WHO IS WILL KEMPE?

All about Will.

   Willliam (“Will”) Kempe was a beloved clown, dancer and comic actor of the Elizabethan period. He was a powerfully built man, noted for physical comedy and athletic dancing, as well as a sharp verbal wit. No records have yet been found to document his date or place of birth, but there is speculation that he may have some relationship to a gentlemanly Catholic family from Kent. Records indicate that he joined Lord Leicester’s Men, a company of actors in service to that lord by 1585. Records indicate that Kempe accompanied Lord Leicester to the Low Countries and with two other English actors, he entertained the Danish monarch at Elsinore.

     In 1592, Will Kempe became a member of Lord Strange’s Men, and after the death of Lord Strange, he joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, along with other “Strange” fellows William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage. (Since all Elizabethan theatre companies were “sharing” companies, Kempe and his fellows most likely bought in as sharers; they were not “hired” in a modern sense.) Kempe was also a sharer in the construction of the Globe Theatre, but he seems never to have acted there. Kempe served as the clown for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and he was the author of jigges, funny—often bawdy—short musical plays performed after the main play. Scripts for Kempe’s jiggles are still extant in English and German. In Shakespeare’s plays, Kempe played Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, Peter in Romeo and Juliet, and it is most likely that he played Costard in Love’s Labors Lost, Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, and Falstaff in three plays—Merry Wives of Windsor; Henry IV, Part 1; and Henry IV, Part 2.

     Inexplicably, some time between 1598 and 1600, Kempe’s relationship with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and with the Globe Theater soured, and he parted ways with both organizations. Some scholars aver that Shakespearean antipathy to Kempe’s performance style is contained in Hamlet’s speech to the players:

 

"...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, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered.—That’s villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it."

         ---(Hamlet, III.2, lines 36-42)

     In February and March of 1600 Kempe danced a Morris Dance in 9 days from London to Norwich, a distance of 100-110 miles. He rested between bouts of dancing, partially to gin up bets against his ability to complete the task. He documented this feat with a diary—Kemps nine daies wonder Performed in a daunce from London to Norwich. Subsequently he seemed to have toured Europe, but by 1601 he was back in London, borrowing money from the theatrical impresario Philip Henslowe. The death of “Kempe, a man” was recorded in Southwark, the entertainment district south of the Thames, in 1603.