Something should be said about “motley,” the clothing so often associated with Elizabethan comedians. Shakespeare actually seems to reserve it for the roles played by Kemp’s successor in the company, Robert Armin, who specialized in “fool” roles, which were rather different from the clown roles pioneered by Tarlton and Kemp (see p. 264ff). Jaques in As You Like It (circa 1599) particularly identifies motley with Touchstone, which seems to have been Shakespeare’s first major role for Armin: “Oh, that I were a fool! / I am ambitious for a motley coat” he says, having met the character variously described as “the clownsish fool” and “the roynish [scurvy] clown” (2.7. 2.7.42–3; 1.3.128 and 2.2.8). Unfortunately we still do not know what it meant in terms of what a stage comedian actually wore. Leslie Hotson wrote a whole book on Shakespeare’s Motley (1952), arguing that it was a long coat of fairly coarse woolen cloth, made with variegated colors, of which green or yellow was usually predominant: the clothing given to mentally‐challenged people in real life, often called “naturals” or “fools.” But his argument was systematically dismantled by David Wiles (1987, 182–97), who among other things showed the shifting sense of the term. What I think is clear is that Kemp did not regularly wear “motley” or carry the traditional accompaniments of the fool/jester employed in some noble households, a cockscomb and a bauble (cf. Lear’s Fool). It is still likely, however, that he did wear a distinctive dress which singled him out as “the clown,” which would give a kind of continuity to his various servant roles in Romeo and Juliet, keeping him somewhat separate from his fellow servants.

Kemp was not the only comedian in the company. Augustine Phillips is credited with writing a lost jig, Phillips His Slipper, entered in the Stationers’ Register in 1595, which might suggest his own comic facility; his stepbrother, Thomas Pope, is once described as a clown.19 Richard Cowley played Verges to Kemp’s own Dogberry. There may have been something of a comic star‐cluster in the company, which particularly raises the question of who played the most famous comic role of them all, Falstaff, another role first created at the Theatre. The fact is that we do not know. David Wiles has argued cogently that it was Kemp (1987, 116–35). Others, however, have objected that the kind of comedy generated by Falstaff – a knowing, wordsmart, blasphemous rogue – is very different in temper from anything else he is known to have played. Whatever the competition, however, it is clear that Kemp was the preeminent comedian and star draw of the Chamberlain’s Men’s days at the Theatre. But those days were numbered.

Box 3.2 A Day at the Theatre

Let us try to reconstruct a typical performance day for the company at the Theatre. Of necessity, many of the details derive from Henslowe and the practice of the Admiral’s Men, but there is every reason to suppose that the Chamberlain’s Men operated in broadly the same way. The schedule, in fact, would have begun a couple of days earlier, when some of the hired men would have gone into the City and the suburbs, posting bills advertising this particular performance (however much this may have irritated the City authorities). On the morning of the performance the message would be reinforced by the company’s trumpeters and drummers (see p. 174). In this instance it is to be the first performance of Romeo and Juliet. The earliest text of that play was printed in 1597 and most scholars date it two or three years earlier, at around the same time as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So there is a strong presumption that the 1597 text reflects its staging in the Theatre.

The morning of the performance was almost certainly taken up with something else, very probably associated with future performance(s). In the mid‐late 1590s Henslowe shows the Admiral’s Men introducing a new play about every three weeks, a phenomenal challenge not only in terms of learning the lines but also of making all the other necessary preparations – and most of these the players had to do for themselves (see p. 64, 76). Even working out how long to keep new plays in the schedule and which plays to revive, in what sequence (and then ensuring that costumes and properties were still to hand and in good order), would have been a taxing business. On our hypothetical day, the sharers (core company members) might listen to a proposal for a new play from one of the many playwrights they commission, other than Shakespeare.20 Henslowe, for example, lent Jonson an advance on a proposed new play that the Admiral’s approved of: “Lent unto Benjamin Jonson the 3 of December 1597 upon a book which he was to write for us before Christmas next after the date hereof, which he showed the plot unto the company: 20s” (Henslowe, 73).21Jonson was doubtless already sufficiently a man of the theatre to have produced an outline that provided for characters in numbers the company could handle, and with roles appropriate for their principal players. We assume that John Heminge handled the Chamberlain’s Men’s money – in later years it seems to have become his principal responsibility – and, like Henslowe, would have to keep track of such commitments, loans and outright payments.

