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Skills, qualities, and practice.

Skill--ability that is learned rather than innate--is not something for which early modern actors are normally praised. John Webster's famous character of "An Excellent Actor," for example, assumes that this actor has always been excellent. (1) Hence, the interest of the few remarks on the subject by Thomas Gainsford, the probable author-compiler of a commonplace book called The Rich Cabinet, first published in 1613 and reprinted several times. The chapter on "The Player" begins with the familiar negative commonplaces: actors lead immoral lives; the Bible implicitly condemns them; they fear the plague and "the statute." Mixed in with these cliches, however, are a few comments that may reflect personal observation over time, like the statement that an actor is initially frightened of his audience, but acquires confidence. (2) Gainsford, a Londoner, had attended the Inner Temple in 1586 and in the following year apparently rented out an inherited house to "musicians and actors of the royal household, among others." (3) By the time he published The Rich Cabinet, he had been both a soldier and a literary man; later, he was best known as a gazetteer. In his Inns of Court days, he would have taken lessons in the gentlemanly activities of dancing and fencing. This may be why he is aware of the importance of practice:
   Player hath many times, many excellent qualities: as dancing,
   actiuitie, musicke, song, elloqution, abilitie of body, memory,
   vigilancy, skill of weapon, pregnancy of wit, and such like: in all
   which hee resembleth an excellent spring of water, which growes the
   more sweeter, and the more plentifull by the often drawing out of
   it: so are all these the more perfect and plausible by the often
   practice. (117v)

Like a true anthologizer, Gainsford is not bothered that his commonplaces contradict each other: Player gets his "often practice" in these qualities by means--acting in plays--that had been condemned earlier. A similar paradox is inherent in the concept of sprezzatura, which requires the courtier to display supposedly innate qualities that are in fact the result of careful practice. Despite lip-service to the view that noble birth and talent went together, the proliferation of books and schools for those who wanted to learn noble qualities showed that most people believed they could be taught. Actors often imitated a higher social class than their own, and did it embarrassingly well.

But there was also a tradition, which Gainsford does not mention, of imitating the skills of a lower class. Craftsmen-players had once exploited audience knowledge of their supposed expertise--their "mystery"--and displayed its products on stage. Jonathan Gil Harris points out, however, that "mystery plays were not inductions into how to spin wool, make nails, or treat leather." (4) Even the two most famous examples of onstage "work," the building of Noah's ark and the York crucifixion play with its realistic hammering, were highly condensed versions of the real thing. If, as Harris adds, the rise of professional theaters dissociated the actor from his products, the real product of an actor was a display of his "qualities" in performance. One of these qualities was timing, since the ability to imitate physical activity was only half of the skill needed to perform such activity while speaking. Those most skilled at this were the school and university performers, directed, in most cases, by schoolmasters and musicians with a precise sense of time. The unusually explicit stage directions in Jacob and Esau (1554?) and Nicholas Udall's Ralph Roister-Doister (1552), show what could be required from a schoolboy actor. In Jacob and Esau the smallest actor, who plays the maid Abra, is directed "Then let her sweepe with a brome, and while she doth it, sing this song." (5) Even though the song is a didactic number, the pleasure of the scene came not only from the boy's singing but also from its synchronization with his sweeping, as is clear from Abra's comment at the end:
   Now have I done and as it should be for the nonce,
   My sweeping and my song are ended both at once

This implies that she has been performing a "work song." Real work songs, as Fiona McNeill points out, had "an almost mechanical meter" because they "were not only sung to maintain the pace of manual labor, but to perform a manual labor that required counting. Spinning could be done without counting, but knitting required at least some basic arithmetic" and making bonelace was still more complicated (102). Songs also existed for "spinning, knitting, lacemaking, grinding grain, churning butter and milking, all of which were women's jobs" (108). Ralph Roister Doister contains a much more elaborate scene in which the maidservants--Madge Mumblecrust, Tib Talkapace and Annot Alyface--sing while performing three different female occupations, sewing, spinning and knitting ("So shall we pleasantly bothe the tyme beguile now,/ And eke dispatche all our works ere we can tell how."). (6) The resulting song for three voices, the most popular form in this period, shows the women competing to see who can work fastest ("Sewe Tibet, knitte Anot, spinne Margerie,/ Let us see who shall winne the victorie": lines 314-15). It is interspersed with Tib's comments on how badly her sewing is going, and she finally throws down her "work" in disgust. Like Abra, she is the smallest of the boy actors, and presumably was imagined to be the youngest, the most impatient, and the least skilled.

