King's College London
Online Exhibitions
'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

Shakespeare's clown

Title page showing three figures, including the Italian taylor and his boy; with Skeat and Furnivall Library collection stampTitle page showing three figures, including the Italian taylor and his boy; with Skeat and Furnivall Library collection stampThis work is the only surviving ballad from Robert Armin (1563­­­­­­-1615), the comic actor who joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1599. The company’s established interpreter of the Elizabethan clown character, William Kemp, had been a brilliant physical comedian; Armin’s more literate and studied approach allowed the company’s playwrights to extend the range of the Fool, incorporating dazzling wordplay and philosophical paradox, and shifting the stock character from mere comic relief to a more subtle choric commentary.

Armin’s introduction to the company from Lord Chandos’ Men brought forth from Shakespeare such sophisticated comic creations as Touchstone in As you like it, Twelfth Night’s Feste, Autolycus in The winter’s tale and perhaps most memorably in redefining the role of the clown, Lear’s Fool.

Armin’s portrayal of this new sort of fool encouraged other playwrights to create roles especially for him, as in John Marston’s The malcontent and Ben Jonson’s The alchemist. Armin himself composed pamphlets, ballads, plays and commentaries on real-life household fools and the art of fooling.

His The Italian taylor and his boy (published 1609) is a free translation of a 16th century Italian novella; it has been argued that Armin, the son of a tailor, embellished his original with incidents from his own background to create a semi-autobiographical work. The copy featured here is a facsimile reprint from 1810 and is from the library of Frederick Furnivall (1825-1910), one of the founders and subsequently editor of the Oxford English dictionary and an eminent Shakespearean scholar.

In this exhibition


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