Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Kemp, William (fl.1600)

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KEMP, WILLIAM (fl. 1600), comic actor and dancer, was possibly son of ‘William Kempe, servant with William Holliday,’ who was buried at St. Giles's, Cripplegate, 15 April 1589, or he may have been the William, son of Stephen Kempe of Broxbourne, who was apprenticed to William Cooke, printer, in November 1566 (Arber, Stationers' Reg. i. 146). It has also been suggested that he is the William Kemp who married Cole Holwyn at St. Botolph's, Bishopsgate, 13 June 1568, and the ‘Wm. Kempte’—no uncommon variant of the name—who owed money to one Phillipson in August 1559 (Warner, Cat. Dulwich MSS. pp. 1–2). He probably began his theatrical career as a member of the company of actors in the service of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, Queen Elizabeth's favourite. Sir Philip Sidney, who was with his uncle Leicester in the Low Countries through the early months of 1586, wrote a letter from Utrecht to his father-in-law, Walsingham, on 24 March 1586, and mentioned in a postscript that he had already sent home an earlier communication ‘by Will my lord of Lester's jesting plaier’ (Harl. MS. 287, f. 1). The messenger thus referred to has been plausibly identified with William Kemp. He perhaps returned to Utrecht, and took part in the ‘dancing, vaulting, tumbling,’ and pantomime with which Leicester celebrated there the ensuing St. George's day (Stow, Chron. p. 717; Shakespeare Society's Papers, i. 88–95). Some of Leicester's actor-servants seem to have proceeded a month or two later to the court of Denmark, where Frederick II gave them a warm welcome. In October 1586, at the invitation of Christian I, the elector of Saxony, they passed on to his court, and were again very hospitably entertained. Kemp has been described as a member of this travelling troupe, but an apparently full list of its members' names is supplied in an official German document, dated October 1586, and Kemp's name does not appear there (Cohn, Shakespeare in Germany, p. xxv; Fleay, Hist. of the Stage, p. 82; Simpson, School of Shakspere, ii. 373). Leicester's company of players paid a visit to Stratford-on-Avon in 1587, when it is more probable that Kemp was with them. On Leicester's death, 4 Sept. 1588, his place as patron of the company was taken by Ferdinand Stanley, lord Strange (afterwards earl of Derby). Kemp doubtless remained with his fellow-actors. The names of six members of Lord Strange's company are given in an order of the privy council on 6 May 1593, authorising them to play seven miles out of London, and Kemp figures second on the list (Halliwell, Illustrations, p. 33). The company was transferred to the patronage of Lord Hunsdon, lord chamberlain in 1594, and Kemp was a leading member of it, at least till 1598. At Christmas 1594 he was summoned, with two other leading members of the company, Richard Burbage [q. v.] and William Shakespeare [q. v.], to act before the queen at Greenwich. It was probably Shakespeare's first appearance at court.

The famous comic actor, Richard Tarleton, died on 3 Sept. 1588, and Kemp at once succeeded to his rôles and his reputation. Heywood, writing of this period in his ‘Apology for Actors,’ 1612, mentions ‘Will Kemp’ as succeeding Tarleton, ‘as wel in the favour of her majesty as in the opinions and good thoughts of the generall audience.’ The author of ‘An Almond for a Parrat’ (1589)—an attack on the Martin Mar-Prelate pamphleteers—similarly testified to Kemp's fitness to fill Tarleton's place by dedicating his tract ‘To that most Comicall and Conceited Cavaliero, Monsieur du Kempe, Jestmonger and Viceregent-generall to the Ghost of Dicke Tarlton.’ The writer, who claims long intimacy with the actor, and pretends that reports of the ‘pleasaunce’ of ‘Signor Chiarlatano Kempe’ had reached him while at Bergamo, has been doubtfully identified with the satirist Nashe. The latter certainly makes familiar reference to Kemp in his ‘Strange Newes,’ 1592. At the date of the publication of the ‘Almond’ the players were engaged in ridiculing the puritan controversialists, and Kemp probably took some share in the theatrical travesties. But there is nothing in the burlesque references to him in the ‘Almond for a Parrat’ to warrant the assumption of Mr. Collier and Mr. Fleay that he engaged as a writer in the paper warfare. It is true that in a puritan pamphlet entitled ‘Theses Martinianæ’ (issued 22 July 1589) ‘Kemp’ is named in a list of seven ‘haggling and prophane’ writers who had defended ‘the hierarchie’ (sig. D. iii. v.), but it is obvious that all the persons thus described were well-known ecclesiastics or avowed friends of the church (cf. copy in Brit. Mus., and see Collier, Bibl. Cat. i. 529). The names include ‘Dick Bancroft’ [i.e. the bishop of London—not Tarleton as Messrs. Collier and Fleay unintelligibly misprint it], ‘Thomas Blan of Bedford’ (i.e. Tobias Bland [q. v.]), and Leonard Wright [q. v.] Their companion ‘Kemp’ may have been the schoolmaster, William Kemp [q. v.], but cannot reasonably be identified with the comic actor.

