Robert Armin

We may perhaps link something of Burbage’s success with what seem to have been deliberate changes in artistic policy which accompanied the move to the new Globe. The first is the choice of Robert Armin to replace Will Kemp; the second is the change in Shakespeare’s choice of material for his plays. Armin was already a well‐established comedian, having served for some years with Lord Chandos’s Men. Although he too claimed to be a “son” of Tarlton, he was a very different style of comedian. He was a small man, probably never robust enough for dancing a jig, and he cultivated the role not of a rustic buffoon but of a droll and wily fool (see Figure 6.4).

Image described by caption.

Figure 6.4 The image of Robert Armin on the title‐page of The History of the Two Maids of MoreclackeSource: STC 773 Copy 1, Folger Shakespeare Library.

David Wiles spells out the differences:

Kemp, the “Lord of Misrule,” was allowed to develop an alternative order, unromantic, libidinal and egalitarian – an alternative to the dominant order of the gentry. Armin, however, played the fool’s part. Just as the fool stayed outside of the ordered formation of the morris … so Armin’s stage fools remained perpetual outsiders. Just as the morris fool beat the dancers and watchers with his bladder, so Armin railed at the fools of the world. Kemp’s art lay in convincing the spectators that he was their elected representative, chosen in order to play out their most mischievous fantasies, because he was one of their number. Armin’s art lay in being different, so that through parodying normal men he could point up the follies of normal men. (1987, 163)

If Kemp was Bottom, Peter, Dogberry, Armin was (almost certainly) Touchstone, Feste, Lavatch, Hamlet’s gravedigger, Thersites, Lear’s Fool, Macbeth’s devil‐porter, Autolycus, Trinculo, and probably other outsiders like Cloten and even Iago.30

If Hamlet’s rebuke to unruly clowns is partly aimed at Kemp, it is reasonable to suppose that Viola’s praise of Feste in Twelfth Night might be applied to Armin:

This fellow is wise enough to play the fool,

And to do that well craves a kind of wit.

He must observe their mood on whom he jests,

The quality of persons, and the time,

And like the haggard [untrained hawk], check at every feather

That comes before his eye. This is a practice

As full of labour as a wise man’s art.

(3.1.60–6)

Armin was also apparently an accomplished singer: his singing in Twelfth Night entertains Orsino (“Come away, come away, death”) even as it mocks his self‐absorption, and delights Sir Andrew (“What is love,’ tis not hereafter”) even as it points out the folly of his wooing Olivia. And the song he sings at the end – “When that I was and a little tiny boy” – pours cold water over the whole romantic fantasy that the audience has sanctioned (“For the rain it raineth every day” – a refrain that echoes even more painfully again amid the storm in King Lear: 3.2.74–7).

Shakespeare had always contrived to keep Kemp’s roles thematically linked to the rest of the play, but usually in setpiece moments where he could pursue his clowning without seriously disrupting the action. Armin’s roles tend to be more structurally integrated with the wider play – an arrangement which his recurrent casting as a retained household “fool” greatly facilitates. It gives him the freedom to speak uncomfortable truths, becoming – as Goneril complains of Lear’s companion – his “all‐licensed fool” (1.4.198). It is difficult to believe that he did not collaborate with Shakespeare in planning such roles. He was himself the author of a comedy, Two Maids of More‐Clacke (pr. 1609) and two witty collections, Fool Upon Fool (1600, reissued as A Nest of Ninnies) and Quips upon Questions. He took the art of fooling seriously and in a way that surely complemented Burbage’s skills.

If the pivotal role of principal comedian changed at the Globe, so too did the direction in which Shakespeare, as the company’s “ordinary poet,” steered their repertory – or, at least, such of their repertory as we can discern (see Appendix). His early career had been firmly based on two staples: chronicle English histories and (broadly) festive comedies. With Henry V (probably at the Curtain) he wrote the last of the eight English history plays which, although not written in sequence, traced between them the narrative of England through a tempestuous century from the deposition of Richard II to the death of Richard III and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty.31 But Shakespeare never wrote an English history for the Globe. Late in his career he wrote the stylistically very different Henry VIII(known, before the first folio tidied it into the histories, as All Is True), and a performance of that would burn the Globe to the ground. But there are good reasons for thinking that he wrote Henry VIII with the Blackfriars primarily in mind (see p. 304).

