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William Kempe

William Kempe

Overview
See Will Kempe (actor)
Will Kempe (actor)
Will Kempe is a film and television actor. Born and raised on the island of Bermuda, Kempe was later educated in England...

 for the contemporary television actor


William Kempe (died 1603), also spelt Kemp, was an English
England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 actor
Actor
An actor is a person who acts in a dramatic production and who works in film, television, theatre, or radio in that capacity...

 and dancer specializing in comic roles and best known for having been one of the original players in early dramas by William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

. Roles associated with his name may include the great comic creation, Falstaff
Falstaff
Sir John Falstaff is a fictional character who appears in three plays by William Shakespeare. In the two Henry IV plays, he is a companion to Prince Hal, the future King Henry V. A fat, vain, boastful, and cowardly knight, Falstaff leads the apparently wayward Prince Hal into trouble, and is...

, and his contemporaries considered him the successor to the great clown of the previous generation Richard Tarlton
Richard Tarlton
Richard Tarlton , an English actor, was the most famous clown of his era.His birthplace is unknown, but reports of over a century later give it as Condover in Shropshire, with a later move to Ilford in Essex...

.

Kempe's success and influence was such that in December 1598 he was one of a core of five actor-shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain's Men
Lord Chamberlain's Men
The Lord Chamberlain's Men was a playing company for whom Shakespeare worked for most of his career. Formed at the end of a period of flux in the theatrical world of London, it had become, by 1603, one of the two leading companies of the city and was subsequently patronised by James I.It was...

 alongside Shakespeare and Richard Burbage
Richard Burbage
Richard Burbage was an English actor and theatre owner. He was the younger brother of Cuthbert Burbage. They were both actors in drama....

, but in a short time (possibly after a rupture) he parted company with the group.
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Encyclopedia
See Will Kempe (actor)
Will Kempe (actor)
Will Kempe is a film and television actor. Born and raised on the island of Bermuda, Kempe was later educated in England...

 for the contemporary television actor


William Kempe (died 1603), also spelt Kemp, was an English
England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 actor
Actor
An actor is a person who acts in a dramatic production and who works in film, television, theatre, or radio in that capacity...

 and dancer specializing in comic roles and best known for having been one of the original players in early dramas by William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

. Roles associated with his name may include the great comic creation, Falstaff
Falstaff
Sir John Falstaff is a fictional character who appears in three plays by William Shakespeare. In the two Henry IV plays, he is a companion to Prince Hal, the future King Henry V. A fat, vain, boastful, and cowardly knight, Falstaff leads the apparently wayward Prince Hal into trouble, and is...

, and his contemporaries considered him the successor to the great clown of the previous generation Richard Tarlton
Richard Tarlton
Richard Tarlton , an English actor, was the most famous clown of his era.His birthplace is unknown, but reports of over a century later give it as Condover in Shropshire, with a later move to Ilford in Essex...

.

Kempe's success and influence was such that in December 1598 he was one of a core of five actor-shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain's Men
Lord Chamberlain's Men
The Lord Chamberlain's Men was a playing company for whom Shakespeare worked for most of his career. Formed at the end of a period of flux in the theatrical world of London, it had become, by 1603, one of the two leading companies of the city and was subsequently patronised by James I.It was...

 alongside Shakespeare and Richard Burbage
Richard Burbage
Richard Burbage was an English actor and theatre owner. He was the younger brother of Cuthbert Burbage. They were both actors in drama....

, but in a short time (possibly after a rupture) he parted company with the group. Despite his fame as a performer and subsequent intent to continue his career, he appears to have died unregarded and in penury in around 1603.