The latter, writing in 1600, asserts that he spent his life ‘in mad Iigges and merry iestes.’ Although he was entrusted with many leading parts in farce or broad comedy, his dancing of jigs at the close of plays gave him his chief popularity. These jigs were performed to musical accompaniments, and included the singing of comic words. One or even two actors at times supported Kemp in his entertainment, and danced and sang with him. Some examples of the music to which Kemp danced are preserved in a manuscript collection of John Dowland [q. v.], now in the Cambridge University Library (Dd ii. 11; cf. Halliwell, MS. Rarities, p. 8). The words were doubtless often improvised at the moment, but on occasion they were written out and published. The ‘Stationers' Registers’ contain licenses for the publication of at least four sets of words for the jigs in which Kemp was the chief performer. On 28 Dec. 1591 ‘the thirde and last parte of Kempe's Jigge’ was licensed for publication to Thomas Gosson; on 16 Jan. 1594–5 Kemp's name is appended in the margin to an entry licensing ‘A pleasant newe Jigge of the broome man’ for publication to Thomas Creede; on 2 May 1595 ‘A Ballad of Mr. Kempe's New Jigge of the Kitchen Stuffe Woman’ was licensed to William Blackwall; and on 21 Oct. 1595 ‘A Ballad called Kempe's new Jygge betwixt a Souldiour and a Miser and Sym the Clown’ was again licensed to Gosson. Kemp stated in 1600 that he published his first pamphlet in that year. On that and other grounds it is probable that his ‘jigs’ were not written by himself, but by the authors employed by the company to which he was attached. Very frequent reference is made to his jigs in plays and poems of the period (cf. Guilpin, Skialetheia, 1598; Marston, Scourge of Villanie, 1599, in Works, ed. Bullen, iii. 372); but none of those recorded in the ‘Stationers' Registers’ are extant. In the Elizabethan play, ‘Jack Drum's Entertainment,’ 1616, however, there is introduced a song to which ‘Kempe's morris’ is danced.

A specimen of Kemp's ‘merriment’ of a somewhat more dramatic character is extant in the printed comedy, ‘A Knacke to knowe a knave’ (1594, 4to). One scene there is entitled ‘Kemps applauded Merriments of the men of Goteham in receiuing the King into Goteham.’ The play was acted by Alleyn and his company at the Rose Theatre in 1592. The scene assigned to Kemp consists of senseless buffoonery.

Kemp was at the same time entrusted with parts of higher literary interest. He has been identified with the ‘William’ who is noted as filling the part of Itys in the extant ‘plat’ or cast of the second part of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins,’ a morality play, now lost. It was acted by Alleyn and his company about 1592. Peter in Shakespeare's ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and Dogberry in ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ undoubtedly belonged to Kemp's repertory. In the second and third quartos of Shakespeare's ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (1599 and 1609 respectively) ‘Enter Peter’ is misprinted as ‘Enter Will. Kemp’ (act iv. sc. 5), and in ‘Much Ado about Nothing,’ in both the quarto of 1600 and the folio of 1623, the names of Kemp and Cowley are prefixed, by a copyist's error, to some speeches respectively of Dogberry and Verges (act iv. sc. 2). In the ‘Return from Parnassus,’ probably written about 1601, Kemp comes on the stage under his own name in the company of Burbage, and the two performers instruct Cambridge students in acting. Each actor is said to be a general favourite throughout the country, and since Kemp offers to teach his pupil how to portray ‘a foolish mayor or a foolish justice of the peace,’ it has been suggested that he created the part of Justice Shallow. His name figures in the lists of actors appended to the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays (1623) as ‘Kempt,’ to the quarto edition of Ben Jonson's ‘Every Man in his Humour’ (1599), and to the folio of Jonson's ‘Plays’ (1616). But, except in the cases of Peter and Dogberry, there is no means of positively identifying his parts in the dramas either of Shakespeare or Ben Jonson. It is possible that Shakespeare had at times cause to complain of Kemp's interpolated buffoonery, and that Hamlet's advice to the players, ‘Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them,’ was intended as a reflection on him. Richard Brome [q. v.], in his ‘Antipodes’ (1640), refers to the ‘fools and jesters’ practice in ‘the days of Tarlton and Kempe’ of introducing their own wit into poets' plays.

