Who Was Will Kemp?

Sep 12, 2018 | blog, Renaissance, Will Kemp | 0 comments

Our 2018-19 season opener is “Will Kemp Returns! A Jigs Revival.” But who was Will Kemp?

Will Kemp was a real man — a professional clown and comedic actor in Elizabethan England.

Kemp (also known as Kempe), is best-known as one of the original members of Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the troupe of actors for whom Shakespeare wrote most of his plays. Kemp is thought to have originated the role of Bottom, the wily weaver, transformed by Puck into a donkey in Midsummer Night’s Dream; Peter, the tone-deaf servant who lends much-needed comic relief to Romeo and Juliet; the bumbling policeman Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, as well as a host of other memorable characters.

Kemp first came to prominence around 1585, when he was performing with a group called Leicester’s Men, a troupe that often performed for Queen Elizabeth I’s Court. Throughout the next decade Kemp’s reputation as a comedian grew throughout England, so that by the time he joined Shakespeare’s troupe in 1594, he was already a box-office draw.

“He was already famous as a clown, acrobat and dancer before he worked with Shakespeare,” says Steven Player, an expert in Renaissance music and dancing who will be playing the role of Will Kemp in our upcoming production. “Both he and his fame traveled throughout Europe.”

Known for his broad physical comedy and low-brow humor, Kemp made a name for himself performing jigs, sung comedic skits that served as pre-show entertainment at public theaters and were just as often performed on the streets. Kemp sang and danced these jigs while accompanying himself on pipe and tabor.

Kemp was an especially gifted improvisor, often fleshing out his small roles in Shakespeare’s plays by improvising dialogue — “chewing the scenery” to garner himself more stage time. He also improvised extensively in his jigs, often extemporizing whole verses on the spot.

Luckily for us, he did write down some of these jigs, including “Singing Simpkin,” a centerpiece of our upcoming production, which was very likely performed both on Shakespeare’s stage and on Kemp’s travels through Germany and the Lowlands.

“Singing Simpkin” tells the story of an adulterous wife and the shenanigans that arise when, mid-tryst, her husband (and yet another lover!) show up to her door. The jig is bawdy and slapstick and a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. In our version, the text is sung to the tune of three songs — “Robin Hood,” “O Man of Desperation,” and “Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home.”

Although Kemp is largely unknown today, his clowning left an indelible mark on British comedy. Our co-artistic director Ellen Hargis, who will perform alongside Steven Player in our program says: “We feel like we’ve found the roots of Monty Python, Benny Hill, Roland Atkinson’s Mr. Bean, Ricky Gervais, and other purveyors of modern English humor. Getting to know the clowns of early England has helped us to connect the dots – we hope you’ll enjoy making their acquaintance, too!” 

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