The earliest play we can locate at the Globe with reasonable certainty is Julius Caesar, and this flags what was to replace the English histories. Thomas Platter once more records:

After dinner on the 21st of September [1599], at about two o’clock, I went with my companions over the water, and in the strewn roof‐house saw the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar with at least fifteen persons very well acted. At the end of the comedy they danced according to their custom with extreme elegance. Two in men’s clothes and two in women’s gave this performance, in wonderful combination with each other. (ES, 2: 365)32

Platter took a boat over the Thames, as gentlemen commonly would, so this was clearly the Bankside. It could just be the Rose, but other evidence dates Julius Caesar around this time, so there are good grounds for assuming it is the Globe. As we have noted elsewhere, Platter goes on to generalize the point that plays started at 2 p.m. (see p. 267). Here he fixes that time for a specific performance at the Globe. This was around the autumnal equinox, so assuming a show running between two and three hours (including the dancing) everyone could still get back to the City comfortably before dark. It would have been difficult to start much earlier, however, because dinner was the main meal of the day and usually started around noon. The actors were trapped between the audience’s eating schedule and the limits of daylight. As the audience made their way towards the playhouse they would have heard the trumpeter high up above the tiring house deliver three “soundings” which marked the beginning of the show (p. 78–80). It was by now a familiar convention. Jonson, an inveterate experimenter with the conventions, started the Induction of Every Man Out of His Humour – at the Globe that same autumn – at the second sounding, while the third marked the Prologue. In the printed text of Satiromastix, Dekker also jokingly alludes to the convention, entreating the reader to check the errata before commencing on the play “Instead of the trumpets sounding thrice, before the play begins” (1: 306).

Platter also identifies “at least fifteen persons” on stage. Julius Caesar has well over forty speaking parts (some, admittedly, very brief) so this must have meant a lot of doubling – requiring a very well‐oiled arrangement for costumes changes in the tiring house – for those who were not in the main roles. Assuming there were by now nine sharers, this perhaps implies three boys to play the women (and probably Brutus’s servant, Lucius) plus three hired actors. It would not be surprising if this was a production that occasionally required other company personnel, like the gatherers, to make up numbers in the most crowded scenes, such as the opening where the tradesmen mill about on the feast of Lupercal, or the people listen to the funeral orations, or the battle of Philippi. Still, Platter was obviously impressed to see as many as fifteen persons involved in such entertainment. Sadly, he does not comment on other aspects of the play, such as the costumes. Other evidence suggests that there might be an eclectic mix of historically appropriate clothing with modern items, which would echo the play’s famous anachronisms, such as the “sweaty nightcaps” ancient Roman plebeians are supposed to have worn (1.2.245–6) and a clock striking (2.1.192.1). These are often quoted as evidence of Shakespeare’s indifference to such niceties, by contrast to Jonson’s punctilious accuracy in his two Globe tragedies, Sejanus (1603) and Catiline (1611). But such anacronisms might have alerted an audience to parallels between historical times and their own, never more relevant than in a play about resonant régime‐change at a time when the sands of the Tudor régime were inexorably running out.

We also wish Platter had been more forthcoming about “the strewn roof‐house” from which he watched the performance. In his penny‐by‐penny account of entry he never mentions the lords’ rooms, so this is presumably not those. It is most likely one of the well‐appointed “gentlemen’s rooms” – strewn, presumably, with new rushes to keep it fresh. And since he describes it as a “roof‐house” we might infer that it was in the highest galleries, almost certainly above the side of the stage. The drawing of the Swan actually places the “orchestra” – seating for the wealthiest spectators – on the lowest level and immediately adjacent to the stage (see p. Frontispiece). But we have to be wary of treating the drawing as gospel, and besides the Globe was not bound to imitate the Swan in all particulars. The third tier galleries doubtless gave a commanding view, almost on a par with that from the lords’ rooms. Finally, we note that, though the production had no time for “jigging fools,” the performance – like the one he saw at the Curtain – still ended with a dance. Platter describes its “extreme elegance” and praises the “wonderful combination” of the dancers, rather than raucous or lewd clowning. It remains, however, a measure of the difference between then and now that a play like Julius Caesar should end with any kind of dance at all. But this was obviously the expectation for plays both comic and serious. 2 Henry IV ends with an Epilogue spoken by a dancer: “My tongue is weary; when my legs are too, I will bid you good night” (30–2).

Shakespeare had written two early tragedies, Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet, but Julius Caesar was a mark of intensified concentration on the genre. The first version of his Hamlet, as we have seen, was apparently written circa 1600, and then revised (I would argue) circa 1603/4, and again sometime later (probably circa 1606/8: see Knutson, 1995). Othello was written between 1602 and 1604; King Lear 1605–6; Macbeth 1606; Antony and Cleopatra 1606–7; and Coriolanus circa 1607 (with Timon of Athensvariously assigned between 1604 and 1608). People have wondered about the emotional and imaginative pressure behind this output, but there must also have been a commercial agenda: tragedies worked for the audience at the Globe, and for Burbage and Armin, or Shakespeare would not have kept writing them. This seems to have been a calculation that the company made, even as they moved there.

