For all their talent, Tarlton was the undoubted leading light and we can still catch a flavor of what made him so special. We have a good idea what he looked like in performance, where his clown persona was built on the country rustic. Henry Chettle says he knew him in a dream “by his suit of russet, his buttoned cap, his tabor, his standing on the toe, and other tricks … to be either the body or resemblance of Tarlton, who living for his pleasant conceits was of all men liked, and dying, for mirth left not his like” (1592, B2v). Tarlton’s Jests, an untrustworthy collection of jokes and anecdotes, nevertheless tells us that he had a squint and a flat nose, and these characteristics certainly appear in the woodcut on the title‐page of the volume (see Figure 2.1). E. K. Chambers says that it “represents a short, broad‐faced, cunning‐looking man, with curly hair, an elaborate moustache and a starved beard, wearing a cap, and a bag or money‐box slung at his side, and playing on a tabor and a pipe” (ES, 2, 344).

Image described by caption and surrounding text.

Figure 2.1 Image of Richard Tarlton (or Tarleton).

Source: © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images.

The Jests also gives us these plausible tales of the man in performance: “At the Bull in Bishopsgate Street [a London inn], where the Queen’s men oftentimes played, Tarlton coming on the stage, one from the gallery threw a pippin at him … [there] was a play of Henry the Fifth [The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth] wherein the judge was to take a box on the ear, and because he was absent that should take the blow, Tarlton himself (ever forward to please) took upon him to play the same judge, besides his own part of the clown” (quoted in EPF, 301).7 Ben Jonson has the stagekeeper in the Induction to Bartholomew Fair remember a routine with Adams: “I kept the stage in Master Tarlton’s time, I thank my stars. Ho! An that man had lived to have played in Barthol’mew Fair you should ha’ seen him ha’ come in and ha’ been cozened i’the cloth‐quarter so finely! And Adams, the rogue, ha’ leapt and capered upon him, and ha’ dealt his vermin about as though they had cost him nothing” (2012b, lines 27–32).8 Thomas Nashe also gives us a glimpse of Tarlton at work in this anecdote about a choleric country justice:

that, having a play presented before him and his township, by Tarlton and the rest of his fellows, her Majesty’s servants, and they were now entering into their first merriment (as they call it) the people began exceedingly to laugh, when Tarlton first peeped out his head. Where at the justice, not a little moved and seeing with his becks and nods he could not make them cease, he went with his staff and beat them round about unmercifully on the bare pates, in that they being but farmers and poor country hinds would presume to laugh at the Queen’s men, and make no more account of her cloth in his presence.

(Pierce Penniless, 1592, D1v)

The anecdote cuts several ways, since Tarlton’s clown persona was that of the rustic fellow, liable to be defrauded even of his verminous clothes – or, like the justice, to misunderstand that the audience was supposed to laugh, even at the Queen’s own servants. But the priceless touch is of Tarlton peeping out his head from behind the scenes, playing his audience, an instantly funny man who was either already known to them or whose fame had gone before.

He had a talent for extempore doggerel, sometimes inviting topics from the audience; the Queen is said to have enjoyed his wit, though it is possible that on occasion he overstepped the mark (ES, 2, 342). He channeled this talent into jigs, often performed as endpiece entertainments after a performance; they involved music, often topical fare set to popular tunes; dancing; comic, sometimes bawdy routines, perhaps built around a folk tale (see Box item, p. 218). The form was preserved by Will Kemp, who was to act with Shakespeare in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Not the least of Tarlton’s many talents was as a swordsman; in 1587 he achieved the prestigious title of Master of Fence by the Society of the Masters of Defence, requiring a mastery over several forms of swords and knives. The Elizabethans had a taste for fighting competitions, many of which were staged at the Theatre, Curtain, and Rose, as well as city inns like the Bull. Shakespeare’s plays – Romeo and JulietRichard IIIHamletMacbeth, and many others – feature prominent sword‐fights, which clearly also cater for that taste. Richard Burbage, who certainly played Richard III and Hamlet, must himself have been an accomplished swordsman and there would have been others in the company able to offer him a plausible challenge.

There is no wonder that Tarlton’s fame lingered, as the posthumous anecdotes and jest‐books attest. When Burbage played Hamlet and remembered how Yorick, “the King’s jester … hath bore me on his back a thousand times” (5.1.180–6) many in the audience must have identified Yorick with Tarlton. The Queen’s Men certainly sometimes used the Theatre, when they played in London. And indeed Tarlton probably had his home near there, in Shoreditch; he was certainly buried there in 1588. So young Burbage, growing up in the environs of his father’s Theatre, almost certainly knew the great clown from an early age. Shakespeare perhaps knew him at the end of his career, and more as a traveling player than as a London presence. One of the distinctive features of the Queen’s Men is that, for all they would be expected to entertain the Queen and certainly took up residence in London from time to time (see p. 48–9), they were clearly also expected to spend much of the year touring.

