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SAA Paper (2009) Transcript

2012 February 1

Richard Tarlton and a visual reexamination of the 1630 illustrated title page of The Honorable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.
(I presented this paper at the Shakespeare Association of America, Washington, D.C. March 2009).

In “Tarlton in The Famous History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay“, Richard Levin attempts to forge a link between the clown character personified by Richard Tarlton and the figure drawn in the title-page illustration that appeared in the 1630 edition of Robert Greene’s play The Honorable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

Title page, The Honorable Historie of Frier Bacon and Frier Bongay (1630 ed.)

. This challenge is difficult enough, but he makes it more so by attempting to trace Tarlton’s presence through the presumed source material for the play, The Famous History of Friar Bacon, an edition of which appeared in 1629 containing the same woodcut on its title page. Although I do not agree with Dr. Levin’s hypothesis, I believe that this image does offer value to early modern theatre historians; the clown figure demonstrates evidence of performance, transcending textual reference, that suggests continuing importance of the Elizabethan clown to both audiences and actors over a generation later. By concentrating on visual analysis as well as Tarlton’s posthumous celebrity among those who inherited his mantle, I hope to demonstrate that this illustration would have provided significant cultural value to potential buyers of the 1630 edition of Friar Bacon.[i]

Levin bases his argument about the likeness on three points: first, a comparison to physique and pose in identified images of Tarlton, such as that in Tarlton’s Jests; second, the assumption that Tarlton would have played Miles in the original production of Friar Bacon; and third, that Tarlton’s fame was such that forty years after his death a Londoner would easily have identified a clown figure in any context as being Tarlton, and that fact would have increased the value of a play-text to be purchased. Levin’s insistence upon the “striking … similarity in their features” (85), that Tarlton’s flat face, broad nose, and wide-set eyes (one with a cast) are evident in the woodcut, must be discounted: the process of transferring a drawing to woodblock necessarily introduces alterations in design and detail. We also cannot know when or from what source the artist drew this face. An examination of the clown’s pose further destabilizes this connection. While he bears pipe and tabor, this is not a characteristic unique to Tarlton. As Levin points out, other comic actors employed these musical instruments to identify themselves as stock clowns to audiences, as does Thomas Slye in the illustration for Kemps’ Nine Days Wonder (85). The figure’s apparel also confuses matters: he is not dressed in the robes of an academic’s assistant, nor is he dressed as a rustic clown. He is neither of the scene nor superimposed upon it in some sort of extra-theatrical performance.[ii]

The question of Tarlton’s association with the role of Miles is much more problematic. Levin posits that the author of the The Famous History might have seen Tarlton perform early in his career and based Miles’s Skeltonic-spouting and devil baiting upon his famous jests. He envisions this version of Miles as a sort of homage to Tarlton, which is then handily transformed by an artist and engraver into a (now lost) sixteenth-century illustration attached to an early (and also lost) edition of the source. This homage is then incorporated into Greene’s play, which, being played by the Queen’s Men and Tarlton bringing down the house as Miles, is burned into the memories of all who see it. The lack of such early editions prevents us from supporting this version. ESTC identifies the first extant edition of The Famous History as being published in 1625.[iii] Furthermore, we must also raise the question of Tarlton not playing Miles, taking into account his death in September 1588. In The Queen’s Men and Their Plays, Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth MacLean examine the relationship between Friar Bacon and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. For them, the failure of the Brazen Head leading to “a necromancer learning what damage he can do and undergoing a change of heart” (185), is a direct comic response to Faustus’s damnation, and therefore Friar Bacon would have appeared after Marlowe’s play. E.K. Chambers dates Doctor Faustus in approximately 1588 and Friar Bacon in 1589. While these dates are guesses at best, one must move Faustus forward by at least one year if Tarlton to take part in a first production of Friar Bacon. Certainly, the role of Miles seems tailor-made for Tarlton, with its mockery of the elite, his doggerel rhymes, and his final fantastic nose-thumbing scene with the Devil. If he wasn’t alive to play the part, it is at least possible that the part was written for him. But if another clown stepped forward to fill the role, why should Tarlton be connected to it in any memorial fashion?

By rooting this examination in visual analysis of the illustration we may approach the question of theatrical value in a different way. Even in the EEBO scan one can see that the scene is well-designed and detailed: the panes of the window, clasps on the books, textures and draping of the friar’s gown, the use of hatching to suggest not only movement but also depth of field; it is clear that much care was taken with this image. The composition of the scene is balanced and provides what Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen identify as a distinct narrative pattern[iv]. Here the Brazen Head with its three speech ribbons, bridging the two fields of action, determines the vectors. On the right side of the image Friar Bacon is asleep and stationary, while the eye is drawn instead to the standing figure at left. He is in motion, playing his instruments, and he forms the central focus of the scene.