Life


Of Kempe's birth and origins nothing is known. He first enters the historical record as a performer with Leicester's Men
Leicester's Men
The Earl of Leicester's Men was a playing company or troupe of actors in English Renaissance theatre, active mainly in the 1570s and 1580s in the reign of Elizabeth I...

 at Leicester House
Essex House (London)
Essex House was a house in London, built around 1575 for Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and originally called Leicester House.The property occupied the site where the Outer Temple, part of the London headquarters of the Knights Templar, had previously stood , and was immediately adjacent to the...

 in May 1585 and continued in this service after Leicester's departure for the Low Countries
Low Countries
The Low Countries are the historical lands around the low-lying delta of the Rhine, Scheldt, and Meuse rivers, including the modern countries of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of northern France and western Germany....

 to take part in the Eighty Years' War. Leicester's nephew, Philip Sidney
Philip Sidney
Sir Philip Sidney was an English poet, courtier and soldier, and is remembered as one of the most prominent figures of the Elizabethan Age...

, sent letters home by way of a man he called "Will, my Lord of Lester's jesting player" and it is now generally accepted this was Kempe. Sidney complained in a letter to Francis Walsingham
Francis Walsingham
Sir Francis Walsingham was Principal Secretary to Elizabeth I of England from 1573 until 1590, and is popularly remembered as her "spymaster". Walsingham is frequently cited as one of the earliest practitioners of modern intelligence methods both for espionage and for domestic security...

 that "Will" had delivered the letters to Lady Leicester
Lettice Knollys
Lettice Knollys , Countess of Essex and Countess of Leicester , was an English noblewoman and mother to the courtiers Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex and Lady Penelope Rich; through her marriage to Elizabeth I's favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, she incurred the Queen's undying...

 rather than Sidney's wife, Frances Walsingham
Frances Walsingham
Frances Walsingham, Countess of Essex and Countess of Clanricarde was an English noblewoman. The daughter of Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's Secretary of State, she became the wife of Sir Philip Sidney at age 14. Her second husband was Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth's...

. After a brief return to England, Kempe accompanied two other future Lord Chamberlain's Men, George Bryan
George Bryan (16th-century actor)
George Bryan was an actor in English Renaissance theatre, a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men with William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage....

 and Thomas Pope
Thomas Pope (16th-century actor)
Thomas Pope was an Elizabethan actor, a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men and a colleague of William Shakespeare. Pope was a "comedian and acrobat."-Beginnings:...

, to Elsinore
Elsinore
Helsingør is a city and the municipal seat of Helsingør municipality on the northeast coast of the island of Zealand in eastern Denmark. Helsingør has a population of 46,279 including the southern suburbs of Snekkersten and Espergærde...

 where he entertained Frederick II of Denmark
Frederick II of Denmark
Frederick II was King of Denmark and Norway and duke of Schleswig from 1559 until his death.-King of Denmark:Frederick II was the son of King Christian III of Denmark and Norway and Dorothea of Saxe-Lauenburg. Frederick II stands as the typical renaissance ruler of Denmark. Unlike his father, he...

.

Kempe's whereabouts in the later 1580s are not known, but that his fame as a performer was growing during this period is indicated by Thomas Nashe
Thomas Nashe
Thomas Nashe was an English Elizabethan pamphleteer, playwright, poet and satirist. He was the son of the minister William Nashe and his wife Margaret .-Early life:...

's An Almond for a Parrot (1590). Nashe dedicated this work to Kempe, calling him "vicegerent general to the ghost of Dick Tarlton." Similarly, the title-page of the quarto
Book size
The size of a book is generally measured by the height against the width of a leaf, or sometimes the height and width of its cover. A series of terms is commonly used by libraries and publishers for the general sizes of modern books, ranging from "folio" , to "quarto" and "octavo"...

 of A Knack to Know a Knave advertises Kempe's "merriments". (Because title-pages were a means to draw attention to a book, the mention of Kempe suggests that he had become an attraction in his own right.) Critics have generally viewed the scene in which Kempe performs as rather flat (Collier, 97) and it is assumed that the scene provided a framework within which Kempe could improvise. Entries in the Stationers' Register
Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers
The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers is one of the Livery Companies of the City of London. The Stationers' Company was founded in 1403; it received a Royal Charter in 1557...

 indicate that three jigs (short comic plays) perhaps written by Kempe were published between 1591 and 1595. Two of these have survived.