Kemp combined shrewdness with his rough humour, and, with a view to extending his reputation and his profits, he announced in 1599 his intention of dancing a morris-dance from London to Norwich. According to a common custom, he ‘put out’ a sum of money before his departure, on condition of receiving thrice the amount on his safe return. He left the lord mayor's dwelling in London on the first Monday in Lent, accompanied by Thomas Slye, ‘taberer,’ William Bee, his servant, and George Sprat, his ‘overseer.’ His route lay through Romford, Chelmsford, Sudbury, Bury, Rockland, and Burford Bridge. Bad weather and his own fatigues caused many delays, and he did not arrive in Norwich till twenty-three days after his departure. He spent only nine days in actual dancing on the road. The mayor of Norwich arranged a triumphal entry for him, and gave him not only five pounds in Elizabethan angels, but a pension for life of 40s. The freedom of the Merchant Adventurers' Company was also conferred on him. The exploit was long remembered in popular literature (cf. Ben Jonson's mention of ‘the famous morrisse unto Norwich’ in his Works, 1616, p. 814). But to Kemp's annoyance very inaccurate reports of his ‘gambols’ were hawked about at the time by booksellers or ballad-mongers in publications like ‘Kemp's farewell to the tune of Kery, mery Buffe,’ or ‘his desperate dangers in his late trauaile,’ or ‘his entertainement to New-Market,’ a town which he never visited. In order to check the circulation of falsehood, Kemp offered, he tells us, his ‘first pamphlet to the presse.’ The only copy known is in the Bodleian Library, and it has been reprinted by the Camden Society, and by Professor Arber in his ‘English Garner.’ The title ran: ‘Kemps Nine Daies Wonder Performed in a Daunce from London to Norwich. … Written by himselfe to satisfie his friends, London. Printed by E. A. for Nicholas Ling … 1600.’ A woodcut on the title-page shows Kemp in an elaborate costume, with bells about his knees, dancing to the accompaniment of a drum and tabor, which a man is playing at his side. The dedication is respectfully addressed to Anne Fitton, maid of honour to the queen. In an epilogue Kemp announced that he was shortly ‘to set forward as merily as I may; whither I myselfe know not,’ and he begged ‘Ballad-makers and their coherents’ to abstain from disseminating lying statements about him.

It seems certain that Kemp kept his word and exhibited his dancing powers on the continent. In Weelkes's ‘Ayres’ (1608) mention is made of Kemp's skipping into France. A ballad entitled ‘An excellent new Medley,’ dated about 1600, refers to his returning from Rome. William Rowley, in his ‘Search for Money’ (1609), mentions consecutively among recent ‘mad voyages,’ ‘the travel to Rome with the return in certain daies’ and ‘the wild morrise to Norrige,’ and it is possible that Kemp had accomplished both. In his edition of the ‘Coventry Mysteries’ for the Shakespeare Society, 1841, J. O. Halliwell inserted in the notes, p. 410, some Latin sentences stating that Kemp made a journey through Germany as well as Italy, and met at Rome Anthony Shirley, the Persian traveller. The words were drawn, according to Halliwell, from fol. 401 of the Sloane MS. 392, and were said to appear there with the date 2 Sept. 1601. But the Sloane MS. 392 is a treatise on logic written in both Latin and German by John Durie (1596–1680) [q. v.], and consists of only 121 folios. Halliwell's quotation with his misleading reference has been repeated by Mr. Collier and Mr. Fleay, but its source eludes discovery. In ‘The Travels of the three English Brothers,’ 1607, 4to, a play by John Day and others, dealing with the foreign adventures of the brothers Shirley, Anthony Shirley is, however, represented as meeting Kemp with his boy at Venice. Kemp comes on the stage under his own name, and takes part, with an Italian harlequin and his wife, in a coarse ‘extemporal merriment.’ In the ‘Return from Parnassus’ the students ask Kemp ‘how doth the Emperour of Germany,’ and welcome him ‘from dancing the morrice ouer the Alpes.’ His dancing exploits were soon emulated by John Taylor the Water-poet and by Tom Coryate. The latter includes in the eccentric preface to his ‘Crudities’ some verses by Strangwaies in which Kemp's dance is mentioned.