The relationship to the play is deceptive. The illustration supports a collapsed version of the action sequence in scene xi: Friar Bacon remains asleep while the Brazen Head speaks all three of his prophecies, and Miles fails his master’s order to awaken him. But almost immediately this unravels, as the viewer realizes that the relationship between illustration and play do not mesh. Scene xi features only two characters, Bacon and Miles, while here there are three. The 1630 edition includes a stage direction at the beginning of the scene that reads “Enter Fryer Bacon draing the courtaines with a white sticke, a booke in his hand, and a lampe lighted by him, And the brazen head, and Miles, with weapons by him.” After the friar has fallen asleep, Miles identifies one of his weapons as a “browne bill” or halberd. In the illustration, Miles carries musical instruments, not weapons. Likewise, the figure’s attire is at odds with the play. At the end of the scene Miles says, “I’ll take but a book in my hand, a wide-sleeved gown on my back, and a crowned cap on my head …” (ll. 125-7). When Miles enters in scene xiii for his final encounter with the Devil, the stage direction reads, “Enter Miles with a gown and a cornercap” which suggests that, having left Bacon’s service, he is now carrying the clothes rather than wearing them. Indeed, throughout the play Miles has, in speech and action, been intricately connected to the world of academia. Would a playing company undermine this relationship by imposing the distinctive stock clown costume and accessories upon the character of Miles?

The illustration is not unique to the 1630 edition of the play. It appeared at least once, a year earlier, in the 1629 edition of The Famous History. Examined in this context, the characters and action make much more sense. Citing this source, Levin identifies the second sleeping figure as Friar Bungay, who is a (slightly) more active participant in this version of events. Miles is identified as Bacon’s “man”. He constantly foils Bacon’s attempts to gain supernatural power through his own botched attempts to use and control magic. Even as a source of comic relief, however, he should be dressed as a scholar’s assistant. The text explains that in order “to kepe himself from sleeping, [he] got a Tabor and Pipe, and being merry disposed, sung this Song to a Northern tune.” [C2]  Still, this should not dictate Miles’s clothing, unless something else is going on. The emphasis on jesting makes more sense if the artist blended the action of a performance of the play, including extratheatrical extemporizing before or after the show proper, with that of the prose work to form a compelling visual narrative.

It would be convenient to hypothesize that the artist watched a production of Friar Bacon, and that this informed his vision for the scene. But we have no idea what access artists had to manuscripts or theatres, nor do we fully understand the process of commissioning a work like this – would the publisher have provided a copy of a text to the artist, or provided some sort of verbal or written abstract? How much time would the artist have had to complete the commission? Might he even have seen the play at some point in the process, or recalled seeing a production in the past? Unless we find documentary evidence of this process for the seventeenth century that answers these questions, we can only speculate.[v] And that speculation includes the suspicion that there was not much time given to the artist during the publication cycle, and that he must have drawn liberally from a variety of cultural influences to create these images.

One indication that the artist had seen a performance comes from the properties and set pieces described in the illustration. While the lamp and the Brazen Head are identified specifically in the text of the play, the other elements – the table, the bookshelf, and the armillary sphere hanging from the wall – are not. Of course, the artist might have had access to other prints with similar themes (the woodcut on the title page of Doctor Faustus shows his study likewise accoutered) but that does not explain Bacon sitting asleep in a chair. The play does not specify where or on what piece of furniture Bacon falls asleep, or even if he remains onstage. In fact, McMillin and MacLean, as well as Daniel Seltzer in his 1963 edition of the play, struggle with how Bacon’s sleeping would have been staged. Did he go behind a curtain (“Draw close the curtains, Miles” ll. 37) or would there have been a space-consuming bed? In the performance of Friar Bacon mounted for the 2006 Shakespeare and the Queen’s Men research experiment, Bacon exits offstage left at this line with only a foot showing beneath a curtain to indicate his continued presence behind the curtain. The friar’s desk is a set piece with the Brazen Head hanging over it, brought on-stage left directly downstage from Bacon. The combination of set piece and Bacon moving off provides Miles the maximum amount of stage space with which to perform his subsequent clowning. [vi]  The scene as drawn for the woodcut offers a performance alternative, with Bacon on stage sleeping in a large chair, one arm propping up his head while the other hangs limp at his side. For staging purposes, a chair would be far easier to move on and off than a bed or cot. It would also provide the actor playing Miles with a bit more room to maneuver. Why would an artist relying solely on text incorporate a chair and not a bed, the more likely piece of furniture upon which to lay the exhausted friar? Keeping him upright in the scene as drawn, the set is full of furniture that effectively blocks the actor at left from doing anything other than posing with his tabor and pipe, and also emphasizes the comic moments of the scene; how could Bacon possibly sleep through the sonorous musings of the Head, the flash and crash of the final “Time is past” and Miles’ comic antics?

