9 Early Modern Actors and Modern Equivalents

One thing that I’ve noticed teaching Shakespeare is that although there is a lot of attention paid to performance conditions of the early modern theatre in modern scholarship and even really wonderful recent discoveries are giving us more knowledge about the material conditions of the theatres at the time (like the discovery of The Curtain this year), students still don’t register how populist early modern theatre was.  Shakespeare has been “high art” for so long that the very thought of going to see a show at The Globe because it was fun seem alien to a lot of students.

So I figure… let’s marry contemporary popular culture and early modern popular culture and see what comes out on the other end.  Let’s find some contemporary equivalents for Shakespeare and company!

OK, maybe “equivalents” is a bit strong here given that I’ve literally never seen any of the early modern actors perform, but short of a TARDIS falling out of the blue sky onto my head, I doubt I ever will.  Then again, you who are reading this haven’t seen John Lowin act either, so who is to complain?  The relationships are all just my opinions below… It’s all about educated guesswork.


#9 – John Lowin/John C. Reilly


John Lowin was a portly actor in Shakespeare’s company who was primarily known for comic roles at first, but who was also a really deft hand at straight dramas.  He began as a hired actor for the King’s Men early in the first decade of the 1600s, but he very quickly probably became a sharer, meaning that his fortunes were tied to those of the company.  By the 1630s, Lowin was essentially acting as manager for the company.
In terms of his acting, Lowin was famous for portraying the role of Falstaff from the Henry IV plays.  (Though now-a-days we tend to think of Falstaff as overwhelmingly obese, as you can see above, Lowin may have been heavier set, but certainly wasn’t even fat by contemporary standards.)  He wasn’t just a comic actor, however.  He was the original Henry VIII in Shakespeare’s play of the same name.  He also likely played Iago, Volpone, Bosola from The Duchess of Malfi, among other roles.  Indeed, he was probably one of the most influential dramatic actors of his day while also “owning” the great comic role of Falstaff throughout his career.
Movies tend to pigeon-hole actors very quickly into a single type, be it comic actor or dramatic lead, but John C. Reilly has managed to do both within his career.  Though some might recognize him from Step Brothers or the Drunk History episode of Nicholas Tesla, he’s also created some serious, thoughtful roles in dramas like Gangs of New York and Magnolia.  He’s actually quite a brilliant actor.
There’s something a little dangerous about him – a quality that he brings to roles both comic and dramatic.  It isn’t that he is always sinister, but that even the comic roles are played with something of an edge to them such that even if he is playing a total buffoon, one is never sure if the character is going to burst out into violence.  Even when he does slapstick, the violence is never wholly cartoonish.
So, next time you read Othello, imagine a young John C. Reilly as Iago.  He’s comic, right?  Funny, right?  He can’t do anything bad… oh… oh dear.  He just did what?  Well, that’s just not nice at all.

#8 – Augustine Phillips/James Earl Jones

One of the problems with Augustine Phillips is that we don’t really know how old he was.  We know that he died in 1605 and that he specialized in patrician roles of older men, but if that meant he was himself an old man or if he was just good at playing older men… who knows?  Also, we don’t actually have a portrait of him, so I’ve just put a random picture above to give you a placeholder of sorts.

Phillips probably played Polonius and thus probably played Julius Caesar when that play was first performed.  The most cited story about Phillips, however, is that he was the one who the company turned to when they got in hot water following the Essex Rebellion.

When the Essex plotters had Shakespeare’s company perform Richard II on the eve of the rebellion as a lame attempt at anti-Elizabeth propaganda, that got the company in trouble and it was Phillips who was chosen to speak to the Privy Council in the aftermath.  Some have suggested that this was a sign Phillips kept the account books, though I think it could just be that he had a gravitas that Shakespeare et al thought would help.

And it did.  The company wasn’t even censured and very shortly later performed before the queen.

No living actor embodies gravitas more than James Earl Jones.  I remember listening to an interview with him once wherein he was speaking casually about his childhood and his early days as an actor.  His casual tone and frequent use of expletives contrasted with the expectations I have grown up with regarding his voice.  I found it jarring at first but then became even more entranced because he was still powerful, commanding, and now even more human.

