Queen's Men Biographies - Actors in the 1583 Company

  • Joined the new Queen’s company in 1583; drawn from Sussex’s, to which he belonged in 1576. Still with Queen’s Men in 1588
  • Jonson’s aged Stage-keeper in the Induction to Bartholomew Fair recalls once seeing the apparently agile Adams: “I kept the Stage in Master Tarletons time, I thanke my starres. Ho! an that man had liu’d to have play’d in Bartholomew Fayre, you should ha’ seene him ha’ come in, and ha’ been coozened i’ the Cloath-quarter, so finely! And Adams, the Rogue, ha’ leap’d and caper’d vpon him, and ha’ dealt his vermine about, as though they had cost him nothing. And then a substantiall watch to ha’ stolne in vpon ’hem, and taken ’hem away, with mistaking words, as the fashion is, in the Stage-practice.” (Q1631) One wonders if Adams’ shaking his “vermine” about (fleas/lice?) implies a shabby persona, rough about the edges?
  • Based on the similarily of his name, Nungezar speculates that he may have played the aggressive, clownish apprentice sometimes identified as “Adam” in A Looking-glass for London and England (Q1598) (Dictionary of Actors)

• Aged 30 when he joined the new Queen’s company in 1583.

• A letter (undated) to Edward Alleyn from a “W.P” at Dulwich mentions a wager made among gentlemen as to whether Alleyn could overgo Bentley and Knell in one of their parts, implying that Bentley, like Knell, excelled in tragic or heroic roles. The letter is transcribed in Collier’s Memoirs of Edward Alleyn (1841) along with accompanying verse (12). Collier’s tendency to contaminate (and fabricate) sources may put its authenticity into question.

• In an incident outside the Red Lion Inn in Norwich during the company’s first summer tour (June 1583), Bentley may have dealt the wound that killed a local man named “George.” Bentley had been onstage, wearing a “players berd” in the role of a “Duke” when a citizen named “Wynsdon” refused – apparently with beligerence – to pay the admission fee. Tarlton is said to have tried and failed to intercede as Bentley struck at this Wynsdon with his sword hilt. Bentley and his fellow, John Singer, pursued the man, who fled alongside another man, “George,” who wore a “blew cote,” evidently in Wynsdon’s service. The actors caught up with George who threw a stone to defend himself against Bentley’s rapier attack. It is said to have “broke his head.” George was several times “pricked” with weapons and bled to death in a nearby house. Bentley and Singer were briefly imprisoned after the killing (Norwich: 1540-1642, pp. 66-76, 378-381, 394-395)

• Bentley was himself deceased by 1585, the register of St. Peter’s Cornhill giving his age as “yers 32” (Dictionary of Actors, 44). Nashe recalled his ability in Pierce Penniless (1592) and Heywood remembers him in Apology for Actors (1612) as an important early English actor.

• His will records his landlord in Shoreditch as Robert Scott, perhaps indicating that he shared a residence with, or was neighbor to, Simon Jewell, whose will refers to the same landlord in the same parish (Playhouse Wills, 56, 59).

• A member of the new Queen’s company of 1583 and still there in 1588.

• McMillan speculates that he was the “Mr. Cooke” mentioned in Simon Jewell’s will of 1592 (“Simon Jewell” 174).

• A member of the new Queen’s company of 1583 and still there in 1591; earlier connected to Warwick’s Men (which he led with brother, Lawrence) and also Oxford’s Men.

• Reportedly 60 years of age in 1608, meaning he was 35 at the company’s inception, a performer of older roles and likely a company leader.

• Died in 1614 in St. Botolph Bishopsgate (Playhouse Wills 230).

• His brother Lawrence Dutton was also recorded as a member by 1589 in Nottingham; he had formerly been connected to Lane’s, Lincoln’s, Warwick’s and Oxford’s companies. A rare description of Lawrence’s appearance comes from a deponent’s description of him in a lawsuit of 1595/96: “a good handsome man in a faire cloake not altogether blacke but somewhat greene and a strawe coloured doublett with a little beard.” Another testified that he had “somewhat a redd beard.” (Eccles “Elizabethan Actors I: A-D,” 49.)