The play would very probably be delivered piece by piece. Henslowe’s records usually show payment to the dramatists in stages. This is often taken to show just how hand‐to‐mouth some of them lived: we hear, for example, of both Henry Chettle and Thomas Dekker being arrested for debt at various times. But it also shows them being paid by results, as they delivered portions of the play. So, for example, on July 24, 1599 Henslowe “lent” Dekker 10s. “at the request of Samuel Rowley and Thomas Downton [two of the sharers] in earnest of a book called Stepmothers’ Tragedy.” This apparently means that the company had accepted his “plot” scenario, which was perhaps the limit of his involvement with the play; all further references are to Henry Chettle, such as a month later, when Chettle was “lent” £1 “in earnest of his play called The Stepmothers’ Tragedy,” possibly having produced some early scenes or at least convinced members of the company that they were imminent. Only two days later (August 25) Henslowe lent three of the sharers – William Bird, Edward Juby, and Downton – a further £1 “to pay Harry Chettle for his book called The Stepmothers’ Tragedy”: payment now (to the playwright), rather than lending. Finally on October 14 Robert Shaa, yet another sharer, entered an affidavit into Henslowe’s Diary, attesting that he had received £4 “to pay H. Chettle in full payment of a book called The Stepmothers’ Tragedy for the use of the company” (Henslowe, 123, 125). So, over about two months, Chettle produced the play, receiving loans until he delivered something tangible and then payments; overall he received £6 (and Dekker 10s.) for this work.22 The fact that as many as six of the sharers were involved in authorizing these payments at different times may just have been an accident, but it might also suggest that they were being particularly careful about advancing company money when they were not entirely confident that either Dekker or Chettle was going to deliver. The company still, of course, had to repay Henslowe for all the money he had advanced. Such negotiations with the playwrights and with Henslowe (or Heminge, in the case of the Chamberlain’s Men) must have been a constant and sometimes unpredictable process for the sharers and often occupied them on mornings before a performance.

Once the play was delivered in full, the sharers would hear it read together, presumably before making the final payment. This might be something of a social occasion. Henslowe records lending 5s “for to spend at the reading of [The Famous Wars of Henry the First and the Prince of Wales] at the Sun in New Fish Street” and similarly 2s “lent out for the company when they read the play of Jephtha for wine at the tavern” (88, 201). This latter was the middle of May 1602; earlier that month they had paid Anthony Munday and Dekker £5 in earnest of the play. Subsequent payments suggest that they were happy with what they received, and that would have set off a flurry of business. First the Master of the Revels needed to “peruse” the book – either the version delivered by the dramatists or a fair copy, reproduced either by them or by a scrivener – for licensing, which he apparently did in late June, though Henslowe received a gentle reminder on August 4 that he had not yet been paid for it (296). This “allowed copy” became valuable company property, under the watchful care of the book‐keeper.

Then the company would need to cast all the parts which had not been settled upon when they accepted the “plot.” They would use their collective professional judgment (probably steered by Jonson, who would have written with it some individuals in mind) about any roles that could be doubled by a single actor, since that would save money. Once the sharers’ own roles were settled there would need to be calculations about hired men who would be required for any remaining parts – weighing in the balance the possibility of using money‐gatherers and stage‐hands for crowd scenes. There would also have to be decisions about any music required. The sennets, flourishes and alarums of ceremonial entries and battlefield maneuvres would pose no problems (see p. 175). But new songs, especially those which did not rely on familiar ballad tunes, might need commissioning.


Then, for the speaking roles, a scrivener would have to be hired to draw up their “parts.” This entailed copying out just the words to be spoken by each individual actor, with the very briefest of cues from the previous speaker to alert him to when he was to start speaking (Palfrey and Stern, 2007; Menzer 2008). This would be written out on conventional folios of papers, as Tiffany Stern describes in the rare surviving early “role” of Orlando, from Robert Greene’s play, Orlando Furioso: “it was clearly originally kept as a roll … Each sheet was once joined to the other, top to tail, making a strip that was 18 or so feet in length; this appears to have been anchored at the very top and bottom with rods. The part will then have been wound around its two sticks, creating a text that could be ‘scrolled,’ probably with one hand” (Stern 2009b, 503).23 This constituted the actor’s roll [i.e.”role”], from which he would learn his lines. The lion’s share of preparing for a new production would entail each member of the cast “conning” his roll individually. Although they might be aided in this by an “instructor” it remained largely a solitary process and, as Stern puts it “plays will never have been as familiar to actors in their entirety as they were in parts” (511).

