1. Will Kemp

Will Kemp, the well-known actor specializing in comic roles, had been a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men until 1599, at which date he left the company, then housed at the newly-built Globe theatre.  He became, thereafter, a performer without a patron — as he remarked, “I haue without good help daunst my selfe out of the world.” Shortly after leaving the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Kemp performed a memorable Morris dance, from London to Norwich, dancing during nine days. The illustration at the top of the Home page and this page is of Will Kemp performing this strenuous feat of dancing; it is taken from a pamphlet Kemp published in April 1600 to memorialize this event – should we call it a “happening”? Here is the title-page, showing Kemp accompanied by Thomas Slye, his Taborer:

Nine daies wonder

Consider for a moment how singular this illustration is, among the few depictions we have from the period of performers at work, performing. A drawing of the Swan theatre by Johannes de Witt (1596) shows three unidentified actors.

The Swan Theatre Drawing

A famous scene-drawing from 1594 of Titus Andronicus depicts seven actors, again unidentified, performing in Act 1 scene 1 from Shakespeare’s play: Tamora pleads for the lives of her sons, kneeling behind her (guarded by Aaron the Moor).

[Note: In Library of the Marquess of Bath, Longleat. Permission to use not granted because, in their words, “Longleat’s policy is to not grant permission for the use of images on websites even if, as in this case, it is for non-commercial educational use.” The image is widely available elsewhere, on websites that apparently did not ask permission. Google ‘Peacham drawing’ to see it.]

And we have the title-page from the 1615 quarto edition of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (originally published c. 1592) depicting four unidentified actors during the murder of Horatio (when Bel-Imperia’s cries are muffled), and afterwards (when Hieronymo enters and discovers the body of his son).

The Spanish Tragedy (1615) Title-page

This is not a rich collection, particularly from a profession whose appeal was grounded in the visual. Will Kemp’s dancing figure, claimed as a likeness by Kemp himself, is the only image of a named performer, performing, that we have — and he was a performer without a patron! — one among a multitude of performers without patrons traceable in the period.

Kemp’s itinerary for his famous dance can be seen below, by clicking on the button “Kemp’s Travels”. In his dedication to Mistress Anne Fitton Kemp alludes to numerous false rumours and reports that have circulated about his feats (evidence that the morris dance garnered notoriety!). Instead, he offers a wealth of first-hand details of his day-by-day experiences, including cutpurses, dancing contests, encounters with eminent well-wishers such as Sir Thomas Mildmay, and welcomes by people in great numbers. It was an “event” that was also accompanied by wagering — an “overseer” accompanied the dancing to guarantee that all was done properly. I cannot in this space do justice to the wealth of Kemp’s adventures; instead I relate a few details about his welcome at Norwich.

Kemp arrived there on Wednesday 5 March 1600, but was greeted by such a throng that he could not dance his way into the city that day; the mayor greeted him and agreed that his dance should be completed on the following Saturday. The city paid his expenses in the interim. His dance into the city was greeted by an official welcome, and tumults of well-wishers — so much that his overseer lost sight of Kemp in the crowds! To complete his wagers, Kemp had to repeat part of the dance on the Tuesday following. In the Guildhall on the Saturday Kemp completed his activities with a mighty leap, which was attested by his dancing shoes nailed to the wall. One’s impression is of a huge and vigorous celebration that occupied several days, accompanied by a civic reward of 40s., and a personal gift from the Mayor of £5. Kemp may have been without a patron, but he was a celebrity!