• The Dutton brothers’ traffic between companies before their term with the Queen’s Men, together with a recorded quarrel with Inns of Court students in the late 1570s, led Nungezar to suspect an “unstable temperament” on the part of both brothers (Dictionary of Actors 124). There may be some confirmation of this in resentful contemporary verses that describe the Duttons in the following terms:

The Duttons and theyr fellow-players forsakyng the Erle of Warwycke theyr mayster, became followers of the Erle of Oxford, and wrot themselves his COMOEDIANS, which certayne Gentlemen altered and made CAMOELIANS. The Duttons, angry with that, compared themselves to any gentlemen; therefore these armes were devysed for them:

The fyeld, a fart durty, a gybbet crosse-corded,
A dauncing Dame Flurty of all men abhorred
A lyther lad scampant, a roge in his ragges,
A whore that is rampant, astryde wyth her legges,
A woodcocke displayed, a calfe and a shepe,
A bitch that is splayed, a domouse asleepe;
A vyper in stynch, la part de la drut,
Spell backwarde this Frenche and cracke me that nut.

Parcy per pillery, perced with a rope,
To slythe the more lytherly anoynted with sope;
A coxcombe crospate in token of witte,
Two eares perforate, a nose wythe slytte.
Three nettles resplendent, three owles, three swallowes,
Three mynstrellmen pendent on three payre of gallowes,
Further sufficiently placed in them
A knaves head, for a difference from all honestmen.

The wreate is a chayne of chaungeable red,
To show they ar vayne and fickle of head;
The creste is a lastrylle whose fethers ar blew,
In sign that these fydlers will never be trew;
Whereon is placed the horme of a gote,
Because they ar chast, to this is theyr lotte,
For their bravery, indented and parted,
And for their knavery innebulated.

Mantled lowsy, with doubled drynke,
Their ancient house is called the Clyncke;
Thys Posy they beare over the whole earthe,
Wylt please you to have a fyt of our mirthe?
But reason it is, and heraultes allowe welle,
That fidlers should beare their armes in a towelle.

(qtd Elizabethan Stage, 2:98)

• A member of the 1583 company and still there in 1588 and in 1598.

• Queen Elizabeth granted him an annuity of 2 shillings a day in 1595.

• Referred to as “owld garlland” by Henslowe in 1604.

• Died 1624 (Playhouse Wills, 141)

• A member of the company at its inception in 1583, or by 1585 at the latest.

• Nashe’s Pierce Penniless praises Knell’s acting alongside Tarlton’s and Alleyn’s. Heywood’s Apology for Actors also remembers him as a talent.

• Credited with “playing Henry the fift” in Tarlton’s Jests, presumably in The Famous Victories (before his death in 1587). This is the only known assignment of a role but it points to one capable of taking vigorous, youthful parts.

• A coroner’s inquest reports that on 13 June, 1587, between 9 and 10 pm, Knell entered a close called White Hound in Thame, Oxfordshire and assaulted John Towne, his fellow actor. Towne, fearing for his life, took to the high ground of a nearby “mound” and put his sword through Knell’s neck in self-defence. Knell was dead within the half-hour. The Queen pardoned Towne on 15 August after it was determined he acted in self-defense (Shakespeare in Warwickshire, 82-83, 157-158).

• Less than a year earlier, Knell had married Rebecca Edwards at St. Mary Aldermanbury, London. She was widowed at fifteen. She was soon re-married, aged sixteen, to John Heminges, who would become Shakespeare’s longstanding fellow in the Chamberlain’s Men and may also have acted with the Queen’s company.

• There has been speculation that Knell’s absence opened a door for Shakespeare to join the company as it toured Warwickshire, though no firm evidence supports this.

• A member of the new Queen’s company in 1583 and still there in 1588; earlier a member of Leicester’s Men.

• Heywood’s Apology for Actors (1612) remembers him as a talented player.

• A member of the new Queen’s company in 1583.

• Heywood’s Apology for Actors (1612) remembers him as a talented player.

• Buried in St. Olave’s, Southwark in 1585.

• A member of the new Queen’s company of 1583 and still there in 1588.

• Singer drew his sword during the quarrel between company members and the Norwich citizen “Wynsdon” that resulted in the stabbing death of “George,” his servant, in June 1583. He was jailed following the incident along with Bentley.

