Article Title

“Where’s Tarleton?”: The Contentious Chaucerian Afterlife of Elizabeth’s Most Famous Clown


J. P. Conlan


By all accounts, Richard Tarleton was an extraordinary presence on the English stage. A writer and performer of ballad medleys,1 Tarleton was celebrated for his extemporal clowning in an era when audiences expected and playwrights explicitly invited clowns to improvise comical riffs.2 Also a private jester to Queen Elizabeth, he was famously “that knave” whom Elizabeth required be escorted “away for having me laugh so excessively when he fought against my little dog Perrico de Faldas with his broadsword and cane.”3 Tarleton performed as a playing clown with the Queen’s Men beginning in March 1582/83, and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men until his death on September 3, 1588.4 As it happens, however, Tarleton left his most enduring legacy on English literature by dying, for his death left abandoned the role of Martin Marprelate, a character that he had created to mock down the Disciplinary cause. So important was Richard Tarleton’s death that his vacant role prompted a revival of dramatic monologue written in the Chaucerian style. Some of these monologues entered into a politically charged conversation that, ridiculing Tarleton and his allies in the Episcopal hierarchy, centered seriously around the legal question as to what extent a claim of Chaucerian-style impersonation could serve as a defense against felony libel. Others employed the Chaucerian style to advance the more wittily phrased, polemically charged spiritual question “Where’s Tarleton?”—a conceit that asked of the answerer whether Tarleton’s satirically blasphemous challenge of the ecclesiastical government on the stage won the clown a place in heaven or hell.

1. John H. Long, “The Ballad Medley and the Fool,” Studies in Philology 67 (1970): 505–16 (510).

2. The extraordinary extemporal style of Richard Tarleton was well-known in his time. It was attested to by Francis Meres, John Stowe, and Gabriel Harvey. Thornton S. Graves, “Some Aspects of Extemporal Acting” Studies in Philology 19 (1922): 429–56 (430). Brian Walsh claims that Gabriel Harvey coined the word “Tarletonizing” to describe it. Brian Walsh, “Theatrical Temporality and Historical Consciousness in The Famous Victories of Henry V,” Theatre Journal 59 (2007): 57–73 (64n27). Recognizing that the influence of the comedia dell’arte, whereby actors had the basic outlines of a plot and then improvised the dialogue, has frequently been credited a reason for the play extempore in Elizabethan drama, Graves points out that stage directions in plays from an early prodigal son, Lupton’s All for Money, Heywood’s If You Know Not Me, Edward IV, The Trial of Chivalry, Marston’s Insatiate Countess, and others indicate that the playwrights expected and indeed licensed clowns to play extempore within their specific roles. Graves, “Some Aspects,” 431–33.

3. Esther Clifford, “Marriage of True Minds,” Sixteenth Century Journal 15 (1984): 36–46 (38).

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