Tarlton’s remarkable contemporary fame has been widely commented upon. Representations of and attributions to the great comic actor began while he was alive and continued through the seventeenth century. The first reference to his iconic stature comes, in fact, during The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London, when Simplicity is shown selling a ballad featuring Tarlton’s image. This early intertextual display of the close relationship between the popular forms of London entertainment – printed ballad and performed theatre – offers subtle hints as to how celebrity was sustained in early modern London. Tarlton continued to appear in a variety of print publications well into the seventeenth century. Alexandra Halasz has examined his continuing popularity as a textual icon in her article “”So Beloved that men use his picture for their signs”: Richard Tarlton and the Uses of Sixteenth-Century Celebrity”. She demonstrates that Tarlton remained a signifier for wit to people well after he had ceased to perform – in fact, these printed references were published long after anyone who might have seen him perform would have a clear memory of any specific performance. However, identification with Tarlton as metonymic for humor and Tarlton as performer of specific roles must be kept separate. Unlike the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, which offer increasingly well-documented evidence of performance, the ephemeral nature of early modern theatre makes the clarity of cultural memory somewhat suspect. What would the image of Tarlton-as-jester truly have conveyed to an observer some forty years on? How long would a specific performance reference to Tarlton as Miles (or any other character) have resonated with the London public? Had this figure become synonymous with clown-play? Did the comic actors who followed Tarlton adhere to his style of performance to such a degree that this figure became less important as a symbol of the man than it was as a signifier for comic performance?

John Astington, in “The Succession of Sots, or Fools and Their Fathers”, explores the apocryphal tale in Tarltons Jests that Tarlton met the teenage Robert Armin, tested him, and determined to ‘adopt’ him as his comic son. He identifies a quasi-genealogical link starting with Tarlton and progressing to Will Kemp, Armin, Andrew Cane, John Shank, and Thomas Pollard. Astington thus emphasizes that the Elizabethan clown’s form of jesting encourages imitation and elaboration, adapting the free-form style of one’s predecessor and including one’s own special elements. It is too much to say that the act of jigging invoked Tarlton among seventeenth-century audiences. The jig was the domain of the individual clown, who made the piece his own through unique physical mannerisms and improvisation. Astington’s recognition of the clowning heritage allows us to consider that Tarlton’s clowning style might have been passed down through the generations of professional comic actors who performed with various troupes during the forty years from his death to the publication of the 1630 edition of Friar Bacon and beyond.

In many ways, Tarlton embodied the Bakhtinian concept of carnivale, with his unswerving ability to wrest control away from his fellow actors and challenge the accepted order of society with his scathing mockery of all its members. While other actors yearned for acceptance and respectability (to wit: Shakespeare’s application for a coat of arms and Edward Alleyn’s foundation of Dulwich College), Tarlton seemed to go out of his way to break with the mores of society, both onstage and off. In “The True Physiognomy of a Man: Richard Tarlton and His Legend”, Peter Thomson examines both Tarlton’s larger-than-life persona and how his quintessence was absorbed, through the imitation of those who came after, into various forms of entertainment. Thomson suggests that Tarlton’s performance as Derick in The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth was demonstrative of this because, “[t]he part is a composite of lazzi, in which what was done must generally have had greater impact than what was said.” (Thomson 204, italics are the author’s) In the case of the illustration, the figure is noted for just this sort of lazzo, but does not limit the viewer to an identified performer. This could be Tarlton, or Shank, or any other talented comic actor taking on the role as well as the clowning duties that went along with it.

Tarlton and his protégés may have been superstars but it appears they posed challenges to their collaborators. Their disruptions were so remarkable and memorable – and distracting – that playwrights began ‘taming’ them by writing structured comic pieces into plays to prevent such distractions – which also suggests that an old play like Friar Bacon, with its opportunities for improvisation, had become something of a performance rarity by 1630. Joseph Bryant, in “Shakespeare’s Falstaff and the Mantle of Dick Tarlton”, pursues the idea that Shakespeare both admired and was frustrated by Tarlton (and more so by Kemp), and so determined to capture clowning in a series of comic roles, finally mastering the opportunity of stoppering the extemporizing Tarlton by creating “a character that not only took over the best tricks in the clown’s repertory but also formed an essential part of the fundamental design of the play in which he appeared.” (Bryant 151). By thus defining and restricting the role played by the comic actor, the work of the playwright superceded that of the show-stopping performer. The public now went to see Burbage playing Hamlet, not Tarlton playing Tarlton.

