Queen's Men Biographies - Actors in the 1583 Company

Richard Tarlton (d.1588)

• Joined Queen’s in 1583, after theatrical success in Sussex’s Men in the 1570s and some ballad-writing.

• Biographers have noted the difficulty of separating the boozy, provocative, unpredictable figure of fictional accounts of the man (such as 1611’s Tarlton’s Jests, printed long after his death) and the authentic man, whose seems to have carefully cultivated relationships across various social levels.

• The Queen’s Men’s play Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (Q1590) by Tarlton’s fellow Robert Wilson, suggests that, in his youth, Tarlton was water-carrier,

Will: … what was that Tarlton? I neuer knew him.
Simplicity: What was he: a prentice in his youth of this honorable city, God be with
him: when he was yoong he was leaning to the trade that my wife vseth nowe, and I haue vsed, vide lice shirt, waterbearing. I-wis he hath toss’d a tankard in Cornhill ere now…

There may be a pun involved, given the public association of Tarlton throughout the 1580s with the world of taverns. In 1584, he became free of the Company of Vintners and was evidently keeper of the Saba (or “Sheba”) tavern in Gracechurch Street as well as an ordinary in Paternoster Row, London. Peter Thomson postulates that “There is a strong probability that the transference of his tavern style to the public theatres was Tarlton's peculiar innovation as an actor and the basis of his extraordinary popularity.” (Oxford DNB).

• Though contemporary illustrations such as John Scottowe’s MS drawing in the British Library (Harley MS 3885, fol. 19) point to a stocky, short-nosed tabor and pipe player, these have to some extent been discredited as likenesses. There is agreement however that Tarlton’s appearance was uniquely “rough” and that he capitalized on it in performance. A marginal notation in Stow’s/Howe’s Annals suggests that his face was familiar enough to be used to denote certain London establishments: “Tarleton so beloued that men vse his picture for their signes” (698).

• In 1582, Sir Philip Sidney was named godfather to Tarlton’s son. Three years after Sidney’s death, Tarlton asked Sir Francis Walsingham (Sidney’s father-in-law) to watch over the boy. Such connections might support Gabriel Harvey’s claim that Tarlton had social pretensions (DNB). The actor styled himself a “gentleman” and in his will, “one of the Groome of the Queenes maiesties chamber” (Playhouse Wills, 57). Some anecdotes speak of him as a favourite of the Queen, not just for his comic diversions but because he was a “pleasant talker” (qtd Dictionary of Actors, 350). Conceivably, part of the appeal of his performing style was its juxtaposition of his clownish persona and overt, perhaps at times incompetent, pretensions to gentility. See for example Derick in The Famous Victories: “Do Clownes go in silk apparell?” Mumford, too, in King Leir could be an appropriate role in this respect. Andrew Gurr suggests the ability to straddle social fields was key to Tarlton’s universal appeal (Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London, 126-132)

• He had expertise with a sword. “Mr. Tarlton, ordenary grome off her majestes chamber” was made Master of the Fence in October of 1587. A Norwich fighting bird was named after him, according to George Wilson’s Commendation of Cockes, and Cock-Fighting (1607): “because he alwayes came to the fight like a drummer, making a thundering noyse with his winges … which cocke fought many battels, with mighty and fierce aduersaries.” Peter Thomson points to the irony that despite a reputation for aggression, the most reliable account we have of Tarlton finds him attempting to break up the quarrel between playgoer “Wynsdon” and members of the company in Norwich in June 1583.

• Stylistically, Tarlton was famous for extemporising, or “Tarletonising” as Gabriel Harvey put it (Four Letters and certeine Sonnets, 1592). Peter Thomson, in connecting him to the role of Derick in The Famous Victories, wonders if entrances and exits were not, in particular, handled artfully by the actor: “On the open stages of Elizabethan London it was impossible to enter or leave the platform unobtrusively. Actors coming on to open a scene had first to locate themselves in order to place the narrative; actors leaving had to have a reason to go. Either way, they had a distance to cover from or to the stage door. That distance was Tarlton's playground, and The Famous Victories furnishes it richly.” (DNB).

• Henry Peacham’s Truth of our Times (1638) appears to recall a first-hand encounter with Tarlton in performance : “I remember when I was a School-boy in London, Tarlton acted a third sons part, such a one as I now speake of: His father being a very rich man, and lying upon his death-bed, called his three sonnes about him, who with teares, and on their knees craved his blessing, and to the eldest sonne, said hee, you are mine heire, and my land must descend upon you, aud I pray God blesse you with it: The eldest sonne replyed, Father I trust in God you shall yet live to enjoy it your selfe. To the second sonne, (said he) you are a scholler, and what profession soever you take upon you, out of my land I allow you threescore pounds a yeare towards your maintenance, and three hundred pounds to buy you books, as his brother, he weeping answer'd, I trust father you shall live to enjoy your money your selfe, I desire it not, &c. To the third, which was Tarlton, (who came like a rogue in a foule shirt without a a band, and in a blew coat with one sleeve, his stockings out at the heeles, and his head full of straw and feathers) as for you sirrah, quoth he) you know how often I have fetched you out of Newgate and Bridewell, you have beene an ungracious villaine, I have nothing to bequeath to you but the gallowes and a rope: Tarlton weeping and sobbing upon his knees (as his brothers) said, O Father, I doe not desire it, I trust it God you shall live to enjoy it your selfe. There are many such sons of honest and carefull parents in England at this day.”

Peacham’s 94th Epigram in Thalia's Banquet (1620) refers in particular to a form of entrance:

As Tarlton when his head was onely seene,
The Tire-house doore and Tapistrie betweene,
Set all the mulltitude in such a laughter,
They could not hold for scarse an houre after,
So (Sir) I set you (as I promis'd) forth,
That all the world may wonder at your worth

And Nashe’s Pierce Penilesse confirms a similar practice with the curtain, in describing:

“A tale of a wise Iustice. Amongst other cholericke wise Iustices, he was one, that hauing a play presented before him and his Towne-ship, by Tarlton and the rest of his fellowes her Maiesties seruants, and they were now entring into their first merriment (as they call it) the people began exceedingly to laugh, when Tarlton first peept out his head. Whereat the Iustice, not a little moued, and seeing with his beckes and nods hee could not make them cease, he went with his staffe, and beat them round about vnmercifully on the bare pates, in that they being but Farmers & poore countrey Hyndes, would presume to laugh at the Queenes men, and make no more account of her cloath in his presence.”

• He was buried in St. Leonard’s Shoreditch in 1588.

TOP