• Singer was evidently a capably performer of foolish or comic parts. Dekker’s Gull’s Horn-Book (1609) states (while teasing London gallants): “Tarleton, Kemp, nor Singer, nor all the litter of Fooles that now come drawling behinde them , never played the clownes more naturally then the arrantest Sot of you all shall.” (qtd Dictionary of Actors 328)

• Joined Queen’s in 1583, after theatrical success in Sussex’s Men in the 1570s and some ballad-writing.

• Biographers have noted the difficulty of separating the boozy, provocative, unpredictable figure of fictional accounts of the man (such as 1611’s Tarlton’s Jests, printed long after his death) and the authentic man, whose seems to have carefully cultivated relationships across various social levels.

• The Queen’s Men’s play Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (Q1590) by Tarlton’s fellow Robert Wilson, suggests that, in his youth, Tarlton was water-carrier,

Will: … what was that Tarlton? I neuer knew him.
Simplicity: What was he: a prentice in his youth of this honorable city, God be with
him: when he was yoong he was leaning to the trade that my wife vseth nowe, and I haue vsed, vide lice shirt, waterbearing. I-wis he hath toss’d a tankard in Cornhill ere now…

There may be a pun involved, given the public association of Tarlton throughout the 1580s with the world of taverns. In 1584, he became free of the Company of Vintners and was evidently keeper of the Saba (or “Sheba”) tavern in Gracechurch Street as well as an ordinary in Paternoster Row, London. Peter Thomson postulates that “There is a strong probability that the transference of his tavern style to the public theatres was Tarlton’s peculiar innovation as an actor and the basis of his extraordinary popularity.” (Oxford DNB).

• Though contemporary illustrations such as John Scottowe’s MS drawing in the British Library (Harley MS 3885, fol. 19) point to a stocky, short-nosed tabor and pipe player, these have to some extent been discredited as likenesses. There is agreement however that Tarlton’s appearance was uniquely “rough” and that he capitalized on it in performance. A marginal notation in Stow’s/Howe’s Annals suggests that his face was familiar enough to be used to denote certain London establishments: “Tarleton so beloued that men vse his picture for their signes” (698).

• In 1582, Sir Philip Sidney was named godfather to Tarlton’s son. Three years after Sidney’s death, Tarlton asked Sir Francis Walsingham (Sidney’s father-in-law) to watch over the boy. Such connections might support Gabriel Harvey’s claim that Tarlton had social pretensions (DNB). The actor styled himself a “gentleman” and in his will, “one of the Groome of the Queenes maiesties chamber” (Playhouse Wills, 57). Some anecdotes speak of him as a favourite of the Queen, not just for his comic diversions but because he was a “pleasant talker” (qtd Dictionary of Actors, 350). Conceivably, part of the appeal of his performing style was its juxtaposition of his clownish persona and overt, perhaps at times incompetent, pretensions to gentility. See for example Derick in The Famous Victories: “Do Clownes go in silk apparell?” Mumford, too, in King Leir could be an appropriate role in this respect. Andrew Gurr suggests the ability to straddle social fields was key to Tarlton’s universal appeal (Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London, 126-132)

• He had expertise with a sword. “Mr. Tarlton, ordenary grome off her majestes chamber” was made Master of the Fence in October of 1587. A Norwich fighting bird was named after him, according to George Wilson’s Commendation of Cockes, and Cock-Fighting (1607): “because he alwayes came to the fight like a drummer, making a thundering noyse with his winges … which cocke fought many battels, with mighty and fierce aduersaries.” Peter Thomson points to the irony that despite a reputation for aggression, the most reliable account we have of Tarlton finds him attempting to break up the quarrel between playgoer “Wynsdon” and members of the company in Norwich in June 1583.

• Stylistically, Tarlton was famous for extemporising, or “Tarletonising” as Gabriel Harvey put it (Four Letters and certeine Sonnets, 1592). Peter Thomson, in connecting him to the role of Derick in The Famous Victories, wonders if entrances and exits were not, in particular, handled artfully by the actor: “On the open stages of Elizabethan London it was impossible to enter or leave the platform unobtrusively. Actors coming on to open a scene had first to locate themselves in order to place the narrative; actors leaving had to have a reason to go. Either way, they had a distance to cover from or to the stage door. That distance was Tarlton’s playground, and The Famous Victories furnishes it richly.” (DNB).