Costumes and Properties

At the same time attention would have to be paid to any new costumes or properties that would be required for the new play. There was a flurry of payments associated with this late in June: 30s. “unto the tailor for making of suit for Jephtha,” 25s. “to pay unto him which made their properties for Jephtha” and 22s. “to pay the cutter for the play of Jephtha” (203).24 Thomas Downton was the sharer who authorized all of the recorded payments for costumes and properties in connection with Jephtha, so this was presumably a delegated responsibility for him; the Diary suggests that it was something he did regularly. It was a serious obligation, because the company evidently spent a small fortune on costumes, probably their largest single commitment (p. 170ff). Presumably all the other senior members of the company took responsibility for particular aspects of the complex business of bringing a new play to the stage.

There does not seem to have been much time for rehearsals (a “general rehearsal”) as we would understand them, and when they did occur it seems that “verbal content of a play [was] not the emphasis of collective rehearsal; that a general rehearsal [was] largely intended to determine action that affect[ed] the group” (Stern 2009b, 509). It would in effect have been a walkthrough, with the actors expected already to be familiar with their cues and written parts, while the readthrough should already have given them a general scene‐by‐scene sense of the business of the play, with a record presumably kept of properties that would be needed, and some possibly newly acquired. These would all have to be assembled at convenient places in the tiring house on the morning of a performance. But all kinds of issues might need to be resolved in a general rehearsal: which doors to use for particular entrances and exits; who would handle larger properties like beds and cauldrons, or remove dead bodies; at least a basic scenario for any fighting and its outcome (any deaths or woundings requiring suitably concealed bladders of animal blood for realistic effect).

Food and Drink

There was presumably a break for dinner, the main meal of the day, around noon. Inns and ordinaries are commonly associated with the playhouses, doubtless springing up to service players and audiences alike. But there may have been no need to leave the playhouse. We recall that James Burbage’s original partner in the Theatre, John Brayne – like Henslowe’s partner in the Rose, John Chomley – was a grocer; and Chomley’s contract certainly gave him exclusive rights to sell food and drink at the Rose, with the use of a small house nearby “to keep victualing in.” The concessions must always have been a profitable element in the whole enterprise, though we do not know who controlled them at the Theatre after Brayne died. We do know that John Heminge, the actor, always apparently shrewd with money, secured the position of tapster at the Globe, cornering the doubtless lucrative drinks market. Thomas Platter tells us that “in the pauses of the comedy food and drink are carried round amongst the people, and one can thus refresh himself at his own cost” (ES, 2: 365). As with modern sports auditoria, which in many respects the public playhouses resembled, it is likely that such refreshment was available an hour or so before the show began.


A general rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet had perhaps taken place the day before, leaving a final morning to ensure that everything was in perfect readiness. I shall basically follow the 1597 Q1 version that we may assume was used at the Theatre, though glancing at the much longer Q2, which perhaps shows how it was revised (“newly corrected, augmented, and amended” as the title‐page says) for the court or the Curtain.25 I discuss elsewhere the play’s distinctive use of both an upper stage and a discovery space (especially at the end), so I shall not go into detail here (see pp. 111, 235). After three soundings of the trumpet high in the turret above the tiring house, the book‐keeper would be seated in the prompt‐corner, following the “allowed copy” both as prompter and as overseer of preparations backstage (see pp. 201 on soundings). He would be adjacent to the wall‐mounted “plot,” available to himself and anyone who needed to check the essentials of the running order (see p. 267). His job was both to act as a prompter if necessary and to keep the action flowing smoothly offstage, sending boy assistants to alert cast and crew to upcoming cues.

The Prologue would commence the play at 2 p.m. Scene1.1 involves two unnamed servingmen of the Capulets (Samson and Gregory in Q2, which also tells us that they have “swords and bucklers [shields]”), who confront two similarly anonymous servingmen of the Montagues (one named Abraham in Q2). They would be differentiated by distinctive liveries. There is a fight, which would have needed some basic choreographing, before “other citizens” (“three or four … with clubs or partisans” [a type of spear] in Q2) assault both sides and then all are divided by senior members of the Capulets and Montagues – wordlessly in Q1, with dialogue in Q2. The stage already holds at least thirteen players before the Prince enters (“with his train,” Q2) – and this is before Romeo, Juliet, and Kemp in his various roles have appeared (see p. 113), figures who could not be doubled. Shakespeare wanted a show of the company’s extensive personnel early on. It may be an effect of quoting more specific numbers, but the Q2 text does seem to call for a larger ancillary cast of servingmen and attendants – possibly a mark of the company prospering in the years between the two versions.

