Richard Tarlton: the greatest star of the Elizabethan theatre

Richard Tarlton, a posthumous imageI have written elsewhere – see for instance my post on the life of Thomas Kyd – on the way in which the more or less arbitrary survival of documentary evidence distorts our ideas about the shape and richness of Elizabethan culture.

And for us, looking back, the theatre of the period looks like a writers’ theatre. Even discounting Shakespeare, a world that gave us Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton – never mind John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont, John Lyly, Robert Greene, Thomas Dekker, John Webster, et al – was clearly doing something right.

But again the nature of the surviving evidence has helped warp that picture. For contemporaries, in fact, it was very much an actors’ theatre. And while the best known tragedians, Richard Burbage and Edward Alleyn, are still familiar names to us by virtue of their associations with the great roles, the best illustration of that fact is nevertheless the career of the clown Richard Tarlton. All performance is ephemeral; comedy wholly so.

By the time Tarlton died of the plague in September 1588 – at a guess in his late thirties, since the earliest reference to him is in 1570 – he was something of a legend.

According to Thomas Fuller:

When Queen Elizabeth was serious, I dare not say sullen, and out of good humour, he could un-dumpish her at his pleasure. Her highest favourites would, in some cases, go to Tarlton before they would go to the queen, and he was their usher to prepare their advantageous access unto her. In a word, he told the queen more of her faults than most of her chaplains, and cured her melancholy better than all of her physicians.

Another anecdote, which seems to attest to Tarlton’s willingness to be ferociously provocative, has him performing at court in front of Elizabeth and interrupting the play to point at Sir Walter Ralegh and say, “See how the knave commands the queen!”

…for which he was corrected by a frown from the queen; yet he had the confidence  to add that [Ralegh] was of too much and too intolerable a power; and going on with the same liberty, he reflected on the over-great power and riches of the Earl of Leicester, which was… universally applauded by all that were present.

Tarlton was a member of the Queen’s Men – the premier troupe of actors in the 1580s – from its inception in late March 1583 and was almost certainly its principal draw. Sir Philip Sidney – who I have always thought of as a rather humourless man – was godfather to Tarlton’s son, also named Philip.


But it wasn’t merely – or even particularly – the court that established Tarlton’s reputation: he was immensely popular with the people. His image adorned both ‘jakes’ – that is, lavatories – and ale-house signs – for decades, even centuries, after his death. (There is record of an inn in Shoreditch using Tarlton’s “portrait, with tabor and pipe” on its sign as late as 1798.) There are many dozens of references to him after his death, both private and for publication.

But the size of Tarlton’s legend disguises the fact that almost nothing is known of his life or work.

According to Fuller, again, Tarlton was talent-spotted by one of Leicester’s men, while herding pigs in Condover:

Here he was in the field keeping his father’s swine, when a servant of Robert, Earl of Leicester, passing this way to his Lord’s lands in his Barony of Denbigh, was so highly pleased with his happy unhappy answers, that he brought him to court, where he became the most famous jester to Queen Elizabeth

While no doubt possible, this seems somewhat implausible. It seems more likely that he came from somewhere in Essex, given other references to him, including the ownership of an inn in Colchester. He was a freeman of the Company of Vintners and probably also owned the Saba inn on Gracechurch Street and an ordinary on Paternoster Row. (He was also a master swordsman.)

There is an uninspiring ballad on the subject of some autumn floods in Lincolnshire and Bedfordshire, published in 1570, and then nothing until 1578, when he was in the troupe of the Lord Chamberlain, Thomas Radcliffe, the third earl of Sussex.

Clearly his star rose quickly if was in the Queen’s Men – many if not most of whom came from Leicester’s troupe – five years’ later. But what made him famous?

It wasn’t great parts, like Burbage and Alleyn: the comic part of Dericke in The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth – a precursor to and possible source for Shakespeare’s play probably dating from the 1580s – is the only one usually ascribed to him. It was his ability to improvise dialogue in and around the script – a skill that Gabriel Harvey called Tarltonising – and above all to sing and dance in the jig, the often bawdy musical episode that followed theatrical performances on the stage.

Writers generally took a dim view of both.

When Hamlet instructs the players he tells them:

And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too.