They came into being at a time when a Spanish invasion to unseat Elizabeth and her Protestant regime was a very real possibility, and indeed came perilously close to succeeding with the Armada of 1588. The Queen’s Men, traveling in her scarlet livery, spread her presence throughout the country, and indeed beyond. Their repertoire, including some of the earliest chronicle history plays, such as The Troublesome Reign of King JohnThe True Tragedy of Richard III, and The Famous Victories of Henry V, contained distinct elements of national and religious propaganda. And there were few places of substance that they did not visit. They had circuits that took in Kent – Canterbury, Faversham, Lydd, Maidstone, Dover, New Romney, Rye; East Anglia – Norwich, Aldeburgh, Ipswich, Cambridge, Saffron Walden; the West Country – Bristol, Gloucester, Bath, Lyme Regis, Exeter, Bridgwater, Southampton; the Midlands – Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham, Oxford, Worcester, Shrewsbury, and of course Stratford; the North – York, Carlisle, Chester, and the three main properties of the Stanley Earls of Derby, New Place, Lathom, and Knowsley in Lancashire. In 1589 they even visited Dublin and in October of that year accepted an invitation (forwarded by the governor of Carlisle while they were at Knowsley) to perform at the wedding of James VI and Anne of Denmark in Edinburgh. Unfortunately winds delayed Anne in Oslo by a month and the company could not linger indefinitely. But the diplomatic correspondence shows that they did attend in good faith and were honorably treated by their hosts (McMillin and MacLean, 58).

Until quite recently touring has been seen as a second‐best option for the actors, indeed usually as an option of last resort. G. E. Bentley is typical in this prejudice: “For the London companies, touring was nearly always an unpleasant and comparatively unprofitable expedient to compensate for London misfortunes, and as the metropolitan companies became more prosperous they resorted to the road less frequently than they had in the reign of Elizabeth and in the early years of James” (1984, 179). But this is very much from the perspective of what was achieved in London in the 1590s and beyond, which involved radical changes for a few elite companies that no one had yet contemplated. And there is no reason to suppose that players in the 1580s were so gloomy about touring, especially if they were the Queen’s Men. For one thing, they invariably received a higher gratuity for the “Mayor’s play” than any other company – performing it probably as described at Stratford in the local town or guildhall, though they sometimes even played in cathedrals at Norwich, Chester, and York. As Andrew Gurr has noted, at “Bristol, Gloucester, Cambridge, Dover and other parts of Kent, Nottingham, and Shrewsbury … they were usually paid twice as much as the other companies. This may reflect their greater size. It certainly reflected their pre‐eminent name and greater prestige” (1996, 201). This is what R. Willis was getting at when he wrote that the players received from the Mayor “a reward he thinks fit to show respect unto them.” In Stratford in 1587, for example, they received 20 shillings, exactly twice as much as Leicester’s Men, four times as much as Essex’s Men and six times as much as Stafford’s Men that same year.

The assumption of Bentley and others that touring was “comparatively unprofitable” is partly based on the assumption that such payments in the town and city accounts constitute a significant proportion of the take while on tour. It alone, even combined with money we know they would also have received from performances at the houses of the nobility and gentry along their route, would indeed hardly have covered their costs.9 William Ingram has estimated that, around 1600, food and lodging on the road would cost around 1s. a day per person, while the hire of horses – either to ride or to pull a wagon with all the company’s costumes and properties – would cost a similar amount. So a company as large as the Queen’s Men (assuming the boys could double up on most items) might spend as much as 25s. a day just to get by. This puts Stratford’s 20s. in proportion. But of course that 20s. was a prelude to performances at inns like the the Bear or the Swan in Bridge Street, or indeed the Red Lion in Norwich (where the depositions about the fray suggest quite a crowded house; see p. 39–40). The nature of the staging would have been dictated by the space available, either indoor or outdoor. But they could have charged more for a smaller but well‐appointed indoor venue, while inns yard were likely to have covered galleries on at least two sides (leading to rooms for rent), and they would have been able to charge extra to those willing to pay for the comfort. In the differences between the “Mayors’ plays” and those in public inns we see the professional players of the late sixteenth century poised between a patronage economy which required them formally to be servants of grandees and a proto‐capitalist one, where the profit motive was unmistakable.

Towns seem normally (as we saw at Gloucester, p. 20) to have limited such commercial performances to two or three, but that was quite enough to be profitable, especially if innkeepers were prepared to allow the players some slack in respect of food and lodging as a trade‐off against profits from the business they would generate with large audiences. By the same token, when they visited great private houses the players might expect to be fed and put up (probably with the servants) in addition to any gratuity. They might also receive additional, unrecorded gratuities from any of the lord’s guests. Alan Somerset quotes an itinerant singer who claimed that he could survive simply by moving “from gentilmans house to gentilmans house upon their benevolence” (Somerset, 1994, 1.280; see also Greenfield, 2009). All in all, a well‐planned tour by a premier troupe like the Queen’s Men might expect not merely to cover costs but to be quite profitable.

