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) http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/greenebio.htm
Robert Greene, 1560-1592, Woodcut of Greene ‘suted in deaths livery, from John Dickenson’s Greene in conceipt (1598) http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/greenebio.htm

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.

The Passionate Pilgrim 1.11: Acting in the Age of Elizabeth

Edward Alleyn, Dulwich College Portrait

Some of the most significant questions a modern person can ask regarding the London theater in the 1580s and 90s have to be “what did it look like, what did it feel like, and how did it sound?” We have volumes recording the activities of the various companies and their managers, not to mention those who actively opposed them, and the successes and failures of everyone who had a financial or political interest. We know how the theaters were shaped, how many people could fit inside, and what their stages could provide for the presentation of a given play. We know who the major and even many minor playwrights were.

The actual actors on the other hand, the people onstage delivering the words to the audience, are not so well noted. And often less well grasped is how they were understood.

It seems to me that one of the most important things about the Elizabethan theatre is the development of acting as an art. To explain this point I want to highlight three of the most prominently remembered actors of the age, Edward Alleyn, Will Kempe and Richard Burbage.

“Ned” Alleyn, as he was commonly known, came to fame as the voice of Tamburlaine, the title character of Christopher Marlowe’s extraordinarily successful play. He went on to play the same role in Tamburlaine, Part II, and then took the leads in  several more of Marlowe’s plays, including Faust in Dr. Faustus and Barabbas in The Jew of Malta. He is also believed to have played Orlando in Robert Greene‘s Orlando Furioso, and perhaps Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd (which I have earlier said I believe to have been co-written by Marlowe).

Edward Alleyn, Dulwich College Portrait
Edward Alleyn, Dulwich College Portrait

Alleyn was, by all reports, a bombastic actor. Which is to say that he commanded the center of the stage and blasted out his lines in a fury. In this regard, he was very well matched for the roles that Marlowe wrote for him, characters who were larger than life, given to prolonged proclamations and violent action. To this day this style of theater is very successful. No one should underestimate it. I think it is probably fair to say that before Alleyn the theatre was not nearly so loud.

But times change and styles change. By the mid 1590s Alleyn’s style was literally being shoved off the stage.

In fact, while avoiding the London plague of 1593, Alleyn was leading a not terribly successful tour with Pembroke’s Men in the provinces of Bristol, Shrewsbury, Chester, and York when Gabriel Spencer, then being groomed as a lead player for Pembroke’s in London, was killed by playwright Ben Jonson in a street fight.

It should not be forgotten that Alleyn was a minor player in an earlier dispute between his brother, the tavern keeper John Alleyn and William Bradley who John claimed owed him fourteen pounds. In 1589 John Alleyn filed papers in court against Bradley whereupon Bradley counter claimed against Alleyn, Tom Watson, a noted poet, and Alleyn’s solicitor asserting that he had been threatened with physical harm and feared for his life. The matter went unresolved until, for some reason, Bradley decided to attack the playwright Christopher Marlowe, author of the roles that had made John Alleyn’s brother Ned famous, in a narrow street known as Hog Lane in the district of Shoreditch outside of London not far from the theater where Marlowe’s plays had been performed.

What Bradley hoped to accomplish with this maneuver is unclear. Perhaps he thought that Marlowe could be intimidated or otherwise convinced to intercede with Ned to convince his brother John to make a compromise. Or, as some have suggested, he really thought his life was in danger and therefore attacked Marlowe who was known to be friends with Tom Watson, perhaps hoping to thereby discourage both Alleyn and Watson.

Thomas Watson, 1557 - 1592, http://www.wicked-good-books.com/?p=1105
Thomas Watson, 1557 – 1592, http://www.wicked-good-books.com/?p=1105

Regardless, Tom Watson suddenly appeared and, defending Marlowe, challenged Bradley who, as the court recorded afterward, engaged him in a sword fight that ranged up and down the street and succeeded in wounding Watson but then was killed when Watson, then on the ground, managed to pierce his heart with a single thrust.

