Shakespeare The Actor (Part Two)

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I wrote in my previous blog about the factual evidence relating to Shakespeare’s acting career. There is also some anecdotal evidence, mostly suggesting that though he acted, he was not a star. 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.’ But in 1699 an anonymous writer wrote that he ‘was a much better poet than player.’ Ten years later, in the first attempt at a biography of Shakespeare, 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.’ Nicholas Rowe also wrote that ‘though I have enquired, 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.’

In the later part of the eighteenth century 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. It was repeated with variations by the editor Edward Capell in 1779. In any case, since the plays mentioned or alluded to here were all written by the date of Sejanus, in which we know that Shakespeare acted, anecdotal evidence does nothing to extend Shakespeare’s likely acting career beyond 1603.

But many inferences have been made, sometimes on the basis of absence of evidence. For example, Shakespeare’s name, unlike that of Burbage and other of his colleagues, is not mentioned in the cast lists for plays by Jonson from Volpone (1605) onwards. Jonathan Bate says ‘The inference must be that he stopped acting around the time of the 1603-4 plague outbreak.’ (p. 355)And 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.’ (p. 356)

Katherine Duncan-Jones however, in Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Swan of Avon, takes the opposite point of view. She discusses the Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit passage at great length, but coming as it does from 1592, and since we have clear evidence that Shakespeare was acting after that, it has no bearing on the bulk of his career. She suggests that the fact that Shakespeare’s name comes first in ‘the names of the principal actors in all these plays’ may ‘imply that he had been a leading performer in every single play included in the Folio.’ (p. 34) Surely that strains the evidence far too far: the Folio list includes the names of actors, such as Nathan Field, born in 1587, who were too young to have acted in all plays included in the volume, so the phrase must mean ‘the names of the principal actors who at one time or another played in all these plays.’ But Duncan-Jones interestingly draws attention to an annotation, not mentioned by Bate, in a 1590 edition of Camden’s Britannia which refers (in Latin) to ‘William Shakespeare, manifestly our Roscius.’ (p. 36) 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 (p. 256) to the first line of William Basse’s elegy 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 – and that Shakespeare himself uses it in this sense both in Hamlet – ‘the tragedians of the city’ (2.2.330)- 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 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 since we cannot with certainty name a single role that Shakespeare played my guess is that he continued to act through most of his career – to that extent I agree with Duncan-Jones rather than with Bate – but that he was not a star actor and did not necessarily take roles even in all of his own plays.

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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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    “Admittedly, whether evidence survives is a matter of chance.”

    The tourist-funded scholar Wells errs in that statement. The non-survival of non-existent evidence is not a matter of chance.

  • http://shakespeare.org.uk Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    I am away on holiday until May 9th – I will contact you as soon as possible on my return.

    All the best

    Liz

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  • Anonymous

    Your writing on Shakespeare is always the best; your open mind and many interests help us all. I greatly enjoyed the two parts of “Shakespeare the Actor.” I think there is ample evidence of Shakespeare acting (the fact that he heads the list of principal actors in Jonson’s play could be a show of gratitude by Jonson), but we don’t really know how well. This doesn’t mean he didn’t act well – in fact, I would say Hamlet’s speech on how actors should act is clear evidence that Shakespeare took it very seriously. Bottom would not be so funny in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” if Shakespeare wasn’t already steeped in the language and comportment of an actor.

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    I enjoyed this post, well written. Thank you.

  • http://shakespeare.org.uk Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    I am away on holiday until May 9th – I will contact you as soon as possible on my return.

    All the best

    Liz

    This message is solely intended for the use of the person
    (s), “the Intended Recipient”, to whom it is addressed. It
    may contain information that is privileged or
    confidential. Accordingly, any dissemination,
    distribution, copying or other use of this message or any
    of its content by any other person other than the Intended
    Recipient may constitute a breach of civil or criminal law
    and is strictly prohibited. If you are not the Intended
    Recipient please contact the sender as soon as possible

  • http://shakespeare.org.uk Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    I am away on holiday until May 9th – I will contact you as soon as possible on my return.

    All the best

    Liz

    This message is solely intended for the use of the person
    (s), “the Intended Recipient”, to whom it is addressed. It
    may contain information that is privileged or
    confidential. Accordingly, any dissemination,
    distribution, copying or other use of this message or any
    of its content by any other person other than the Intended
    Recipient may constitute a breach of civil or criminal law
    and is strictly prohibited. If you are not the Intended
    Recipient please contact the sender as soon as possible

  • http://ajleon.me ajleon

    Thank you for this post, Stanley, very informative for those of us “out of the loop” on this topic. :)

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