James Earl Jones, to my knowledge, has never played Polonius, though I would love to see that.  The part is usually played as a bit of an impotent old man who is more there as comic relief than anything else.  I see that part a bit differently.  I think Polonius, underneath the fussy “twice a child” exterior, is a very dangerous and very terrifying man.  Here is an actor who I can see not only playing that fussiness and dangerousness, but one who I have no problems in imagining testifying before the highest government bodies in the land.

#7 – Richard (Dick) Tarlton/Steve Martin


Dick Tarlton was the premiere comedian of his day.  Indeed, he was an early example of celebrity, if you wanted to go so far, in that he was himself a draw.  Queen Elizabeth loved his work and he was a popular clown for the hoi polloi as well.  Though he died before Shakespeare really started working on the London stage, he was one of the most influential performers from the period.

Other clowns – Robert Armin and Will Kemp – drew from Master Tarlton’s bag of tricks.  He was both a physical clown and a linguistic master, whereas the clowns that followed tended to have one or the other as a specialty.  Equally comfortable with a pratfall as he was with a improvised speech of doggerel verse, Tarlton set the bar for what comedy was in the 1570s and 80s, when the theatre industry was just beginning to develop.  Heck, he was even a great musician! What more could you ask for?

In the 1970s, Steve Martin’s comedy worked on multiple levels, not unlike that of Tarlton.  He was a brilliant physical comedian (just watch All of Me and tell me otherwise!), but his stand up was also based on relatively sophisticated word play.  He wasn’t afraid to take a pratfall, but could also discourse about the comedy of existence itself.  Some of his best work was the sophisticated material like Picasso at the Lapin Agile (1991?), which is totally unexpected if you only see the silly, arrow through the head, light yuks from the 1970s.

Whereas Tarlton died, Martin certainly has not.  Martin has worked to influence an entire generation of comic, just like Tarlton.  Whereas Tarlton didn’t write anything down, however, I think that Martin’s legacy will really be felt not in his performances but in his written material.  So there are a few disanalogies here, but there are also enough analogies that I’m willing to stand by this for now.

Well, at least until I can think of something better.

#6 – Will Kemp/Will Ferrell


Unlike Tarlton, Kemp had someone to drum for him.

Will Kemp was Shakespeare’s first clown at the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and was an early modern celebrity in his own right.  When the Lord Chamberlain’s Men came together as an entity, he was one of the founding members – a full sharer, like Shakespeare himself.  This was something of a coup for the fledgling company insofar as Kemp was recognized throughout early modern London society as being the primary inheritor of the crown of Dick Tarlton.

Kemp was primarily a physical comedian who was so good at the jig that he had one named after him.  The jig was an integral part of the actor’s bag of tricks insofar as dancing (along with fencing and jokes) was part of the reason why people came to plays in the first place.  Even the grimmest of tragedies ended with all the characters dancing the play to a close.

Kemp wasn’t afraid of publicity stunts to keep his name in the public eye.  After his very public exit from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the late 1590s, Kemp decided to dance a morris from London to Norwich.  He later wrote of his experiences on the journey in Nine Days Wonder, though he died within a few years of the split with his former company.

A little dangerous, a lot of slapstick

Though the career trajectories do not match (for instance, there has been the suggestion that Kemp left the Lord Chamberlain’s Men due to alcoholism and I don’t know of anyone who has impugned Will Ferrell’s reputation in that way), nevertheless, there is one thing that you can carry from Ferrell to Kemp – comic tone.

First and foremost among the connections between the two is the fact that they are both brilliant physical comedians.  That cannot be overstated because being a good physical comedian is difficult enough, but being one whose characters embody a kind of barely concealed anger while still being pleasant is much more difficult.   Ferrell specializes in playing characters who are not just comic exaggerations, but who are slightly dangerous. Even his most “innocent” of roles, where he is a fish out of water, have an element of danger.

