Richard Tarlton is widely considered to be one of the most influential figures in Elizabethan performance. A founding member of the Queen’s Men, Tarlton was what we today might call a superstar: he was their lead comic actor whose appearances in London and on tour transcended the roles he played; his popularity onstage and off registered with all classes, from the lowliest apprentice to the queen herself. A favorite of Elizabeth, he had perhaps a unique ability to “undumpish” her when she was out of sorts and ease the way for courtiers to approach her: “[h]er highest Favorites, would in some Cases, go to Tarleton, before they would go to the Queen, and he was their Vsher to prepare their advantagious access unto Her.” [1. Fuller 1662, 47.]
His fame extended long after his death in 1588, and his performance style was emulated by comic actors generations later. Far into the eighteenth century images of his jesting figure could still be found in London. [2. Halliwell-Phillipps 1844, xxiii-ix] Despite his fame and influence, our information about Tarlton tends to be anecdotal rather than evidential. Most documentary evidence about him is tangential and relates primarily to the Queen’s Men: performance licenses, household accounts, and records of payments. We know he was a Master of Fence, that he was involved in a legal matter in Norwich, and that a will was registered upon his death. [3. Halliwell-Phillipps, xi, xiii-xv.] Otherwise, we rely on the many–sometimes unreliable–references to him in verse and prose encomiums, as well as in works such as Robert Wilson’s The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London. Most of these references are available to us only through miscellanies in Halliwell-Orchard’s edition of Tarlton’s Jests and Edwin Nungezer’s Dictionary of Actors (1929), both of which are out of print. A biography of Tarlton must incorporate both documentary performance records and popular print and manuscript references if it is to be considered a credible resource, one truly representative of Tarlton’s impact on society.
Tarlton’s influence was profound–not only upon audiences who watched him perform but also upon members of early modern English society who never set foot in a theatre or only became aware of him after his death. Elizabeth Halasz called him a “sixteenth-century celebrity,” [3. 1995, 19.] although Tarlton’s peers would probably not have identified him as such. He amassed a fan base across England, people who longed to experience his comic genius in person, in print, and in image. And yet, because he flourished just before English professional theatre came into its own, and with it more expansive print records of performance and the figures associated with popular culture, Tarlton is consigned to a place that is marginal to modern scholarship about early English theatre. We suspect that Shakespeare saw him perform; we surmise that Shakespeare was involved with the Queen’s Men in some way, if only by dint of his reliance upon Queen’s Men plays in shaping his own histories. Tarlton, in some ways, is a victim of the Shakespeare industry: one who can be reclaimed through the work of scholars such as those associated with REED. But the question remains: is there enough information available to us to pursue a scholarly biography about Tarlton? How can he be the subject of such a project when the researcher must work from the outside in, relying on documentary evidence about his colleagues and anecdotes that have been dismissed by many scholars. Early modern studies scholars including Elizabeth Halasz, Richard Levin, and Peter Thomson have featured Tarlton as an example of early modern popular culture and clowning, but to my knowledge no one since Halliwell-Phillipps has undertaken a longer-form consideration of Tarlton, and even that was positioned as introductory material for his edition of the Jests.
A biographical examination of Tarlton that meaningfully incorporates and synthesizes these myriad references is incredibly difficult to achieve through traditional publication methods. Print publication does not usually serve such a nonlinear and expansive approach to scholarship. Electronic publication, on the other hand, provides invaluable opportunities for an author or group of contributors to develop the many facets of the Tarlton persona as an interlinking compendium of references and recollections: a treasury that captures the multimodal breadth of Tarlton’s impact upon early-modern English society without relegating these references to an appendix. This type of research project reinforces the idea of how a digital edition can establish new frontiers for scholarly research about historical figures who may not have warranted such comprehensive study in traditional, pre-digital forms of scholarship.