At the same time, something happened to Shakespearean comedy at the Globe. This was less immediate. Armin must certainly have performed in As You Like It in 1599/1600, since Touchstone is a pun on his status as a time‐served freeman of the Goldsmith’s company: a touchstone is a smooth, fine‐grained, dark variety of quartz or jasper, used for testing the quality of gold and silver alloys by the color of the mark left from rubbing them on it. By analogy the fool rubs up against the people in the Forest of Arden, testing their quality. The role of Feste in Twelfth Night could hardly have been written for anyone other than Armin; and John Manningham, a student at the Middle Temple, saw the play performed there in February 1602, so we deduce it was written a little earlier than that. But these are the last two of what are often called Shakespeare’s “festive” comedies, following a formula of social unrest or inversion, disguise or cross‐dressing (especially in these last two), and processes of self‐discovery which finally results in marriages and social reintegration. That gives way in All’s Well that Ends Well (circa1602) and Measure for Measure(1603/4) to a much more skeptical comedy, whose use of bed‐tricks (among other things) to effect the outcomes makes for difficult or unsatisfactory resolutions – hence the modern label of “problem” comedies. Troilus and Cressida, a mordantly anti‐heroic version of the Trojan wars, also belongs to this period.33 Here again, it is unlikely that these changes were not significantly driven by the company’s expectations of what would appeal to their audiences on the Bankside.

But the landscape of the company’s competition changed dramatically in the space of a year. On the one hand, Henslowe and Alleyn apparently appreciated that the challenge which the Globe represented was too much for the Admiral’s Men – the Globe was hard by the Rose, which was moreover sinking into the marsh land on which it had been built. They resolved as soon as possible to build anew themselves, calculating that the Fortune had better chances of success if it was built on the other side of London; they too may have had thoughts about reshaping their repertory. The Rose did not immediately close down; Worcester’s Men are used it occasionally, but we hear of no plays there after 1603. With the Swan also apparently largely inactive, the Chamberlain’s Men perhaps unexpectedly faced no further significant competition on the Bankside until the Hope was built in 1614.

But the reopening of the boy companies certainly gave them something to think about. Paul’s boys were always much the smaller operation of the two boy companies; though they clearly offered novelty when they opened their doors, it is unlikely that they offered serious commercial competition to the Globe. John Marston was their driving force in the early years, and Shakespeare clearly paid serious attention to the kinds of plays he was producing – and Marston repaid the compliment. Marston’s Antonio and Mellida(1599), for example, is a romantic comedy of the type Shakespeare had been master of for years; but Marston introduces elements of burlesque and parody which give it a very different tone. And its sequel, Antonio’s Revenge (1600), unpredictably leaps genre barriers and becomes a revenge tragedy, whose precise relationship to Hamlet scholars have been debating for years, never entirely sure who is indebted to whom. Marston’s The Malcontent (1603/4), first written for the Blackfriars, is also very clearly inspired by Hamlet, in such original ways that Shakespeare’s company found a way to include it in their own repertoire, as we shall see (see p. 281ff).

The Children of the Queen’s Chapel, who gallingly had occupied the Burbages’ Blackfriars property, were always significant competition for the Chamberlain’s Men. At least in their early days they only performed once a week, and in a playhouse which perhaps held an audience of 600, one‐fifth of the 3,000 which it was said the Globe could accommodate.34 But those 600 were all willing to pay at least 6d. for a seat and the comfort of indoor accommodation, the cost of the exclusive lords’ rooms at the Globe (at least in its early years). And both the boys’ theatres were within the City walls, easily accessible by its wealthier inhabitants, especially during the worst of the winter weather. Such competition clearly threatened to starve the Globe of its highest‐paying customers. Shakespeare’s company obviously looked to develop a business plan to meet that threat.

As if this were not enough, the Privy Council privileges which had seemed so clear in 1598 became somewhat less so as time passed. On paper all seemed well. In June 1600 the Privy Council issued a very explicit order restricting the number of (adult) playhouses to two, one in Middlesex for the Admiral’s Men (the Fortune, once it was complete) and one on the Bankside in Surrey for the Chamberlain’s Men (the Globe). The Curtain, which the Admiral’s Men had apparently been using, was to be torn down once the Fortune was in use. Playing at any “common inn” was forbidden, and the number of performances was restricted to two per company per week, and none on Sundays, in Lent or in time of plague.

But it is unclear if any of these provisions, other than the plague restriction, was ever enacted. As the Privy Council must well have known, there was already a new playhouse, the Boar’s Head, a converted tavern, on the east side of the City and just beyond the City’s jurisdiction, in Whitechapel (Berry, 1986). Since the previous summer it had been occupied by a company under the patronage of the sixth Earl of Derby, and Derby’s influence as one of the great northern magnates had secured them a performance at court this past February – the first breach in the Chamberlain’s and Admiral’s Men’s duopoly there since 1594. They returned again the following Revels season, but then left London. They were immediately replaced in both venues, however, by a troupe which was formally a merger of companies patronized by the Earls of Worcester and of Oxford, but went under the former’s name. Worcester was now Master of the Horse to the Queen – a position as prestigious as those of the Lord Chamberlain and the Lord Admiral – and a member of the Privy Council. Oxford was the seventeenth earl of that title, which carried enormous prestige. With such combined influence, their company breached the duopoly permanently.

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