Shakespeare The Actor

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The Stage is running a series of articles about Great Shakespeare Actors, mostly so far from the twentieth century. I suppose most people would think the first of all was Richard Burbage, who seems to have created many of Shakespeare’s greatest roles. But might it have been Shakespeare himself? There are conflicting views about the extent to which acting played a part in Shakespeare’s career and we know very little about which parts he played. Some people think that though he may have started as an actor, probably with a touring company, he was never much good at it and gave up early in the seventeenth century, concentrating his attention on writing and theatre management. A recent proponent of this point of view is Jonathan Bate, in his Soul of the Age (2208) But in a new book, Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Swan of Avon (2011), Katherine Duncan-Jones argues that he was a leading actor with his company throughout his career.

What are the documented facts? The first, indirect allusion to Shakespeare comes in a book of 1592 called Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit; it’s deliberately cryptic but, accusing him of supposing that ‘he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you’, does seem to imply that he was an actor as well as writer. More straightforwardly, the accounts of the Treasurer of the Queen’s Chamber list Shakespeare as a payee with Richard Burbage and William Kemp as ‘servants to the Lord Chamberlain’ for 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 (acted in 1603). In a document (known as ‘the York Herald’s Complaint’) of 1602 a sketch of the family arms bears the annotation ‘Shakespeare the player.’ 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. And he is named first in the list in his own First Folio (1623) headed ‘The Names of the Principal Actors in All these Plays.’

So there is documentary evidence that he acted, at least from time to time, from 1592 until the early 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 was still acting by then. But there is also some anecdotal evidence which I’ll discuss, and see if we can draw any conclusions from it, in my next blog.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website

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