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About the Tarlton Project


Richard Tarlton (1530?-1588) was arguably the most famous as well as the most popular actor in the early days of Elizabethan professional theatre. He was a premiere member of the Queen’s Men acting troupe from 1583 until his death, touring throughout the country in a series of plays that prefigured and influenced Shakespeare and the other early modern English playwrights. Tarlton’s comic style was unique in that he not only performed outstandingly as a character in scripted plays, but was notorious for his “jests” – extratheatrical and often [adlibbed] pieces that followed the plays, in which the clown would step out of character and perform song-and-dance pieces based on “theams” shouted out by the audience. Tarlton acted these multivalent performances for a strikingly broad cross-section of English citizens, from the base groundlings to the Queen herself.

Tarlton was not only famous (and infamous)as an actor, he was also renowned as a writer. He wrote plays for the Queen’s Men (all but one of which have disappeared), as well as ballads that were published in the 1570s and 1580s. He was also a particularly well-documented subject in the publications of other authors attempting to gain traction based on Tarlton’s fame. A series of plays, ballads, jests, and doggerel poems appeared in print both during Tarlton’s life and for decades after his death, making him one of the earliest crossover artists from theatre to print. The most famous of these was an amalgamation of tales about the actor’s doings, entitled Tarltons Jests, which was printed at least three times over a span of fifty years after his death.

Tarlton appears to have been such a recognizable figure throughout London and the provinces that several woodcut and engraved images of him were distributed in a variety of forms. The most curious of these, perhaps, was the incorporation of Tarlton’s iconic jesting form into the pub signs of a number of inns calling themselves the Tarltons Arms – pub signs that were still seen in London well into the eighteenth century.


Tarlton has continued to be a fascinating subject for theatre historians, but the lack of documentary evidence about his life has hindered any full, formal biography. Likewise, his affiliation with the early forms of English popular publication makes him an interesting topic for examination. This project attempts to do justice to Tarlton’s biography and his legacy, both on the stage and in the pages of early modern publications and distributed manuscripts. The benefit to examining his life, work, and interactions with so varied a swath of English people in a nonlinear wiki-based format such as this lies in its extensibility and its fluidity. Unlike a traditional linear biography, the structure of a wiki enables scholars and students to examine Tarlton and his world in a complex and anti-hierarchical approach. It also enables, ultimately, a variety of scholars to collaborate on expanding and clarifying the components of the information presented here.

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The Tarlton Project is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.