Introduction

Like Will to Like frontpiece

Like Will to Like frontespiece

When there are more characters in a play than actors in the company, actors must take on more than one role. This is called doubling and in early modern England doubling was standard theatrical practice. Doubling makes economical sense since, by having actors play more than one character, theatre companies can present plays with a wider variety of characters without increasing their wage bill.

The image window to the left features the front page of Ulpian Fulwell’s Like Will to Like, published in 1587 and therefore contemporary with the Queen’s Men. The play is a late moral interlude that incorporates personifications of abstract ideas of virtue and vice, as well as other characters that would have been recognizable social types for the original audience. The publisher, or the playwright, has provided a doubling chart for the play indicating that the play can be performed by 5 actors and assigning roles to each actor. The central character Nichol Newfangle, the Vice, is reserved for one actor; the remaining roles are distributed between the other four actors. One actor, for example, will play the devil “Lucifer,” “Rafe Roister,” a braggart soldier, and the two Virtues “Good Fame” and “Severitie,” taking the audience from the performance of God’s fallen angel, through a local manifestation of his influence and on into a representation of the positive effects of a good reputation and then the threat of divine punishment - quite a journey for one actor; the company were certainly getting value for their money.

Relatively speaking, the Queen’s Men were spoilt for personnel resources. Before the company was formed, a troupe of players with 8 members would have been considered large. Evidence suggests that the numbers in the Queen’s Men varied from 10 to 20, with the most common number being around 14. The plays they performed all have 30 characters or more - the True Tragedy of Richard III has 68, counting non-speaking roles. The increased size of the company did not lead to the end of doubling but to an increase in the number of characters they could involve in the action of a play. They were able to perform new types of plays, epic in scope, involving large casts of characters, with the English history play becoming something of a specialty.

The doubling chart for Fulwell’s play is a fascinating document but does not show how its creator made his doubling decisions. In fact, the process by which early modern theatre companies made such decisions has not been clearly established. The process that we followed is that used by modern theatre directors when working with plays that require doubling. If you wish to learn this technique, try out our interactive doubling exercise.  Alternatively you can go directly to our SQM case studies where you fill find details of the SQM doubling decisions and conclusions drawn about the nature of doubling for touring companies.