Kemp’s roles with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were largely skeletal structures onto which Kemp could improvise.  He could be the buffoon, and was at his best when he was looking the fool somehow, but he was a brash fool.  He probably started the role of Bottom, for instance, which, though it can be tragic-comic (see Kevin Kline’s interpretation), also allows for a somewhat more violent buffoonery than is commonly seen on the modern Shakespearean stage.

#5 – Robert Armin/Tina Fey

When I originally conceived of this list, I paired a bunch of white male actors from four hundred years ago with a bunch of white male actors today, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more it has made sense to find analogues who are not white male actors.  Anyhow, stick with me and you’ll see, I hope.

Writer, Comedian, and Snappy Dresser!

Robert Armin was a leading comedian in the early modern theatre before he was brought in by Shakespeare’s company after Will Kemp left in the late 1590s.  He wasn’t a part of the company by the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, but clearly had been integrated shortly afterwards as some people suggest that The Porter in Macbeth, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, and other loquacious clowns of the latter period are all reflections of this one man’s style.

Armin was a comedian who, though not afraid to look silly, was more adept skewering the pretensions of the nobles through his tremendous wit than simply taking another pratfall.  Indeed, Armin’s work tended towards the literate, the world-weary, and the anxiety ridden.  He was a playwright himself, writing a number of understudied and never-performed works of comedy.

Armin was also a good singer – a characteristic of the early modern comedian that Tarlton embodied for the previous generation.  It’s very likely that Armin worked with Tarlton, or at least worked in his immediate shadow.  Armin’s songs have been handed down to us in the verse of Autolycus and Feste, among other characters.

Writer, Comedian, and Snappy Dresser!

Tina Fey’s career in many ways does not mirror Robert Armin’s but the one thing that she does have in common is the sense of humour.  That is, she is never afraid to play the fool, yet her fooling is itself a critique of a system that disenfranchises her.  In her most personal roles, she takes on in her roles the position of the outsider, the underdog, the woman who is not quite comfortable in her own skin.  At her most scathing, she reflects to the entitled the absurdity of their own entitlement.

It is this duality of her comedic character that seems to reflect Armin so well to me.  Armin’s characters were outsiders who could criticize the establishment with an enthusiasm that, in some ways, ought to have had him killed.  Like Armin, Tina Fey is a writer whose comedic vision goes beyond the sketch to a larger social statement.

Also, I just love the idea of watching Tina Fey playing the Fool in King Lear… especially seeing as it was probably double cast with the role of Cordelia.

#4 – William Shakespeare/Ned Beatty


What, no ruff?

OK, with Shakespeare, it is problematic to find an analogy – celebrity culture gets in the way these days of people who try to act and write.  As such, I’m just going to talk about Shakespeare as an actor rather than Shakespeare as an actor and writer.  Even though pretty much everything we have about the period talks about Shakespeare as a playwright, you can still figure out a bit about Shakespeare as an actor.

Shakespeare was called a Johannes Factotum early in his career because he did a little bit of everything – wrote, acted, etc.  I also think that this referred to his acting style.  I have no evidence for this, but I suspect that he was able to do comedy and tragedy with equal ability.  Though I don’t doubt that he was a better playwright than he was an actor, I am sure he was a strong actor.  The Lord Chamberlain’s Men wouldn’t have brought him on board as a sharer when they formed unless he was pretty competent as an actor as well as a writer.

Indeed, one thing every company needs is someone to play the “character” parts.  Not the starring roles, but the roles without which there would be no play.  The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, for instance.  Shakespeare himself performed a number of roles that could be broadly described as “character” parts.

The problem with Ned Beatty as an analogy for Shakespeare is that he’s a bit dated for modern readers, but for those of you who know what I am talking about will probably see what I mean about “character” actors.  He is probably one of the most gifted actors of his generation and has mastered everything from comedy to high drama and everything in between.

Really, its his versatility and ubiquitousness that makes me choose Ned Beatty as the analogue for Shakespeare.  He somehow manages to pull off everything from the morally compromised Arthur Jensen in Network to the oaf Otis in Superman only two years later.  At the height of his career in Hollywood in the 1970s, he was in everything, across every medium, in every genre.  Each time he appeared, he would create a character that was key, memorable, and yet never take away the lustre from the so-called “stars” of the show.