Jonson, too, took pains in the induction to his great 1614 comedy Bartholomew Fair to bring on an old stage sweeper who remembers how funny Tarlton use to be – and comments on how much funnier Jonson’s play would be if Tarlton could be there to invent some business – and who is himself driven from the stage. A little later in the induction come some equally dismissive remarks about “the concupiscence of jigs and dances”.

Almost nothing of Tarlton’s writing survives, and nothing to suggest much about his humour and why contemporaries found him irresistible.

True, there is a posthumous book called Tarlton’s Jests, which was first published as late as 1611, although it may have been in circulation at the end of the previous century, but is very hard to find the humour in it these days. Of course, since Tarlton wasn’t around to write it, we may well do him a dis-service to even discuss it. Some of the tales are certainly stale, others surely apocryphal, and there is no assurance that the book wasn’t compiled merely to cash in on the still valuable currency of Tarlton’s name.

Still, what comes across to me from the jests is an aggressive, railing, subversive wit, always keen to take on and best authority figures. This one – excluded for indecency from the Victorian edition – is as good as any:

A Gentlewoman merrily disposed, being crossed by Tarlton, and half angry, said, “Sirrah, a little thing would make me requite you with a cuff.”

“With a cuff, lady?” says Tarlton. “So would you spell my sorrow forward, but spell my sorrow backward, then cuff me and spare not.”

When the gentlemen by, considered of the word, their laughing made the simple meaning gentlewoman to blush for shame.

Another jest, entitled ‘How Tarlton deceived an inn-holder at Sandwich’, gives an idea of how edgy his persona was – or was perceived to be:

Upon a time when the players were put to silence, Tarlton and his boy frolicked so long in the country, that all their money was gone, and being a great way from London, they knew not what to do. But as want is the whetstone of wit, Tarlton gathereth his conceit together, and practised a trick to bear him up to London without money, & thus it was:

Unto an inn in Sandwich they went, and there lay for two days at great charge, although he had no money to pay for the same: the third morning he had his man go down and malcontent himself before his host and his hostess, a mumbling say to himself, “Lord Lord, what a scalde [mean] master do I serve! This it is to serve such seminary priests and Jesuits. Now even as I am an honest boy, I’ll leave him in the lurch, and shift for myself: here’s a do about penance and mortification, as though (forsooth) Christ hath not died enough for all.”

The boy mumbled out these his instructions so dissembling, that it struck a jealousy in the innholder’s heart, that out of doubt his master was a seminary priest. Whereupon he presently sent for the constable, and told him all the foresaid matter, and so went by both together to attach Tarlton in his chamber, who purposely had shut himself close in, and betaken him to his knees, and to his crosses, to make the matter seem more suspicious, which they espying through the key-hole, made no more ado, but in they rushed, and arrested him for a seminary priest, discharged his score, bore his, and his boy’s charges up to London, and there in hope to have rich rewards, presented him to M. Fleetwood, the old Recorder of London.

But now, mark the jest; when the Recorder saw Tarlton, and knew him passing well, entertained him very courteously, and all to be fooled the Inn-holder and his mate, and sent them away with fleas in their ears: but when Tarlton saw himself discharged out of their hands, he stood jesting and pointing at their folly, and so taught them by cunning more wit and thrift against another time.

As @dianejakacki has pointed out, pretending to be a catholic priest in the 1580s – merely to get out of paying a bill – is an extraordinary thing to have done. It says a great deal about Tarlton’s brazenness and chutzpah, and his willingness to take risks. It almost makes him sound like an Elizabethan Lenny Bruce.

I can’t stress enough, however, how unfunny most of the jests are.

So much of Tarlton’s humour was bound up in his performance and his ad-libs that what made him great – and he undoubtedly was – is wholly lost to us.

Thomas Nashe said Tarlton only had to poke his head through the curtain to have his audience laughing. I have in my head an image of Tarlton that is two parts Tommy Cooper and one part Marty Feldman, and it is clear from the emphasis in the way he would be remembered, how important the way he looked was key to his success.

Indeed, it is possible that,  like many another comedian there wasn’t also a melancholy core to Tarlton and his work. The soldier Sir Roger Williams, in his 1590 tract A Brief Discourse of Warre, digresses to say “our pleasant Tarlton would counterfeit many arts, but he was no body out of his mirths”. It makes me wonder whether the “happy unhappy” wit that is noted in Fuller’s anecdote implies an acerbic, bitter undertone to his humour – and perhaps to his personality too.