By 1592 Kempe was one of Lord Strange's Men
Lord Strange's Men
Lord Strange's Men was an Elizabethan playing company, comprising retainers of the household of Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange . They are best known in their final phase of activity in the late 1580s and early 1590s...

, listed in the Privy Council
Privy Council of the United Kingdom
Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council, usually known simply as the Privy Council, is a formal body of advisers to the Sovereign in the United Kingdom...

 authorization for that troupe to play seven miles out of London. In 1594, upon the dissolution of Strange's Men, Kempe, along with Burbage and Shakespeare, joined the Lord Chamberlain's Men and remained with that company until early 1599, when a still-unclear sequence of events removed him from the company. Although he had been a sharer in the plans to construct the Globe Theatre
Globe Theatre
The Globe Theatre was a theatre in London associated with William Shakespeare. It was built in 1599 by Shakespeare's playing company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, and was destroyed by fire on 29 June 1613...

, he appeared in no productions in the new theatre, which was open by mid-1599, and evidence from Shakespeare's Henry V
Henry V (play)
Henry V is a history play by William Shakespeare, believed to be written in approximately 1599. Its full titles are The Cronicle History of Henry the Fifth and The Life of Henry the Fifth...

, in which there is no promised continued role for Falstaff, and Hamlet
Hamlet
The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or more simply Hamlet, is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1599 and 1601...

, containing its famous complaint at improvisational clowning (Act 3, Scene 2), indicates some of the circumstances in which Kempe may have been dropped.

Final years


After his departure from the Chamberlain's Men in early 1599, Kempe continued to pursue his career as a performer. In February and March of 1600, he undertook what he would later call his "Nine Days Wonder", in which he morris dance
Morris dance
Morris dance is a form of English folk dance usually accompanied by music. It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers. Implements such as sticks, swords, handkerchiefs and bells may also be wielded by the dancers...

d from London
London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

 to Norwich
Norwich
Norwich is a city in England. It is the regional administrative centre and county town of Norfolk. During the 11th century, Norwich was the largest city in England after London, and one of the most important places in the kingdom...

 (a distance of over a hundred miles) in a journey which took him nine days spread over several weeks, often amid cheering crowds. Later that year he published a description of the event in order to prove to doubters that it was true. However, his activities after this famous stunt are as obscure as his origins. On evidence from The Travels of the Three English Brothers
The Travels of the Three English Brothers
The Travels of the Three English Brothers is an early Jacobean era stage play, an adventure drama written in 1607 by John Day, William Rowley, and George Wilkins. The drama was based on the true-life experiences of the three Shirley brothers, Sir Anthony Shirley, Sir Thomas Shirley, and Robert...

, he is assumed to have made another European tour, perhaps reaching Italy, but by 1601 he was borrowing money from Philip Henslowe
Philip Henslowe
Philip Henslowe was an Elizabethan theatrical entrepreneur and impresario. Henslowe's modern reputation rests on the survival of his diary, a primary source for information about the theatrical world of Renaissance London...

 and had joined Worcester's Men
Worcester's Men
The Earl of Worcester's Men was an acting company in Renaissance England. An early formation of the company, wearing the livery of William Somerset, 3rd Earl of Worcester, is among the companies known to have toured the country in the mid-sixteenth century...

. The last undoubted mention of him occurs in Henslowe's diary in late 1602.

Parish records record the death of "Kempe, a man" in St. Saviour, Southwark
Southwark
Southwark is a district of south London, England, and the administrative headquarters of the London Borough of Southwark. Situated east of Charing Cross, it forms one of the oldest parts of London and fronts the River Thames to the north...

, late in 1603. While this is not clearly the comedian, the record fits his departure from the documentary record.