(Note – William H. Macy would probably have done as an analogue as well.  Shakespeare is a tough one.)

#3 – Nathan Field/Leonardo DiCaprio


The Original Hipster: He had a Movember ‘stache well before it was cool.

Nathan Field actually led a fairly interesting life for an actor in the early 1600s.  He was practically kidnapped out of his home, away from a theatre hating family, and forced to act in with the Blackfriars Children – a troupe of boy players.  By the time he was around 13 years old, he was acting on stage and showed a surprising facility early on with even the most difficult roles.

He probably acted in the plays of the Poetomachia, as well as some of the great comic and tragic roles of the first decade of the 1600s.  His name has been associated with many of Jonson’s works, Fletcher’s works, even Beaumont’s classic play, Knight of the Burning Pestle.  It was in all likelihood Nathan Field that Shakespeare was thinking about when he wrote the following section from Hamlet:


What, are they children? who maintains ’em? how are they escoted? Will they pursue the quality no

longer than they can sing? will they not say afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common

players–as it is most like, if their means are no better–their writers do them wrong, to make them
exclaim against their own succession?

Thing is, Field became an adult actor.  Indeed, he became one of the most respected adult actors in the business.  By the time he was 29, he was working with the King’s Men and had inherited some of the most famous roles in the company.  Some critics have suggested that he kept taking on “boy” parts, which would have involved cross dressing, even with the King’s Men, though I don’t really credit this.  It has also been suggested that he took on some of the roles originated by Burbage, when Burbage left the stage, which is a theory I find much more satisfying.

In his personal life, he was something of a rake and was associated with some of the most powerful women of his day.  Which sort of reminds me of…

They even have the same moustache!  C’mon!

Granted, to my knowledge, Leonardo DiCaprio was never kidnapped from his home and forced into acting by an overbearing schoolmaster, but he certainly did show a remarkable facility for performance from an early age.  Anyone who has seen What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? will know what I mean.

Further, DiCaprio managed to transition from child actor status to adult lead status without much difficulty.  Granted, there was a period in the late 90s there when I thought that he was just unwatchable, but time has proven me wrong.  He’s actually not only grown as an actor as he has grown older, he’s proven himself to be more than just a pretty face.  Frankly, the fact that he’s subverting his own good looks in some of the films he is taking on these days (J. Edgar, for instance) is a sign of self-consciousness as an actor that really reminds me of Field’s later career.  Final point – he, like Field, has been associated with some of the most beautiful and powerful women in the world.

So, next time you read the plays, imagine a young Leonardo DiCaprio in Knight of the Burning Pestle…Then imagine him now as Petruchio in Fletcher’s Tamer Tamed.  Fun, isn’t it?

#2 – Edward Alleyn/Jack Nicholson/George Clooney


This man is Doctor Faustus.  Seriously.

I’m cheating with this one by offering two equivalents, but hopefully you will see what I mean.

Alleyn was, along with Burbage, in the top tier of actors on the early modern stage.  He was the biggest star of the early modern stage in the 1580s and 90s, first performing some of the biggest roles of the day.  Alleyn was Heironimo from The Spanish Tragedy, Tamburlaine from Marlowe’s plays, Doctor Faustus…  He was tremendously huge.

We actually know quite a bit more about him than we do other major actors of his day because he had the good sense to put all of his financial success to use.  At the end of his career, he founded a college that still stands to this day and – more importantly – still holds his papers.  Dulwich College and the Henslowe-Alleyn Digitization Project are godsends for early modern theatre scholars.

So what was he like?  In terms of his acting style, it was slightly affected rather than naturalistic.  Indeed, Alleyn and Burbage were compared in terms of the naturalism of Burbage’s style to the artificiality of Alleyn’s.  That said, his style was sufficiently engaging that myths grew up around his delivery of Doctor Faustus.  That is, it was said that when Alleyn was performing Faustus and was surrounded by devils on stage, he stopped dead, mid-line.  He realized that there was one more devil on stage than there were people in his company to play devils.  Ever afterwards, fearing that he called up Satan himself who came to watch the performance, Alleyn played the role with a gigantic crucifix on his chest to ward off evil spirits.