Kemp first appears in 1.2, designated as “Clown” on entry, a Capulet servant within the plot; he reappears briefly at the end of 1.3, a scene which otherwise involves three female roles – Lady Capulet, the Nurse, and Juliet, all presumably played by “boys” though we might expect the two older roles to be performed by young men near the ends of their apprenticeships (see p. 183).1.4. shows Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio (“with five or six other maskers, torchbearers,” Q2), masked and approaching the Capulet’s house. Torches throughout (see also 5.3) flag that it is night‐time, just as the direction in 5.1 that Balthazar enters “booted” flags that he has traveled a long way (see p. 246). 1.5. shows a difference in staging between the two versions: Q1 defies the usual conventions of continuous staging; Romeo and his colleagues, who were only approaching in 1.4 are somehow (like a filmic lap‐dissolve) within the Capulet’s house when the new scene begins – it is very unusual for characters on stage at the end of one scene to be immediately present at the beginning of the next; in Q2 they merge into the action by mingling with some busy servingmen, who are preparing for a banquet. Q2 explicitly directs that “Music play and they dance” (it is implicit in Q1 too) – a crowded stage‐full of at least eight Montagues and as many Capulets, including Juliet.

At the beginning of 2.1 Romeo enters “alone” but is quickly followed by Benvolio and Mercutio, whom he is able to overhear unseen. If there was indeed no “heavens” at the Theatre, and so no supporting posts, we might suppose he hides behind an arras on the tiring house wall. When he reemerges in 2.2 Juliet has appeared; the dialogue makes clear that she is “above,” on the upper stage, as she will be again later. The company would have had to make accommodations in respects of admissions to the lords’ rooms, and the gatherers at the tiring house door informed, given the amount of activity on the upper stage (see p. 235–6). In 2.3 Friar Laurence appears (“with a basket,” Q2), carrying herbs and flowers, possibly freshly acquired for the show. 2.4 again showcases Kemp as “Peter, [the Nurse’sman.”

3.1 tilts the whole play towards tragedy as Mercutio and Tybalt duel with rapiers. Q1 is explicit about the key choreography: “Tybalt under Romeo’s arm thrusts Mercutio in, and flies [i.e. runs away].” The contest between Romeo and Tybalt is less fully recorded: “Fight. Tybalt falls.” Presumably in a performance where swordplay was so prominent, and where audiences would have been knowledgeable because of the prize contests in the art, some effort would have been made to provide different action for each new fight. In 3.2 a direction reads “Enter Nurse, wringing her hands, with the ladder of cords in her lap” – a careful preparation for a prop which will not actually be needed until 3.5, when Romeo “goeth down” from Juliet’s bedroom, which in that scene (but perhaps not always) is “aloft” (Q2). The only significant new prop in 3.3 is Romeo’s dagger (“He offers to stab himself, and Nurse snatches the dagger away”), but he presumably wore that throughout. The following scenes raise few staging issues, apart from Romeo’s climb down from Juliet’s bedroom in 3.5, using the Nurse’s “ladder of cords.” In 4.4 the Nurse brings “herbs” to make the house fresh for County Paris, and a servingman brings logs and coals to make it warm. (In Q2 the preparations are grander: Lady Capulet calls to “fetch more spices” (4.4.1) rather than herbs, a much more expensive option, and there are now “three or four” servingmen, who between them carry “spits and logs, and baskets” containing “[t]hings for the cook”). As Paris approaches “Play music,” the first call on the musicians since the ball; this would have been stringed instruments and perhaps woodwind, rather than the trumpets – music for a bridegroom.

As noted elsewhere, at the end of 4.3 Juliet “falls upon her bed within the curtains,” as clear a direction for a curtained discovery space at the rear of the stage as one could imagine (see p. 250). In 4.5 she is discovered, apparently dead; eventually “They all but the Nurse go forth, casting rosemary on her and shutting the curtains.” Rosemary, of course, is “for remembrance” (Hamlet, 4.5.179) – so many features of Elizabethan life had symbolic value (different herbs, gems, metals, colors, for instance) and the players often went out of their way to invoke them. The curtains shield off the body and there follows a sequence which some have found in dubious taste, where Will Kemp jokes with the three musicians, at a loose end since “this is no time to play.” (It is here in Q2 that Kemp is here identified by name, rather than by the role he plays: see p. 103). I have assumed that Shakespeare was responsible for this, though the book‐keeper – who most particularly had to keep track of the actors during performance – may have influenced the usage. I discuss elsewhere the complex final scene at Juliet’s tomb, which involves the most extensive use of a discovery space in any Shakespeare play (see p. 201).