The emphasis on the smallness of the boys is important. Because of the rules of the apprenticeship system, the boys who acted in the adult companies would have been fourteen or older. However, as David Kathman has noted, the all-boy companies, which took boys not for apprenticeships but for three-year terms as "covenant servants," were exempt from the minimum age requirements and boys could be as young as ten. (7) It is hardly surprising that a children's company would want to distinguish between the taller "men" and the shorter "women" in the cast. The same would surely have been true of school productions, where both Jacob and Esau and Roister Doister probably originated--hence their emphasis on Abra and Tib, the smallest and least trained of the servants. (Being small was of course an advantage, since, as in these cases, it allowed the actor to play the "character role" of bratty child.) Both plays require the accurate timing that could be achieved only with a long rehearsal period, directed no doubt by the schoolmaster-playwright.

This scene of manual labor by boys playing women must have looked as charming to spectators as it does to Ralph Roister Doister, who watches it. The Weakest Goeth to the Wall, published in 1600 and attributed to the Earl of Oxford's company of boys, contains another example of mimetic skill. Its unusually explicit, though permissive, stage directions state that the clown, Bunch the Botcher, comes on stage "with a paire of sheares, a handbasket with a crossebottome of thread, three or foure paire of old stockings, peeces of fustian and cloath, &c." (8) After delivering his introductory comic monologue, "He hangs three or foure paire of hose upon a sticke, and falls to sowing one hose heele and sings" (lines 227-28). The extensive detail of this description suggests that, as in Roister Doister, the pleasure of the scene came from more than just the song. Bunch imitates the kind of basic mending that many men probably did themselves, though he could also have been taught by one of the women involved with the professional theater. (9)

This children's play may have been imitating the success of Dekker's The Shoemakers' Holiday, published the previous year. The Admiral's Men, for whom it was written, are thought to have aligned themselves with a "tradition of celebrating the London citizenry." (10) Dekker seems to have been trying to repeat that success with the same company when in 1600 he collaborated with Henry Chettle and William Haughton on Patient Grissil, a retelling of Chaucer's Griselda story. All English versions emphasize that Griselda works for a living, but in "The Clerk's Tale" and the earlier Griselda play by John Phillips (c. 1557-61) spinning is her chief occupation. In Patient Grissil, however, the family trade is basket making. The task is partly symbolic: the easily bending osier stands for social and marital obedience. (11) Moreover, the dramatists knew how to get the tools of this craft. Wicker workers had an important role in theatrical productions, as makers of the animals and monsters in court entertainments. (12) They presumably provided the partly made baskets ("baskets begun to be wrought": SD I.ii.01) that are needed at the characters' first entrance. The actors' pretence of weaving probably goes more slowly than real basket making, since the father finally says, "Come girle lets faster worke: time apace weares" (I.ii.74). At this point, the clown re-enters "with his worke" (a basket that is further along), and the three of them join in a song with the refrain:
   Worke apace, apace, apace, apace:
   Honest labour weares a louely face.