• Henry Peacham’s Truth of our Times (1638) appears to recall a first-hand encounter with Tarlton in performance : “I remember when I was a School-boy in London, Tarlton acted a third sons part, such a one as I now speake of: His father being a very rich man, and lying upon his death-bed, called his three sonnes about him, who with teares, and on their knees craved his blessing, and to the eldest sonne, said hee, you are mine heire, and my land must descend upon you, aud I pray God blesse you with it: The eldest sonne replyed, Father I trust in God you shall yet live to enjoy it your selfe. To the second sonne, (said he) you are a scholler, and what profession soever you take upon you, out of my land I allow you threescore pounds a yeare towards your maintenance, and three hundred pounds to buy you books, as his brother, he weeping answer’d, I trust father you shall live to enjoy your money your selfe, I desire it not, &c. To the third, which was Tarlton, (who came like a rogue in a foule shirt without a a band, and in a blew coat with one sleeve, his stockings out at the heeles, and his head full of straw and feathers) as for you sirrah, quoth he) you know how often I have fetched you out of Newgate and Bridewell, you have beene an ungracious villaine, I have nothing to bequeath to you but the gallowes and a rope: Tarlton weeping and sobbing upon his knees (as his brothers) said, O Father, I doe not desire it, I trust it God you shall live to enjoy it your selfe. There are many such sons of honest and carefull parents in England at this day.”

Peacham’s 94th Epigram in Thalia’s Banquet (1620) refers in particular to a form of entrance:

As Tarlton when his head was onely seene,
The Tire-house doore and Tapistrie betweene,
Set all the mulltitude in such a laughter,
They could not hold for scarse an houre after,
So (Sir) I set you (as I promis’d) forth,
That all the world may wonder at your worth

And Nashe’s Pierce Penilesse confirms a similar practice with the curtain, in describing:

“A tale of a wise Iustice. Amongst other cholericke wise Iustices, he was one, that hauing a play presented before him and his Towne-ship, by Tarlton and the rest of his fellowes her Maiesties seruants, and they were now entring into their first merriment (as they call it) the people began exceedingly to laugh, when Tarlton first peept out his head. Whereat the Iustice, not a little moued, and seeing with his beckes and nods hee could not make them cease, he went with his staffe, and beat them round about vnmercifully on the bare pates, in that they being but Farmers & poore countrey Hyndes, would presume to laugh at the Queenes men, and make no more account of her cloath in his presence.”

• He was buried in St. Leonard’s Shoreditch in 1588.


• A member of the new Queen’s company of 1583 and still there in 1588 and 1597.

• Towne killed his fellow performer, William Knell in a duel, for unknown reasons, in Oxfordshire in 1587.

• Joined the new Queen’s Men in 1583, earlier serving in Leicester’s company, as early as 1572.

• A rhetorical gesture in Gabriel Harvey’s Letter-Book (c.1579) refers to Wilson’s tendency to improvise: “how peremptorily ye have preiudiced my good name for ever in thrustinge me thus on the stage to make a tryall of my extemporall faculty, and to play Wylsons or Tarletons parte” (qtd Dictionary of Actors, 394)

• Stow & Howes’s Annales characterises Wilson as “a quicke delicate refined extemporall wit” (697).

• Francis Meres’ Palladis tamia (1598) refers to him in familiar terms: “And so is now our wittie Wilson, who for learning and extemporall witte in this facultie is without compare or compeer, as to his great and eternal commendations he manifested in his chalenge at the Swanne on the Bancke side” (qtd Dictionary of Actors 395)

• In addition to performing, Wilson was a playwright, and evidently a well-educated one. His lost play Shorte and Sweete (1570s) was praised as “a peece surely worthy prayse, the practice of a good scholler” by Thomas Lodge in his Defence of Poetry, Musick and Stage Plays (1580). He is generally the accepted author of The Three Ladies of London (1584), The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (1590), The Cobler’s Prophecy (1594) and many lost collaborative works (Dictionary of Actors 395-396).

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—– “Elizabethan Actors I: A-D.” N&Q 236 (1991): 38-49.
—– “Elizabethan Actors II: E-J” N&Q 236 (1991): 454-61.
—– “Elizabethan Actors III: K-R.” N&Q 237 (1992): 293-303.
—– “Elizabethan Actors IV: S to End.” N&Q 238 (1993): 165-76.
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