We should expect the play to be over by 4.30 pm or 5.00 pm at the latest, which for most of the year would allow audience and players alike to get home in daylight, or at least twilight, if they did not stop at an ordinary or other eating establishment for supper on the way. It was a long day for the players. And it went on like this, usually six days a week (not Sundays) for much of the year, except when plague or other disturbances intervened. They were generally not supposed to perform in the forty days of Lent, but Henslowe makes it clear that they found ways around this – very probably paying the Master of the Revels for a dispensation. Even when there was no playhouse business to be conducted, the players had always to be “conning” new roles or brushing up old ones as they were revived. Moreover, as members of the company moved on or died all their old roles would have to be redistributed: the conveyor belt never stopped. It was a deeply taxing repertory system, but it gave them great resources. When they went on tour they might have as many as the seven plays to hand for a host to choose from that Wolsey’s Men are said to have in Sir Thomas More, or even more (p. 42). In October 1633, Sir Henry Herbert “sent a warrant by a messenger of the chamber to suppress The Tamer Tamed [an old play being revived] for that afternoon … They acted The Scornful Lady instead of it” (Herbert, 182). So, at perhaps four hours’ notice, they were able to stage a completely different play. Never less than entirely professional.

Box 3.3 “Dramatic” or “Back‐Stage” Plots

When Henslowe recorded a loan to Ben Jonson as an advance against a play he would write, “which he showed the plot unto the company,” he meant something like an outline, enough of a description of the planned work to convince the company sharers that Jonson could produce a satisfactory play (see p. 107). He was not referring to the surviving pasteboard items called “plots” or “plats,” several of which survive among Alleyn’s papers at Dulwich College and which evidently served some practical function within the playhouses (see p. 62). Those other “plots” or “plats” are what concern me here. Baffling if we look to them for information about the story of the play or its authorship, they reveal a good deal about the practical organization of performances.

Tiffany Stern, who has given them the closest recent attention, calls them “back‐stage plots” (2009a, 201–31). She observes that:

plots were, as everything about them broadcasts, made with heavy and repeated use in mind. All surviving plots are made of substantial pulp boards on to which folio‐sized paper (roughly 12 by 16 inches [0.30‐0.41m]) are affixed. The pulp remains perfectly preserved for the plots of The Dead Man’s Fortune and Frederick and Basilea … Written at the top of the folio sheet stuck onto the board is the nature of the document (the word “plat” or “plot”) and the title of the play for which it is the map … Under the title, and using most of the rest of the sheet in every plot … are two vertical columns ruled in ink in a thin nib. The boxes into which these are subdivided are filled with writing that fits exactly into its space … Lastly … they are pierced through by an oblong hole inserted about a third of the way down the central margin … hanging the documents on a square peg was the last in the act of making them, and the first in the act of publicly using them. (208–9)

In summation, she argues: “Plots … define box‐by‐box when the stage is empty and when it is full, but they are interested only in what is happening onstage, not off it; in particular, they carefully list who is to enter first and who is then to enter to them, but they are only sporadically taken with mid‐scene exits” (214). She then develops a convincing argument that these were publicly‐hung call‐sheets, presupposing the situation of “a ‘prompter’ who spent his performance staring at his ‘book,’ and a call‐boy who aided him during production” (219). But “they must have been available to more than one person … such plots as have marginal annotations for property and music calls anticipate use by at least three sets of caller” (226). They constituted, as John Gillies puts it, “a bird’s‐eye view of the whole action – a grid of entrances, exits, and stage‐effects” (1998, 27). They are another mark of the players’ sheer professionalism, the first resource they would draw upon whenever a play was revived, an instant reminder of its workings and challenges. Of the seven surviving “plots” the one of most immediate interest is that for 2 The Seven Deadly Sins, because it is my belief that it relates to performances of that play by Shakespeare’s own company while at the Curtain. See “The ‘plot’ of 2 The Seven Deadly Sins” (p. 205ff).

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