattens her on the mat. “Nature” refers to the qualities with which one is born; “Fortune” signifies all that comes post-natal. “Nature” is another word for “necessity”; Fortune is accident, preference, education, style. In Elizabethan England: That which God makes is Nature; that which you like belongs to Fortune. What you are born with is overthrown by what you like in Shakespeare’s most audience-accommodating comedy, AS YOU LIKE IT (circa 1599).

We see the clash between Nature and Fortune in the very first scene, one in which Orlando grieves that he, a natural gentleman, is reduced by Fortune to the status of a stalled ox. This, the…

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The Passionate Pilgrim 1.12: A Little Bit More About Ned Alleyn

Title page of 1592 publication of Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Yes trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as welable to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceit the only Shake-scene in a countrey.”

Greene, Robert, A Greenes Groats-worth of Wit, 1592.

Robert Greene, 1560-1592, Woodcut of Greene 'suted in deaths livery, from John Dickenson's Greene in conceipt (1598)
Robert Greene, 1560-1592, Woodcut of Greene ‘suted in deaths livery, from John Dickenson’s Greene in conceipt (1598)

Robert Greene would probably not be very happy to know that of everything he ever wrote these are the lines of his most quoted. In addition, he would probably have been apoplectic to imagine that for four hundred years they would be completely misunderstood.

Tradition holds that this excerpt is a specific reference to Shakespeare (ie: “Shake-scene”) and that Greene was warning his fellow poets, in particular Marlowe, Nashe and Peele (Who had been working with him on what was to become Henry VI Parts I, II and III) to be wary of this interloper from Stratford.

Stratfordian scholarship is so hungry for any historical reference that might tie back to Shakespeare that they furiously grasp at this statement. The trouble is that Greene wasn’t talking about Shakespeare. He never met Shakespeare, whoever he was. He as talking about Ned Alleyn.

Edward Alleyn. Remember him? Brother of the man who William Bradley owed 14 Pounds and who attacked Christopher Marlowe in Hog Lane only to be killed by Marlowe’s friend, Tom Watson? Ned Alleyn, the most important actor on the London stage in 1592? The man who played the lead role in Greene’s Orlando Furioso (which bombed – it was and is bad) and who had succeeded extraordinarily in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Faustus and The Jew of Malta, not to mention in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy.

When Greene talked about a “Shake-scene” type of actor, he was talking about someone who indulged in bombast, someone who in modern terms chewed the scenery, while making the further pun on bumbast, which is stitching, which is to say that this person imagines that because he can shout out a playwright’s lines he therefore imagines that he can compose better lines. And the person he was pointing to was Alleyn.

Following the death of Gabriel Spencer at the hands of Ben Jonson and the breakup of Pembroke’s Men, of which Alleyn had been a leading member and actor, he joined forces with Phillip Henslowe, manager of Lord Strange’s Men, which later became The Admiral’s Men, chief competitor to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men which later became the King’s Men, the company which produced most of the plays credited to Shakespeare.

Alleyn married Joan Woodward, step-daughter of Philip Henslowe, in October 1592, prior to which Henslowe had paid him handsomely for performances in April and May in the same year of a play titled Tamar Cham, Parts 1 and 2. As the former lead actor of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, it does not seem like a stretch to suppose that the “Shake-scene” accused of “bumbasting out a blanke verse” was simply rewriting his most successful role for his new business partner.

Unfortunately, this play has been lost; only a plot outline remains, upon which many scholars have noted the similarity with Tamburlaine. More importantly, Ben Jonson, who clearly saw it in performance, commented in his Timber: or, Discoveries that “the Tamerlanes, and Tamer-Chams of the late Age, . . . had nothing in them but the scenical strutting, and furious vociferation, to warrant them to the ignorant gapers” (H&S 8.587).

So Henslowe and Jonson both confirm Greene’s accusation against Alleyn that he was taking the “feathers” of authors like Marlowe, Nashe and Peele to stitch together his own inventions. Shakespeare, whose sole acting credit is from a play produced five years later, is nowhere in sight.

Title page of 1592 publication of Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Title page of 1592 publication of Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The whole “Shake-scene” thing has another level of importance. Robert Greene is almost universally cited as the inspiration for the character of Falstaff. However, if Greene was referring to Ned Alleyn and not Shakespeare then the connection fails outright. If Greene never knew Shakespeare, which seems likely, then there could be no reason for Shakespeare to take him as inspiration for what Harold Bloom considers one of his three greatest characters.

On the other hand, Marlowe knew Greene intimately and Greene’s relationship to Marlowe, if Greene’s report of it is to be trusted, was very much like the relationship portrayed in Henry IV I & II between Falstaff and Prince Hal.

Robert Greene died in 1592 at the age of 34, reportedly of drink and dissipation, shortly before the publication of A Groatsworth. Alleyn, meanwhile, lived to the age of sixty and became so wealthy that he was able to found the College of God’s Gift at Dulwich which exists to this day.

Next: Will Kempe

PeteHeadshot Dr. Peter Hodges holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Washington (class of ‘75), an M.A. in Directing and a Ph. D. in Literature from The City Graduate Center of The City University of New York City, New York (1986 and 1992).  Dr. Pete (as he is sometimes known among his friends) is a 30 year veteran of the Wall Street wars, author and producer of more than a dozen plays, a novel, and a critical study of Sadakichi Hartmann’s plays.