Performance style


In his time, Kempe was as famous for his stage jig
Stage jig
A stage jig was a bawdy stage show, featuring song and dance, popular in England during the 16th and 17th centuries. The stories, usually taken from folk tales, included the traditional assortment of tricksters, cuckolds and the like, while the music were popular songs of the time with lyrics...

s as for his acting in regular drama. The jig, a kind of rustic cousin to commedia dell'arte
Commedia dell'arte
Commedia dell'arte is a form of theatre characterized by masked "types" which began in Italy in the 16th century, and was responsible for the advent of the actress and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios. The closest translation of the name is "comedy of craft"; it is shortened...

, featured as many as five performers in a partially-improvised song-and-dance routine. Jigs had plots, often bawdy, but the emphasis was on dancing and physical comedy. Two of Kempe's jigs survive in English, and two more in German. Examples of the jigs may be seen in the manuscript collection of John Dowland
John Dowland
John Dowland was an English Renaissance composer, singer, and lutenist. He is best known today for his melancholy songs such as "Come, heavy sleep" , "Come again", "Flow my tears", "I saw my Lady weepe" and "In darkness let me dwell", but his instrumental music has undergone a major revival, and has...

 (now in the Cambridge University
University of Cambridge
The University of Cambridge is a public research university located in Cambridge, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest university in both the United Kingdom and the English-speaking world , and the seventh-oldest globally...

 library). A famous 17th Century jig called Kemp's Jig was named after Will Kempe and was published in the first book of John Playford
John Playford
John Playford was a London bookseller, publisher, minor composer, and member of the Stationers' Company, who published books on music theory, instruction books for several instruments, and psalters with tunes for singing in churches...

's The English Dancing Master of 1651.

As an actor, Kempe is certainly associated with two roles: Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy written by William Shakespeare about two pairs of lovers, Benedick and Beatrice, and Claudio and Hero....

and Peter in Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy written early in the career of playwright William Shakespeare about two young star-crossed lovers whose deaths ultimately unite their feuding families. It was among Shakespeare's most popular archetypal stories of young, teenage lovers.Romeo and Juliet belongs to a...

. (In the quarto text of the latter, and in both quarto and First Folio
First Folio
Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. is the 1623 published collection of William Shakespeare's plays. Modern scholars commonly refer to it as the First Folio....

 text of the former, he is identified in speech prefixes and stage directions.) From these hints, a list of Kempe's parts has been deduced which, if conjectural, is not improbable: Costard in Love's Labours Lost, Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream
A Midsummer Night's Dream
A Midsummer Night's Dream is a play that was written by William Shakespeare. It is believed to have been written between 1590 and 1596. It portrays the events surrounding the marriage of the Duke of Athens, Theseus, and the Queen of the Amazons, Hippolyta...

, Lancelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice is a tragic comedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1596 and 1598. Though classified as a comedy in the First Folio and sharing certain aspects with Shakespeare's other romantic comedies, the play is perhaps most remembered for its dramatic...

, and Cob in Ben Jonson
Ben Jonson
Benjamin Jonson was an English Renaissance dramatist, poet and actor. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, he is best known for his satirical plays, particularly Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair, which are considered his best, and his lyric poems...

's Every Man in His Humour
Every Man in His Humour
Every Man in His Humour is a 1598 play by the English playwright Ben Jonson. The play belongs to the subgenre of the "humours comedy," in which each major character is dominated by an overriding humour or obsession.-Performance and Publication:...

. Falstaff
Falstaff
Sir John Falstaff is a fictional character who appears in three plays by William Shakespeare. In the two Henry IV plays, he is a companion to Prince Hal, the future King Henry V. A fat, vain, boastful, and cowardly knight, Falstaff leads the apparently wayward Prince Hal into trouble, and is...

 is a more ambiguous case. Though Falstaff presents some features of an Elizabethan dramatic clown, his character is higher in class and more complex than the other roles with which Kempe is associated.

Film and TV

  • In the 1998 John Madden
    John Madden (director)
    John Philip Madden is an English director of theatre, film, television, and radio.- Biography :Madden was educated at Clifton College. He was in the same house as friend and fellow director Roger Michell. He began his career in British independent films, and graduated from the University of...

     film Shakespeare in Love
    Shakespeare in Love
    Shakespeare in Love is a 1998 British-American comedy film directed by John Madden and written by Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard....

