The English Clown in Performance & Print


A review of The English Clown: Print in Performance and Performance in Print, by Naoko Ishikawa.

Much research has been done on comedy in general and on the English clown in particular, but little attention has been paid to this figure’s origins. This is the starting point of Naoko Ishikawa’s very rich dissertation, in which she takes up the English clown as an influential figure in early modern drama and examines its roots in jest-books and the performance of comic actors, especially Richard Tarlton (?-1588), William Kemp (?-1603), and Robert Armin (c. 1563-1615). Highlighting the intersection between clowning, editing, and printing, Ishikawa’s dissertation contributes to our understading of the interdependence of performance and print.

The dissertation comprises two sections titled “Jest as Book” and “Jest as Performance,” with each section consisting of four chapters. In the Introduction Ishikawa points out how the clown’s emergence and decline later influenced his conceptualization in early modern drama. She highlights her special interest in printing, since it played an important role in shaping the clown, an issue that had not been discussed in detail in previous research conducted on that figure. Ishikawa makes a strong point when she asserts the importance of differentiating between textual and theatrical representations of the clown, compared to a research that focuses on the first and overlooks the later.

The first chapter focuses on the two editions of Scoggin’s Jests, a book first published in 1566 and reprinted in 1613 and 1626. Despite the historical confusion around Scoggin, his name is closely linked to the literary tradition and court entertainment (p. 28). Ishikawa’s thorough analysis of the print history in this chapter leads her to the conclusion that the clowning tradition derives from medieval times. Interestingly, as she discusses, the use of the name of this icon by jest-book compilers influenced the clowning tradition at the beginning of the seventeenth century. At this point the influential role of printers-publishers became crucially important, for instance through their use of adjusting paratextual elements such as the subtitle, which is how they controlled the distribution of jest-books. The popularity of Scoggin’s Jests and its impact on the clowning tradition was subject to publishing and marketing strategies. Ishikawa concludes that having the book reedited with Scoggin’s name on it provides a very good example of how editors, publishers and compilers modified and generated this clownish hero in the process of publishing, and of how they adjusted prefatory elements to comply with topical matters and the publishers’ taste but also with changes of religious and political loyalties.

Chapter 2 discusses different motifs from jest-books (such as scatological motifs, the use of Latin words to satirize clerics) that were adopted and modified for plays. Here Ishikawa highlights the nexus between the clown in play-texts and the anecdotes in jest-books. She focuses on two biographical jest-books that formed the literary background for stage performances in the Elizabethan era: The Scoggin’s Jests and Tarlton’s Jests. In this chapter, the author also points out the influence the development of medicine had on jest-books, as the therapeutic effect of laughter proved a medical discovery that further promoted the boom of jest-book printing. The scientific knowledge led to a reshaping of the clown or the fool and took away his mystic power. The clown is now perceived as more of a healer than an exorcist.

Chapter 3 focuses on Richard Tarlton, a jig-maker, dancer, jest-maker and court jester of Queen Elizabeth I. Considered as a legendary performer, Tarlton inspired, for instance, William Shakespeare’s creation of Two Gentlemen of Verona. Ishikawa argues that the perception and documentation of Tarlton oscillates between fact and myth, for instance because of the historians’ style of writing which made description sound rather like historical fact. Ishikawa points out that Tarlton’s Jests is actually “another biographical jest-book” (p. 93) and that Tarlton is “only marginally related to existing historical evidence of the real man” (ibid.). The author then illustrates different phases of that myth’s rise and development and sheds light on various allusions to Tarlton taking the form of simple name borrowing, for instance, in pamphlets and jest-books, which all helped render him a myth. In fact, Tarlton’s name was used, on the one hand, as marketing material; on the other, the publishing of jest-books using Tarlton’s name and relying on his reputation as a fictional rather than a historical phenomenon helped distance him more and more from reality.

The fourth chapter continues the analysis of Tarlton’s influence and investigates the different stages of historicizing and textualizing him in different textual and literary genres, which went on for decades after his death. Ishikawa illustrates how every allusion to this actor and court jester was a variation that fictionalized him ever more, and the publishers even distorted his representation in the course of time. In conclusion, she stresses the importance of this figure and points out that Tarlton was a bridge between performance and books and calls him the “representative English clown of the Renaissance” (p. 153).

The second part of the dissertation discusses the roles of acting and performance. Chapter 5, for instance, centers on William Kemp, one of Tarlton’s successors and another prominent Elizabethan actor known for participating in William Shakespeare’s early modern dramas. Through the investigation of this figure, Ishikawa shows how closely the actors’ performance is related to the print tradition. Kemp’s acting also inspired epigrams and an epitaph, and his dancing provided material for playwrights. A large section of this chapter is dedicated to William Shakespeare’s dramas; Ishikawa sheds light on parallels between Shakespeare’s plays and jest-books and concludes that the former originate from the latter.

In Chapter 6, Ishikawa moves on to discuss Robert Armin, an author and actor who became well known after Kemp’s death. Robert Armin’s promotion of the natural fool in his texts can be traced to Shakespeare’s writing. In fact, as Ishikawa argues, Armin inspired the playwright’s compositions and, in addition to this, absorbed jests in his writings as well as in his stage performance, proving him to be a medium between print and performance. Ishikawa depicts, for instance, a short skit in Armin’s A Nest of Ninnies to show the separation from the jest-maker in the literary tradition. Moreover, Armin promoted the idea of a natural fool, a figure that influenced Shakespeare’s writing and generally changed the image of rustic clowns and fools to high comedy.

The last two chapters are dedicated to the clowns and fools in Renaissance play-texts. Taking the fictional Touchstone from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It as an example, Ishikawa convincingly argues that this character is actually inspired from “the natural fools whom Armin described in his jest-book” (p. 226). A further example of Renaissance characters echoing the jest-book tradition is Feste in Twelfth Night, who evokes scenes of disguise or specific terms known from Scoggin’s Jests. As for the Fool in King Lear, the third example analyzed in this chapter, Ishikawa shows him to be a fusion of the natural and artificial fool proposed by Armin, a model that threatened the role of clowns and fools as figures of entertainment in theatrical repertoires. The fourth example is that of Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale, who, unlike the other three clowns, is a fool who does not only comment on a story, but gets involved in it by actively presenting ethics and politics, taking his inspiration from the traditional jester.

The last chapter focuses on Thomas Dekker (c. 1572-1632) and Thomas Heywood (early 1570s-1641), two playwrights who opened up new possibilities for clowning. In their dramas, as Ishikawa demonstrates, they recapitulate on earlier clown figures from jest-books and distance them from their predecessors, for instance when they endow them with topicality. While Dekker’s clowns’ main contribution to the narration is their witty comments, Heywood highlights the performative side of clowning by conceptualizing characters who are involved in the play. Ishikawa concludes that the clowns underwent a transformation that took them from playing marginal to playing fundamental roles.

Ishikawa’s study of the origins of the English clown is an excellent example of intermedial research connecting theatrical performance with literary and play-texts at the time of the epistemological turn that came with the rise of the printing industry. Her approach can be inspiring for those who want to investigate contemporary performance or clown figures in literature while linking them to the early modern and maybe medieval clowning and jesting tradition.

Maha El Hissy
Department for German Studies
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Primary Sources

ESTC Database
Richard Tarlton, A Very Lamentable and Woeful Discourse of the Fierce Floods
William Kemp, Nine Days’ Wonder
Robert Armin, Fool upon Fool

Dissertation Information

University of Birmingham. 2011. 352 pp. Primary Advisor: Kate McLuskie.


Image: Portrait of Richard Tarlton. New York Public Library.

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