As Tom Rutter notes, this refrain is also heard in The Shoemaker's Holiday. At a time when actors were generally called players, such songs as these have a double meaning: "Actors were condemned for pursuing a mode of life that was not work; in return, their supporters presented acting as a form of legitimate labour." (13)

The real purpose of this scene, like Bunch's stocking mending and the songs in The Shoemaker's Holiday, was to show off, not the actors' practical skills, but their singing, with the further advantage that work songs did not require the expert musicianship available in the children's companies. There was also, however, an element of impersonation--pretending to practice a lower-class skill and offering a model of virtuous and contented labor--that was clearly popular enough to inspire other craftsmen plays. One of the Patient Grissil collaborators, William Haughton, was paid by Henslowe in 1601 for his part in a lost play, possibly in two parts, called The Six Clothiers. Jigs, too, often featured artisan characters. (14)

Shakespeare knew about work songs. In Twelfth Night Orsino says that the song he wants to hear is chanted by "The spinsters and the knitters in the sun,/ And the free maids that weave their thread with bones" (Twelfth Night 2.4.44-45). As Fiona McNeill points out, however, what he finally hears is not a work song but the sophisticated "Come Away Death." (15) It is true that genuine hard work is required for the physical labor of digging a grave [Hamlet), carrying a basket of laundry (Merry Wives) or a pile of logs (Tempest), fishing and drawing in a net [Pericles), hauling ropes (if that is what happened in 1.1 of The Tempest), breaking open a tomb [Romeo) or a chest [Pericles). Such tasks, however, are either relegated to lower-class characters or depicted as beneath the dignity of the person who performs them (Ferdinand in The Tempest, for example). The skills that the actors do exhibit are the kinds that Gainsford names, particularly those that have to do with "skill of weapon." Scenes in which a character is armed on stage are technically so difficult, with problems of timing and of speaking over the noise of the metal, that it is surprising to find so many of them in Shakespeare's work. Was it because of his unusual name that he was drawn to them? Charles Edelman suggests that the display of fencing skills in the Henry VI plays may be a Shakespearean innovation; (16) certainly, it is crucial to several of his most famous roles. Hamlet's statement that he has "been in continual practice" at fencing (5.2.209) contradicts what he told Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about having "forgone all custom of exercises" (2.2.297-98), but it balances what Claudius has heard about Laertes, who is now famous in France for "a quality/ Wherein they say you shine" (4.7.70-71) and which he has presumably been practicing in pub lie. This emphasis on the fitness of the two men is advance publicity for the final scene, which requires both fencers to be, as well as seem, skillful enough to impress a critical audience. It is also typical of Hamlet's attitude: he uses Rosencrantz's lack of skill on the recorder as an analogy for his inability to "pluck out the heart of my mystery", probably meaning craft (3.2.364-65); urges his mother to develop a habit of sexual abstinence, "For use almost can change the stamp of nature" (3.4.175); and says that he had been taught "to write fair", had tried "to forget that learning" (5.2.35), but found it surprisingly useful. The prince, clearly, believes that work pays off.

Michelle M. Dowd has argued that the sleeping laborer (Christopher Sly or Nick Bottom) symbolizes honest labor that is depicted as analogous to that of the actors. (17) I agree with her and with Tom Rutter that Shakespeare makes the case for acting as a serious and skilled profession. It seems to me, however, that he does so mainly by displaying the acting process itself through (for example) disguises, deceptions, and complicated speeches that draw attention to their own difficulty. Far from identifying actors with artisans, Hamlet asks the players for "a taste of your quality" (2.2.431), and in the Folio text he also wonders whether boy actors will continue to "pursue the quality" (2.2.346) after their voices have broken. (18) "Quality" is a slippery word: the second example must mean "profession," but in the first Hamlet is simultaneously asking the company to display their professional skills and implying that he wants to see just how good they are. As You Like It and Hamlet belong to the same period that produced the scenes of stocking mending and basket making in other theaters. In As You Like It, Orlando complains about not having been given "gentlemanlike qualities" (1.1.66), though Oliver's description of him as "never schooled and yet learned" (1.1.157-58) is proved true in the wrestling scene. Like Gainsford, Shakespeare applies the word to the perfection through practice of gifts that are already innate, which thus prove the possessor's status (hence the later phrase "persons of quality"). It is through habit and practice that Hamlet has become a model "courtier, scholar, soldier." His brief foray into acting (both theory and practice) shows that the profession is not beneath a prince.