While Friar Bacon was published only once more, in 1655, The Famous History was printed at least four more times before 1700, all with the woodcut.[vii] This suggests that while the sixteenth-century superstar passed completely into legend, the continued relationship of illustration to publication transcended genre and continued to hold interest for the book-buying public. The iconic visual image of the necromancer in his study – and more importantly, the visual humor of his man Miles – reinforced that interest. This visualization of a clowning performer as the artist might have seen him on stage transforms the scene into something both memorable and collective to the audience. Regardless of whether or not Richard Tarlton actually even played Miles, his essence imbues that character with a quality that overwhelms everything else in the scene. The actor who played Miles in the Prince Palatine’s Men production was working directly from the tradition established by Tarlton over forty years before, and that connection gives the illustration and the play added cultural value.

[i] To avoid confusion, I will hereafter refer to the play as Friar Bacon and the prose work as Famous History.

[ii] This observation was brought to my attention in conversation with Jennifer Roberts-Smith. If, as Levin hopes, the artist drew from contemporary images of Tarlton, such as that in Scottowe’s Alphabet or Tarlton’s Jests, he ignored the distinctive position of the legs, with left crossed in front of right.

[iii] Of course, we cannot conclude that this was the first edition, nor must we assume that The Famous History was the – or the only – source for the play. Bacon was a popular historical figure. EEBO cites dozens of references to Bacon in texts as early as 1567 and surely elements of the story must have been included in earlier chronicles. A reference to “Frier Bacon the Coniurer” appears in John Jewel’s 1567 tract A defense of the Apologie of the Church of England.

[iv] In Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, Kress and Van Leeuwen explain that “[t]he hallmark of a narrative visual ‘proposition’ is the presence of a vector: narrative structures always have one, conceptual structures never do. In pictures, these vectors are formed by depicted elements that form an oblique line … The vectors may be formed by bodies or limbs or tools ‘in action’ (59). They define a vector thus: “[w]hat in language is realized by words of the category ‘action verbs’ is visually realized by elements that can be formally defined as vectors.” (46)

[v] Marcia Allentuck has written about the eighteenth-century relationship between publisher and illustrator, documenting the correspondence between Sir Thomas Hanmer and Francis Hayman regarding a contract to illustrate Hanmer’s collected works of Shakespeare in “Sir Thomas Hanmer Instructs Francis Hayman: An Editor’s Notes to his Illustrator (1744).” Shakespeare Quarterly, 27(1976): 288-315.

[vi] Scene as viewed on the Queen’s Men project website: <>

[vii] Two editions incorporated reworked copies of the scene.

Editions Referenced
Greene, Robert. The Honorable Historie of Friar Bacon and Friar Bongay. London, 1630. Early English Books Online. 8 February 2009  Web.

—. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Ed. J.A. Lavin. London: Ernest Benn Ltd., 1969.

—. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Ed. Daniel Seltzer. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P., 1963.

Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. London, 1616. Early English Books Online. 8 February 2009. Web.

Other Works Referenced
Allentuck, Marcia. “Sir Thomas Hanmer Instructs Francis Hayman: An Editor’s Notes to his Illustrator (1744).” Shakespeare Quarterly, 27(1976): 288-315.

Astington, John. “The Succession of Sots, or Fools and Their Fathers.” Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England. 20(2007): 225-35.

Bryant, Joseph Allen, Jr. “Shakespeare’s Falstaff and the Mantle of Dick Tarlton.” Studies in Philology. 51 (1954): 149-62.

Chambers, E.K. The Elizabethan Stage, 3rd ed. Vol. II. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon P., 1961.

Cockett, Peter. Performing the Queen’s Men Web Site. 2006-2007. Shakespeare and the Queen’s Men: Performing the Queen’s Men. McMaster University & University of Toronto. 7 February 2009

Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearean Stage, 3rd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1992.

Halasz, Alexandra. “”So beloved that men use his picture for their signs”: Richard Tarlton and the Uses of Sixteenth-Century Celebrity.” Shakespeare Studies. 23(1995): 19-38.

Jewel, John. A defense of the Apologie of the Church of England. London, 1567. Early English Books Online. 16 February 2009. Web.

Kress, Gunther R., and Theo Van Leeuwen. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. 2nd ed. London; New York: Routledge, 2006.

Levin, Richard. “Tarlton in The Famous History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England. 12(1999): 84-98.

McMillin, Scott and Sally-Beth MacLean. The Queen’s Men and Their Plays. Cambridge, U.K., New York, NY: Cambridge U.P., 1998.

The most famous history of the learned Fryer Bacon. London, 1700. Early English Books Online. 8 February 2009.  Web.

Stern, Tiffany. “”On each Wall and Corner Poast”: Playbills, Title-pages, and Advertising in Early Modern London.” English Literary Renaissance. 36(2006): 57-89.

Thomson, Peter. “The True Physiognomy of a Man: Richard Tarlton and his Legend.” Shakespeare and his Contemporaries in Performance. Ed. Edward J. Esche. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2000. 191-210.

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