Marlowe spent several weeks in gaol, Watson several months, but both were finally exonerated. Neither Ned nor his brother were ever detained for this, but the incident, and the later death of Gabriel Spencer, attests to the uncertain and even dangerous life of the theater in the age of Elizabeth.

Finally, it must be noted that many scholars have cited the Bradley/Watson duel as one of the likely inspirations for the duel between Tybalt and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.

Next: A Little Bit More About Ned Alleyn

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.

The Passionate Pilgrim 1.10: Why Jacques?

A performance in progress at the Swan theatre in London in 1596.

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;”

Thus begins one of the most memorable speeches ever written. Everyone in the English-speaking world has heard it. They may not know who speaks it or why, but they will probably know that what follows is the seven ages of man.

What is odd about this speech is that, unlike “To be or not to be” or “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” it really doesn’t seem to have any purpose. For that matter its speaker, Jacques, does not seem to have any purpose. Neither he nor his most famous speech make any connection to the action of As You Like It. They are there, they are amusing, but they could both be easily pulled straight out of the play and nothing much would change for any of the characters, the plot or the outcome. So, what are they doing there?

I think that this speech is a direct reply to Ben Jonson’s Prologue in Every Man In His Humor. I have several reasons for thinking this. First is that Jonson made a very direct attack on the type of play that had been most successful on the London stage, in particular Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (co-written I believe by Marlowe) and any number of the bold historical plays attributed to Shakespeare, including most recently at that time Julius Caesar.

Jonson explicitly advocated a theater that paid more attention to “deeds and language such as men do use” rather than one that depicted “Monsters.” Every Man In His Humor was Jonson’s alternative type of play.

A performance in progress at the Swan theatre in London in 1596.
A performance in progress at the Swan theatre in London in 1596. By Arnoldus Buchelius (Aernout van Buchel) (1565-1641), after a drawing of Johannes de Witt (1566-1622). Utrecht, University Library, Ms. 842, fol. 132r. (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the second act of Jonson’s play, his lead character, Know-well, makes a long speech about how difficult it is to be the father of a ne’er-do-well son. In a lot of ways, this speech can be seen as a precursor to Jacques famous speech. It is not quite so well written from a poetic perspective, there are none of Jacques memorable lines, but it deals with similar issues, with a father reflecting on wayward youth and generational discontent.

Many scholars have convinced each other that Shakespeare “probably” played the role of Know-Well, based on the prominence of his name in the cast list and the importance of the role. I don’t believe that tradition has much supportive evidence. Shakespeare would have been in his mid thirties at the time of the play’s production, 1598, and should not be assumed to have been preferable to an actor old enough to play an elderly man.

I do believe that, regardless of whether or not Shakespeare played Know-Well, a second reason for Jacques’ speech was as an appreciation of Jonson’s premise. In a way, Jacques expands on Jonson. Where Jonson says he wants to focus on real men, Jacques reminds us that men are changeable and that they have more capacity than Jonson describes.

The irony is that Jacques is As You Like It’s Jonson. Jonson already had a reputation for being melancholy, as Jacques is repeatedly described, he was known for private study, which Jacques eventually decides to pursue, and they both reject the fanciful world of Arden.

All of which returns us to the war of the poets. There is no doubt that Jonson wanted to make a name for himself. He was not just a capable writer, he had a point of view and a theory of what drama should present that was demonstrated in his own work. As You Like It responded to this generously and it is notable that Jonson did not take offense at Jacques the way he did with Marston’s much less pointed critique.

In the long run, Jonson was never able to banish grand spectacles from the stage, who could? But his advocacy of domestic drama and domestic comedy has proved successful. While Jonson’s own plays are not produced with anything like the frequency of those attributed to Shakespeare, domestic comedy and drama dominates a variety of venues, including television, film (with the exception of super-hero epics) and the modern stage, saving only musicals.

Jacques, therefore, is not a mere melancholic. He is a voice from the past’s future. If he is nostalgic, it is because he knows that he will miss some of those epic spectacles that Jonson wants to replace on stage. Fortunately, for each of them, there has been plenty of room for both.

