Today I am celebrating the life of Richard Tarleton. The date of his birth is not recorded but he died on this day in 1588. Tarleton was the most famous clown of his age. So famous that some have suggested Hamlet’s Alas poor Yorick… speech was written in memory of him.
Richard Tarleton was popular with both the groundlings of the Curtain theatre in Shoreditch and royalty alike. He was Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite clown and became her Court Jester and Groom of the Queen’s Chamber. In this rôle he: …told the Queen more of her faults than most of her chaplains, and cured her melancholy better than all of her physicians. In his performances he combined the styles of a medieval Vice (the comic character in a morality play), a minstrel and a Lord of Misrule. As well as acting his part in a play he enjoyed breaking character to deal with hecklers. After the play he would often engage with the audience in ad libbed performances involving song and dance based on themes that were shouted out to him. He would deliver his verses whilst dancing and playing the pipe and tabor, which sounds very odd but people loved it. This kind of performance would later be referred to as Tarletonizing.
Little is known of his early life. Perhaps he was a swineherd, or an apprentice, or a water-carrier, or a tavern keeper, maybe he was all of those things, or maybe he just liked making up stories about himself. We get the impression that he was born into a poor family, possibly in Shropshire and had little formal education. This did not stop him composing several ballads and pamphlets and at least one play: His Seven Deadly Sins was extremely popular at the time but no copy of it has survived. As well as his comic acting talents he was a skilled fencer. In 1587 he was admitted to the school of defence as a Master of Fence, the highest degree attainable.
He wrote his will, died and was buried all on the same day, leading some to suggest that he was a victim of plague. We don’t know how old he was but he was married, had at least one son and was survived by his mother. A collection of his witticisms were collected and published after his death. Probably not all of the work attributed to him was actually his. Some of the jokes were older than he was. Reading through some of them it is hard to imagine why people found them so funny. They have not travelled well through time. Perhaps it was all in the delivery. He was certainly quick witted and generally just looked funny. He just had to peep through the curtain to make people laugh uncontrollably. His reputation lived on long after he was gone and his image adorned toilets and inn signs. Tarleton is one of the men responsible for making the theatre a form of popular entertainment, paving the way for later writers and actors like Burbage and Shakespeare, who probably saw him perform. His contemporaries were very sad when he died and many elegies were composed for him. A lot of them are in Latin, but here’s an excerpt from on of the English ones.
Here within this sullen earth
Lies Dick Tarleton, lord of mirth;
Who in his grave, still laughing, gapes,
Syth all clownes since have been his apes.