On returning to England Kemp reappeared on the stage, but he was no longer a member of the lord chamberlain's company. He had joined by 1602 the Earl of Worcester's players, who were performing in that year at the Rose Theatre managed by Philip Henslowe. Henslowe's account-books show a loan of 20s. to Kemp (10 March 1602), ‘for his necessary uses,’ and three payments in the following autumn for his clothes. Like other actors of the time, Kemp doubtless lived in Southwark, and he may possibly be the William Kemp residing in Samson's Rents between 1595 and 1599, and in Langley's New Rents in 1602. ‘William Kempe, a man,’ was buried in the church of St. Saviour, Southwark, on 2 Nov. 1603, but there is nothing to show his identity with the actor. The name is a common one in parish registers of the day. Dekker, in his ‘Guls Hornebook,’ speaks of the actor as dead in 1609, and Heywood, in his ‘Apology for Actors’ (1612), says of Kemp and other recent comic players that, ‘though they be dead, their deserts yet live in the remembrance of many.’ Richard Braithwaite includes in his ‘Remains after Death,’ 1618, an epitaph on Kemp.

Another William Kemp (1555–1628) was son of Robert Kemp of Spains Hall, Finchingfield, Essex, by Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Clement Heigham [q. v.] He married Philippa, daughter of Francis Gunter, and dying without issue, was buried in the church of Spains Hall on 10 June 1628, aged 73 (Morant, Essex, ii. 363). The inscription on his monument states that for speaking some hasty words he performed the penance of maintaining complete silence for seven years. The incident is the subject of a Latin poem ‘In obitum Gulielmi Kempi Armigeri Philomusi,’ published in James Duport's ‘Musæ Subsecivæ,’ Cambridge, 1676 (pp. 485–5). Hunter notices that ‘Philomusus,’ the title bestowed by Duport on the penitent, is the name given to the scholar with whom the actor Kemp holds converse in the ‘Return from Parnassus,’ and that the Kemps of Spains Hall were nearly related with the Colts of Melford, Suffolk, with whom the actor stayed for three days on his dance to Norwich. But the coincidences are merely curious, and hardly justify any theory of close relationship between the dancer and the owner of Spains Hall.

[Kemp's Nine Daies Wonder (Camd. Soc.), ed. Alexander Dyce; Hunter's Chorus Vatum in Brit. Mus. (Addit. MS. 24487 ff. 207 sq.); Coventry Mysteries, ed. Halliwell (1841), pp. 409–10; Henslowe's Diary, ed. Collier; Fleay's Biographical Hist. of the English Drama, 1891, ii. 19–22; Fleay's Chronicle History of the London Stage; authorities cited; Collier's Lives of the Actors (Shakesp. Soc.), pp. 89–119; Collier's Hist. Engl. Dramatic Poetry, 1879, iii. 330. Both Mr. Collier and Mr. Fleay supply memoirs of Kemp. Many undoubtedly forged documents quoted by Collier as genuine mention Kemp by name; the chief forgeries are exposed by Dyce in his second edition of Shakespeare, vol. i.; but the document said by Collier to be among the archives of the city of London, upon which he relies to prove that Kemp was acting in 1605, seems equally deserving of rejection. The town clerk of London denies the existence of such a document. Mr. Fleay, while correcting Collier at many points, usually fails to cite his authorities, treats conjectures as proved facts, and follows Collier in some important errors.]

S. L.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.171
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
391 i 11 f.e. Kemp, William (fl. 1600): after 1598. insert At Christmas 1594 he was summoned with two other leading members of the company, Richard Burbage [q. v.] and William Shakespeare, to act before the queen at Greenwich.