Next:     Acting in the Age of Elizabeth

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 1.9: Rosalind, Celia and Jacques

Bristol Branson (Celia) and Olena Hodges (Rosalind), ISF 2010, Directed by Susannah Rose Woods

Both Celia and Jacques exist primarily as contrasts to Rosalind. Touchstone also carries this task, but he has more independence than the other two and thus is not as limited.

When Celia is introduced with Rosalind she appears somewhat smug. She is, after all, the beneficiary of her father’s usurpation of Rosalind’s father’s dukedom and although she professes friendship for Rosalind, her companion is essentially a political prisoner. The idea that Duke Senior’s exile could have been accomplished without months and months of preparation and intrigue strains credulity. Nevertheless, Celia wants to maintain the relationship with Rosalind that existed before their social positions were upended. Rather than challenge her friend, Rosalind decides to change the subject, saying in effect: Let’s talk about boys.

Bristol Branson (Celia) and Olena Hodges (Rosalind), ISF 2010, Directed by Susannah Rose Woods
Bristol Branson (Celia) and Olena Hodges (Rosalind), ISF 2010, Directed by Susannah Rose Woods

When Celia is challenged, however, her loyalty proves to be absolute. This is as much a credit to Rosalind as it is to Celia herself. Not only does she immediately defend Rosalind, but she is no sooner banished than Celia resolves to join her. Rosalind’s means of rewarding her is circuitous and unexpected but is consistent with her overall view of the appropriate nature of human relations. That Celia accepts this without question might make her appear a trifle shallow, but compared to Rosalind, we are all shallow.

Celia is honesty personified. She doesn’t need to be more subtle than Rosalind, she only needs to encourage her. She is the proper Horatio to Rosalind’s Hamlet and has the good sense (and good fortune) to follow her lead.

Jacques, on the other hand, is more of a puzzle. He has no real action in the play and yet he has some of its best speeches. Rosalind easily bests him at repartee and yet, of all the characters in her orbit, is unable at last to rehabilitate him.

Many commentators assert that Jacques is a stand-in for Ben Jonson, just as Sogliardo was for Shakespeare. (Interesting, isn’t it, that while they observe this, they simultaneously and very selectively overlook all of Jonson’s references to the “reckoning,” etc.?)

Harold Bloom is quick to point out that the English version of Jacques, jakes, is another word for a toilet. But Jaques is not served as rudely as Sogliardo; instead he maintains his dignity even as he departs the scene, resolving to remain in Arden.

Alan Rickman as Jacques in the Royal Shakespeare Company's "As You Like It" in 1985. Via americantheatre.org
Alan Rickman as Jacques in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “As You Like It” in 1985. Via americantheatre.org

Of course, Arden is a metaphorical stage, as Jacques makes abundantly clear, and although Rosalind leaves it behind she does so only to ascend to a larger stage. Should this action be interpreted as a comment upon Jacques/Jonson and his melancholy? That is one suggestion.

Arden has often been associated with the family name of Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden. It is also the Anglicized version of Ardennes, not far from the site of Henry V’s greatest victory, Agincourt.

The commonly accepted source for the play, however, Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde clearly places the story in France and the forest of Ardennes. Which puts any reference to the Arden family, or for that matter the myth of Robin Hood, which has also been suggested, beyond necessity.

Rosalind accomplishes her purpose in what an English audience would have naturally perceived as a magical forest (one where a small band of men, armed only with longbows, defeated a French host at least ten times their size), a forest that many of them still believed belonged to them. In this sense, Rosalind’s success is England’s success.

The fact that she accomplished all of this, against all odds, and by way of stratagem, is only natural.

Next: Why Jacques?

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 1.8: Themes that Repeat

“Again and again in his plays, an unforeseen catastrophe . . . suddenly turns what had seemed like happy progress, prosperity, smooth sailing into disaster, terror, and loss. The loss is obviously and immediately material, but it is also, and more crushingly, a loss of identity. To wind up on an unknown shore, without one’s friends, habitual associates, familiar network – this catastrophe is often epitomized by the deliberate alteration or disappearance of the name and, with it, the alteration or disappearance of social status.”