His will, made on 3 September 1588 is almost entirely dedicated to the welfare of his son, Philip. He was dead and buried the same day, in St Leonard’s in Shoreditch. Philip is not heard of again. Tarlton’s estate – apparently worth the very impressive sum of £700 – was contested by Tarlton’s mother and his friend Robert Adams, both executors.

There is a story that he died in the house of the well-known Shoreditch prostitute Em Ball, later also reportedly to marry the scapegrace playwright Robert Greene. Whether that is true or not, it was a mournful end to a brilliant talent – for all that we can’t share it.

As I mentioned earlier, there were many remembrances of him over the years, but I will only quote two. The first is from the anonymous Tarltons Newes out of Purgatorie, dating to around 1590:

Sorrowing, as most men do, for the death of Richard Tarlton, in that his particular loss was a general lament to all that coveted either to satisfy their eyes with his clownish gesture, or their ears with his witty jests. The wonted desire to see plays left me, in that although I saw as rare shows, and heard as lofty verse, yet I enjoyed not those wonted sports that flowed from him, as from a fountain of pleasing and merry conceits. For although he was only superficially seen in learning, having no more than but a bare insight into the Latin tongue, yet he had such a prompt wit, that he seemed to have that salem ingenii, which Tully so highly commends in his Oratory.

Well, howsoever, either natural or artificial, or both, he was a mad merry companion, desired and loved of all, amongst the rest of whose well wishes myself, being not the least, after his death I mourned in conceit, and absented myself from all plays, as wanting that merry Roscius of players, that famoused all comedies so with his pleasant and extemporal invention; yet at last, as the long summer’s day hath his night, so this dump had an end: and forsooth upon Whitsun Monday last I would needs to the Theatre to a play, where when I came, I found such concourse of unruly people, that I thought it better solitary to walk in the fields, then to intermeddle myself amongst such great press.

Feeding mine humour with this fancy I stepped by dame Anne of Cleeres well, and went by the backside of Hogsdon, where, finding the sun to be hot, and seeing a faire tree that had a cool shade, I sat me down to take the air, where after I had rested me a while, I fell asleep. As thus I lay in slumber, me thought I saw one attired in russet, with a buttoned cap on his head, a great bag by his side, and a strong bat in his hand, so artificially attired for a clown as I began to call Tarlton’s wonted shape to remembrance, as he drew more near and he came within compass of mine eye, to judge it was no other but the very ghost of Richard Tarlton, which place and wan, sat him down by me on the grass.

I that knew him to be dead, at this sudden sight fell into a great fear, insomuch that I sweat in my sleep; which he perceiving, with his wonted countenance full of smiles, began to comfort me thus: “What old acquaintance, a man or a mouse?… fear not me, man, I am but Dick Tarlton, that could quaint it in the court, and clown it on the stage; that had a quart of wine for my friend, and a sword for my foe, who hurt none being alive, and will not prejudice any being dead”

The other is from the play, The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London, written by his erstwhile colleage Robert Wilson and performed by the Queen’s Men. The words are spoken by Simplicity, who is trying – again the emphasis on the image is important – to sell a portrait of Tarlton:

What was he? A prentice in his youth of this honourable city, God be with him. When he was young, he was leaning to the trade that my wife useth now, and I have used… water-bearing. I-wis, he hath toss’d a tankard in Corn-hill ere now: If thou knew’st him not… thou knewest nobody. I warrant, here’s two crack-ropes knew him…

Wit dwelt with him, indeed, as appeared by his rhyme, And served him well; and Will was with him now and then. But, soft, thy  name is Wealth: I think in earnest he was little acquainted with thee. O, it was a fine fellow, as e’er was born: There will never come his like, while the earth can corn. O passing fine Tarlton! I would thou hadst lived yet…

The fineness was within, for without he was plain;
But it was the merriest fellow, and had such jests in store
That, if thou hadst seen him, thou would’st have laughed thy heart sore.

NOTE: Diane Jakacki, a fellow at Georgia Institute of Technology, is running The Tarlton Project, which looks both a fabulous resource in the making and a fascinating (and long-overdue) undertaking! I have taken the two transcriptions of Tarlton’s jests above from The Tarlton Project website, although I have modernised the spelling and punctuation. (Any errors are of course mine and not Diane’s.) And for anyone interested in reading more about jigs, there is a superb article by Lucie Skeaping from History Today online here.

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