Nevertheless, London was always an important stop on their travels. As we have already noted, anecdotes about Tarlton place the Queen’s Men at times in the large outdoor auditoria, the Theatre, or its near neighbor, the Curtain. But for their first winter, that of 1583/4, the Privy Council specifically negotiated with the city authorities that they be allowed to play “at the signs of the Bull in Bishopsgate Street, and the sign of the Bell in Gracechurch Street and nowhere else in this city.” Andrew Gurr observes: “The Bull in Bishopsgate Street was an inn … with a square of galleries open to the sky. The Bell in Gracechurch Street, by contrast, seems to have been an inn with a large indoor hall available for playing. Specifying the two allowed the company a large good‐weather and a smaller bad‐weather venue, both inside the city.”10 David Kathman is more cautious about the evidence for indoor playing at any of the inns, suggesting that their key virtue was probably the greater convenience they offered the audience, being at the heart of the city (Kathman, 2009b). The specification of two inns might also have catered for the company continuing in its split form.

As I shall discuss further in Chapter 3, several issues are in play here. First, during the 1580s no company seems to have played for really extended periods in any of the available London playhouses. They hired one for the duration of their visits and then passed on. Second, they seem to have been happy enough with the outdoor auditoria (the Theatre, Curtain, and, from 1587, the Rose) in the summer months, but in the winter their first preference was always to play in one of the inns within the city itself, rather than outside in the suburbs. With the shorter hours of daylight and the worse weather it must surely have been easier to attract audiences there, possibly charging higher prices, even if the inns could not accommodate as many people. Third, this was an issue that created constant friction between the City authorities and the Privy Council. The former only wanted players in the City on their own terms; the latter insisted (as in their 1578 letter to the Lord Mayor) that certain companies it nominated must be allowed to play, as a form of rehearsal for their appearances at court.

In this instance the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Howard of Effingham, had negotiated these rights exclusively for the Queen’s Men.11 And they were the only adult company to perform at court that 1583/4 season, making four appearances in all; their only competition was from boy companies, who had long been among the Queen’s favorite entertainments. The following year the Queen’s Men gave five performances and again the only competition was Oxford’s Boys (based at a theatre in the Blackfriars liberty, which was controlled by the playwright, John Lyly). In subsequent years, until 1590/1, they remained the dominant company, though it was a dominance that was increasingly challenged. The death of Tarlton in 1588 (following that of Knell the previous year) must inevitably have weakened them and may have entrenched the practice of splitting the company into two troupes, both still calling themselves the Queen’s Men, but one led by John Laneham and the other by the Dutton brothers. Presumably about half of the surviving sharers went with each and they made up numbers to be able to continue playing from their established repertoire with hired men. It may even have been a more profitable arrangement as far as the sharers were concerned. In 1589/90 the Chamber Accounts at court show that John Dutton and John Laneham were jointly paid “for themselves and their company” for two performances, suggesting that the two sections came together for these court appearances. But in 1591/2 there are clear demarcations: “Lawrence Dutton and John Dutton, Her Majesty’s players & their company” were paid for four performances and “John Laneham and his company, Her Majesty’s players” only one (ES, 4: 163).

As we shall shortly see, they were then eclipsed by Strange’s Men (with whom, indeed, Shakespeare may have been associated by 1592: Manley and MacLean, 2014, 280ff). After 1594 they survived only as a single touring company, with none of their former star players, and never again appeared at court. Why exactly they were allowed to lose their preeminent position is not certain. One explanation is that their style of drama may have begun to seem old‐fashioned by comparison with the work pioneered around this time by Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, and others, including Shakespeare. It was certainly within Edmund Tilney’s power to reinforce them, if he felt it was in the court’s interest that he should. The fact that he did not do so perhaps suggests that their time had come and gone. If Shakespeare did indeed join them in 1587, it would have been sufficient to allow him to see a great company in its pomp, but also its rapid decline. He would presumably only have been with them quite briefly, but long enough to get him to London, where another model of theatrical practice was being formulated.

There is, however, absolutely no documentary evidence that Shakespeare was ever with the Queen’s Men. The strongest argument for his involvement with them is well advanced by McMillin and MacLean: “The plots of no fewer than six of Shakespeare’s known plays are closely related to the plots of plays performed by the Queen’s Men. King John resembles The Troublesome Reign [of King John] virtually scene for scene. King Lear and Richard III cover the same stories as King Leir and The True Tragedy of Richard III. The sequence of 1 Henry IV2 Henry IV, and Henry V is in part an elaborate version of the material covered in The Famous Victories [of Henry V]. The plays of the Queen’s Men are the largest theatrical source of Shakespeare’s plots” (1999, 161). But did Shakespeare need to be a member of the company to have known these plays? Hardly. He could have had many opportunities to see them performed, or to speak to men who had played in them. Several were in print before he wrote the plays that seem to draw on them.

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