Greenblatt, Stephen, Will In the World, p 85

Not only is Rosalind not the first female character in these plays to act in the face danger by disguising herself as a man, as Julia precedes her by several years in Two Gentlemen of Verona, she is by no means the last. The list also includes Viola in Twelfth Night, Portia in The Merchant of Venice and Imogen in Cymbeline. To this list could be added Helena in All’s Well, who disguises herself as a “pilgrim,” and female characters who probably appeared in masculine battle-dress, Joan in Henry VI Part I, Margaret in Henry VI Part III, and Eleanor in King John.

About the first four of these characters, Phyllis Rackin in Cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s Comedies – and Beyond observed:

  1. The heroines construct their masculine appearance before traveling.
  2. [They] are active and determined rather than passive and submissive.
  3. All four heroines show their intelligence and capability, even better than the men.
  4. Although the heroines show their masculinity in cross-dressing, they are still biologically female and physically weak sometimes, and they still hold feminine characteristics like tenderness, affection, and chastity.
  5. All four heroines are admirable women, endowed with good feminine qualities like chastity, constancy, tenderness, affection, selflessness and proficiency in housework.

A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works, Volume III: The Comedies Edited by: Richard Dutton And Jean E. Howard, eISBN: 9781405136075, Print publication date: 2005.

To this collection of women must be added all of the male characters who travel in disguise, in no particular order:

Master Ford   Brook     Merry Wives

Lucentio      Cambio    Shrew

Tranio        Lucentio     Shrew

Hortentio     Lito      Shrew

Hamlet        Madman    Hamlet

Henry         Soldier   Henry V

Duke Vinciente Gaoler    Measure for Measure

Camillo, Polixenes, Autolycus     Various   Winter’s Tale

And then we have characters who are transformed from one thing into another, including Bottom, Helena, Hermia and Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or those who are mistaken for others such as half of the cast of The Comedy of Errors or Sebastian in Twelfth Night. And then there are the men who actually disguise themselves as women in The Taming of the Shrew (Vincentio) and in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Falstaff disguised as Herne).

Falstaff in disguise led out by Mrs Page, Act 4 Scene 2, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, by James Durno
Falstaff in disguise led out by Mrs Page, Act 4 Scene 2, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, by James Durno

It just goes on and on. It is hard to think of any other author who has anything like this kind of fixation on the theme of disguise.

How do we explain this? Unfortunately, Shakespeare doesn’t provide many answers. As historian Hugh Trevor-Roper pointed out:

“Of all the immortal geniuses of literature, none is personally so elusive as William Shakespeare. It is exasperating and almost incredible that he should be so. After all, he lived in the full daylight of the English Renaissance, in the well‑documented reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James I. Since his death, and particularly in the last century, he has been subjected to the greatest battery of organized research that has ever been directed upon a single person. Armies of scholars, formidably equipped, have examined all the documents that could possibly contain at least a mention of Shakespeare’s name. One hundredth of this labor applied to one of his insignificant contemporaries would be sufficient to produce a substantial biography. And yet the greatest of all Englishmen, after this tremendous inquisition, still remains so close to a mystery that even his identity can still be doubted.”

Trevor-Roper, Hugh, “What’s in a Name?” Réalités, November 1962.

So, does Shakespeare have a fondness for tales built on disguise, camouflage and concealment because it is his nature to be evasive? Or does he just know a good story when he sees one?

Fortunately, for Rosalind, the result is all to the good. And, in fact, in most cases this theme produces pleasing results. It is remarkable that when all the disguises are exposed very few of the characters suffer; they are for the most part rewarded.

I suspect that this is not how most people would perceive being deceived. Rosalind and her author, however, have a different point of view: deception may be a mixed blessing, but it can be a blessing nonetheless.

Next:     Rosalind, Celia and Jacques

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.