    , Kempe is played by veteran character actor
    Character actor
    A character actor is one who predominantly plays unusual or eccentric characters. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a character actor as "an actor who specializes in character parts", defining character part in turn as "an acting role displaying pronounced or unusual characteristics or...

     Patrick Barlow
    Patrick Barlow
    Patrick Barlow is an English actor, comedian and playwright. His comedic alter ego, Desmond Olivier Dingle, is the founder, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the two-man National Theatre of Brent, which has performed on stage, on television and on radio.-Radio:Barlow is the scriptwriter, as...

    .
  • In 2005's tv-film A Waste of Shame
    A Waste of Shame
    A Waste of Shame is a 90-minute television drama on the circumstances surrounding William Shakespeare's composition of his sonnets. It takes its title from the first line of Sonnet 129...

    he is portrayed by John Voce
    John Voce
    John Voce is an English actor. He has portrayed William Kempe in the period drama A Waste of Shame and the recurring character Tim Parker in Primeval . He has also appeared in the 2001 film Crush and the 2008 film Penelope...

  • In the 2007 Doctor Who
    Doctor Who
    Doctor Who is a British science fiction television programme produced by the BBC. The programme depicts the adventures of a time-travelling humanoid alien known as the Doctor who explores the universe in a sentient time machine called the TARDIS that flies through time and space, whose exterior...

     episode "The Shakespeare Code
    The Shakespeare Code
    "The Shakespeare Code" is an episode of the British science fiction television series Doctor Who. It was broadcast on BBC One on 7 April 2007, and is the second episode of Series 3 of the revived Doctor Who series. According to the BARB figures this episode was seen by 7.23 million viewers and was...

    ", Kempe is played by David Westhead
    David Westhead
    David Westhead is a British actor. He is notable as having been a member of the regular cast of Criminal Justice, Life Begins, The Lakes and The Time of Your Life...

    .

Literature

  • Kempe appears as a character in The Return from Parnassus, or The Scourge of Simony
    Parnassus plays
    The Parnassus plays are three dramas produced at St John's College, Cambridge, as part of the college's Christmas entertainments towards the end of the 16th century. They are humorous accounts of the adventures of two students, Philomusus and Studioso. The first play The Pilgrimage to Parnassus is...

    , possibly written during his lifetime or very shortly after his death. In it he praises Shakespeare for outdoing university educated playwrights.
  • In Harry Turtledove
    Harry Turtledove
    Harry Norman Turtledove is an American novelist, who has produced works in several genres including alternate history, historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction.- Life :...

    's alternate history novel Ruled Britannia
    Ruled Britannia
    Ruled Britannia is an alternate history novel by Harry Turtledove, first published in hardcover and paperback by Roc Books in 2002.-Plot introduction :The book is set in the year 1597, in an alternate universe where the Spanish Armada is successful...

    Kempe is one of the main characters. His antics provide much of the novel's humour, and the book includes references to his "Nine Days Wonder".
  • William Gibson
    William Gibson (playwright)
    William Gibson was an American playwright and novelist. He graduated from the City College of New York in 1938.He was of Irish, French, German, Dutch and Russian ancestry...

     depicts Kempe as a moody tragedian in his 1968 play A Cry of Players, a significant departure from Kempe's actual performance style.
  • In Ann Young's novel for young adults The Nine Days Wonder (2002) published by East Hall Press.
  • In Neil Gaiman
    Neil Gaiman
    Neil Richard Gaiman born 10 November 1960)is an English author of short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theatre and films. His notable works include the comic book series The Sandman and novels Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book...

    's graphic novel The Sandman: Dream Country
    The Sandman: Dream Country
    Dream Country is the third trade paperback collection of the comic book series The Sandman, published by DC Comics. It collects issues #17-20...

    , Will Kempe is depicted in the issue A Midsummer Night's Dream, a short story about Shakespeare's first performance of the play.
  • In J.B. Cheaney's novel The True Prince along with more of the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

External links