Shakespeare quotations come from David Bevington, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (New York: Pearson Longman, 2004). Dates of plays are taken from Annals of English Drama, 975-1700, ed. Alfred Harbage, Samuel Schoenbaum, and Sylvia Stoler Wagonheim (London: Routledge, 1989).

(1.) First published in the 1615 edition of Sir Thomas Overbury's A Wife; reprinted in John Webster, "The Character of An Excellent Actor," in Elizabethan-Jacobean Drama: The Theatre in its Time, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (London: A. C. Black, 1988), 91-92.

(2.) [Thomas Gainsford?], The Rich Cabinet furnished with varietie of excellent descriptions [...] (London: I. B. for Roger Jackson, 1616). W.C. Hazlitt first ascribed it to Gainsford and S. A. Baron, the author of the entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, considers his authorship "certain". I owe this reference to Martin White, Renaissance Drama in Action: An Introduction to Aspects of Theatre Practice and Performance (London: Routledge, 1998), 24.

(3.) S. A. Baron, "Gainsford, Thomas [bap. 1566, d.1624)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online ed,, Jan 2008 [http://, accessed 22 July 2014], This rental arrangement was brief, since Gainsford, always short of money, soon had to sell the property.

(4.) Jonathan Gil Harris, "Properties of Skill: Product Placement in Early English Artisanal Drama," in Jonathan Gil Harris and Natasha Korda (eds.), Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 43.

(5.) Jacob and Esau, ed. John Crown and F. P. Wilson, Malone Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), margin opp. line 1130.

(6.) Roister Doister, ed. W. W. Greg, Malone Society (Oxford University Press, 1934), 1.3.304-5.

(7.) David Kathman, "Players, Livery Companies, and Apprentices," in The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theatre, ed. Richard Dutton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 413-28: 421.

(8.) The Weakest Goeth to the Wall. Ed. W. W. Greg. Malone Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1912), lines 204-6.

(9.) For women's roles in "backstage" theatre occupations, see Natasha Korda, Labors Lost: Women's Work and the Early Modern English Stage (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 26-49.

(10.) Andrew Gurr, Shakespeare's Opposites: The Admiral's Company 1594-1625 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 195.

(11.) Thomas Dekker, The Pleasant Comodie of Patient Grissil, in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Fredson Bowers, 4 vols. Vol I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), V.ii. 234-40. See also Korda, Labors Lost, 135-36.

(12.) See, e.g., Martin Wiggins, with Catherine Richardson, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue. Volume 1:1533-1566 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 250, 257-58, and Volume II: 1567-1589 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 94.

(13.) Tom Rutter, Work and Play on the Shakespearean Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 55. Rutter, speculating as to how authentic the basket weaving would have been, mentions a production of The Shoemaker's Holiday in which real shoemaking took place on the stage (113), thanks to students from the Department of Boot and Shoe Manufacture at Northampton College of Technology.

(14.) E.g., a manuscript jig in the National Library of Wales (called by Martin Wiggins the Jig of an Amorous Cobbler) includes the song "I am the cobbler of Bordeaux Town." See Martin Wiggins, British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue, III: 1590-1597 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 274-75.

(15.) Fiona McNeill, "Free and Bound Maids: Women's Work Songs and Industrial Change in the Age of Shakespeare," in Mary Ellen Lamb and Karen Bamford, Oral Traditions and Gender in Early Modern Literary Texts (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 101-2.

(16.) Charles Edelman, Brawl Ridiculous: Swordfighting in Shakespeare's Plays (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), 89.

(17.) Michelle M. Dowd, "Shakespeare's Sleeping Workers," Shakespeare Studies 41 (2013): 148-76.

(18.) Hamlet, ed. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Arden, 2006). All Hamlet quotations are taken from this edition of the second quarto text. Lines occurring only in the Folio are printed in Appendix I, 469.
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Title Annotation:early modern acting; Forum: Skill
Author:Potter, Lois
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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