Now, there’s not a really good analogue in the modern world, so I’ve chosen two actors.

George Clooney makes a nice analogue if only for the fact that he is deeply involved in the good of the community and politics.  Alleyn was not just a philanthropist in terms of the founding of Dulwich College, but he was in close contact throughout his career with the elite of early modern society.  He wasn’t just an entertainer for the rich and famous, but he was able to meet with them on some level.  He was close to the engines of power in the Tudor and Stuart state.

Further, I tend to think nowadays of Clooney less of an actor and more as a producer/director/writer – which is crazy because he is definitely still acting.  Alleyn retired from the stage around 1600ish and when he did, he became something of a money man or producer behind the scenes of the theatre industry.

I don’t think I have to belabour the point that Jack Nicholson has a very particular way of delivering his lines.  It is a bit of an affectation that can be parodied (even by Nicholson himself – The Joker was something of a metacinematic statement about his own acting style), but it works tremendously well.

He’s largely retiring from acting these days, but during the 70s-90s, he was a titan of the screen whose performance style has influenced an entire generation of young actors.  I think that those who look back at, say, The Shining with nostalgic terror are in the same position as an audience of the early 1600s who thought of Alleyn in Doctor Faustus.

Nicholson created a number of roles that are still quoted, cited, and relived by audiences today, from McMurphy and JJ Gittes to The Joker and Col. Jessup.  In that sense, I see him as a strong analogue for Alleyn.

#1 – Richard Burbage/Robert Downey Jr.


This is the face of Hamlet.

Burbage came from a theatre family and worked in it all of his life.  His father set up the first permanent theatre in England (imaginatively called “The Theatre”) and Richard himself inherited the business on his father’s death.  As a young man, he was a bit of a roarer insofar as we have it on record that he got into a brawl or two.  Granted, he was protecting his family property at the time, but still…  By the time his father died in the late 1590s, Richard was already one of the most popular actors on the London stage.

Burbage was the first Hamlet, the first Othello, the first Lear.  He was the man for whom Shakespeare wrote most of his juiciest roles.  Indeed, as many scholars have pointed out, one of the reasons why we think of drama today as being the tale of one man’s journey is that Shakespeare wrote plays with a single young, male  lead actor in mind – Burbage.

When Alleyn left the stage, Burbage’s star really came out and he dominated the stage until he died in 1619.  His death prompted an unprecedented outpouring of grief.  It has been often noted that when Queen Anne died in March 1619, the nation wept and there were a few poems of commendation written, but when Burbage died two weeks later, the nation went apoplectic with grief.

As an actor, Burbage was a lead, a celebrity, who could play both comedy and tragedy with equal facility, though he seems to have preferred more “serious” roles.

Hamlet = Iron Man?

Robert Downey Jr also comes from a “business” family.  His father is a director and actor who is still working in Hollywood, so far as I know.  Further, Robert Downey Jr is a star of a level that is easily comparable to Burbage.  He can do comedy, he can do drama.  Granted, a lot of the time these days, he is doing action movies, but there is nothing wrong with spectacle.

If you don’t think that an actor whose recent work has focused on spectacle can act, please take a look at Chaplin.  He was phenomenal in that!  Indeed, part of the reason why he is so good in the spectacular comic book movies today is that he is bringing a seriousness and a gravitas to the role that only a good actor can.
I don’t have to go too far into his biography, given that he is one of the most famous stars in the world, but he had a troubled period in the 1990s, if you didn’t know.  Just as Robert Downey Jr. was a bit of a loose canon when he was young, Burbage had a tough youth, yet through it all he kept acting.  To my knowledge, he has only ever played a little Shakespeare, though I would love to see what he could do with roles like Lear, Heironimo or even Falstaff.
Granted, if he played Falstaff, they’d have to give him a CGI belly… that had a glowing circle in it.  And rocket boots.  Falstaff with rocket boots!  WHERE IS THAT MOVIE?!

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