Tarleton’s Resurrection. Part 2/4: Tarleton the player and playwright

In the first of four articles about Elizabethan actor, comedian and musician Richard Tarleton, we saw that he played the fool as a member of the royal acting troupe, The Queen’s Players, who performed at court and on tour, and that Tarleton’s stage costume was not the stereotypical jester with ass ears, bells and baubles, but a country clown with pipe and tabor, russet coat, slops and startups.

In this second article, we explore the 16th and 17th century accounts of Tarleton’s stage clowning, his extempore physical and verbal wit which delighted mass audiences. So well-loved was his foolery that in contemporaneous and posthumous accounts it overshadowed the pathos of his serious acting, also accounted for here. Similarly neglected in modern accounts is Tarleton the serious and successful playwright, writing in the tradition of the morality play, so this article includes an evidenced reconstruction of one of his lost scripts, The Secound parte of the Seven Deadlie Sinns.

A third article explores Richard Tarleton the musician, and the fourth article reunites, for the first time in 400 years, the words and music of a 16th century ballad written in posthumous tribute.

In these essays I use both spellings of Richard’s surname – Tarleton and Tarlton – according to the historical source.

A time of change

The 16th century was an exciting time of change for actors – then called players – and playwrights.  

The tradition that touring acting companies performed in inns was first challenged in 1567 with the purpose-built Red Lion playhouse in Whitechapel, a multi-sided single gallery theatre with a fixed stage, built with a turret for aerial stunts and trap doors for stage effects, and dramatic entrances and exits. Since it was built on farmland, too far from the metropolis to be an attractive prospect for audiences, it opened for only a few months.

A more successful venture was another theatre building established in 1576 by the actor James Burbage, a member of The Queen’s Men alongside Dick Tarleton. The building in Shoreditch was called, appropriately enough, The Theatre. Rather than being a performance space for touring companies, The Theatre was a permanent base for players, including the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one of whom was actor and playwright William Shakespeare. When James Burbage died, the lease for The Theatre was passed to his sons, Richard and Cuthbert. In 1596 a protracted dispute arose between the landlord, Giles Allen, and the Burbage brothers, resulting in radical action by Richard and Cuthbert: on the night of 28th December 1598 they organised the dismantling and removal of the entire building to the yard near Bridewell of the chief carpenter, Peter Street. In the Spring of 1599, The Theatre was moved again, this time across The Thames. When it reopened it was renamed The Globe, home of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

A detail from a panoramic engraving of London by Claes Visscher, under the title, Londinium Florentissima Britanniae Urbs. Though published c. 1616, it is copied from older printed images of the city – indeed, Visscher may never have been to London – so it represents the capital as it was c. 1600. The Globe is foreground right. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

Tarleton the comic actor

Tarleton was active in The Queen’s Men (also called The Queen’s Players, Queen Elizabeth’s Men, or The Queen’s Majesty’s Players) at court and on tour from 1583, when the company was formed, until his death in 1588. Every Boxing Day, or shortly after, between 1584 and 1588, he performed with the company for the Queen. The Queen’s Men appeared at The Theatre in London, and played on tour in Canterbury, Dover, Abingdon, Southampton, Bath, Cambridge, Ipswich, Norwich, Leicester, York, Exeter, Bristol, Coventry, Worcester, Gloucester and Stratford-upon-Avon. Since theatres had an audience capacity of around 2,500 people per performance, Tarleton’s recognisability, celebrity and mass appeal was considerable.

An actor needs to have a range of skills to be versatile enough to meet the demands of a variety of parts. Having been a water-bearer, Tarleton was very capable physically, and he became a Master of Fencing in 1587, meaning he had fought seven recognised fencing masters in contest and defeated them, so he was an excellent candidate for a fight scene or feats requiring bodily strength or skill.

Contemporaneous witnesses described Tarleton as a comedian of great physical and verbal wit. In his Pierce Penilesse’s Supplication to the Devil, 1592, Thomas Nashe wrote of a theatre audience: “the people began exceedingly to laugh, when Tarlton first peept out his head”. In Henry Peacham’s epistle to his collection of epigrams, The more the merrier, 1608, he anticipated a negative response to his work by comparison with the positive response to the clown, that “like Tarleton, I see once again I must thrust my head out of doores to be laughed at, and venture a hissing amongst you”. In his later collection of epigrams, Thalia’s banquet, 1620, Peacham made the same point again about Tarlton in these lines (the tire-house was where the attire was kept, the costume store-house and changing room):

Tarlton when his head was onely seene,
The Tire-house dore and Tapistrie betweene,    
Set all the multitude in such a laughter
They could not hold for scarse an houre after.

The impression is of a man who could generate hilarity with his face alone, without uttering a word, like recent or modern-day physical comedians such as Jacques Tati, Lucille Ball, Patricia Routledge, or Rowan Atkinson.

A popular posthumous account of Dick’s wit was published in three parts, the first part in 1600: Tarltons Iests. Drawne into these three parts. 1 His Court-wittie Iests 2 His sound Citie Iests. 3 His Country prettie Iests. Full of Delight, Wit, and Honest Myrth. The earliest copy to survive is the 1613 edition, which includes all three parts and carries the story, An Excellent Jest of Tarlton, Suddenly Spoken. It recounts a performance of the anonymous play, The Famous Victories of Henry V, in which Tarlton played Dericke the clown and William Knell played King Henry. In the scene, the actor playing the Judge was supposed to receive a physical blow from the King, but the Judge was nowhere to be seen. Tarlton stepped in to save the scene, then stepped in again off-script to make a joke of his substitution.

“At the Bull at Bishopsgate was a play of Henry the Fifth, wherein the Judge was to take a box on the ear, and because he was absent that should take the blow, Tarlton himself (ever forward to please) took upon him to play the same Judge, besides his own part of the clown, and Knell, then playing Henry the Fifth, hit Tarlton a sound box indeed, which made the people laugh the more, because it was he. But anon the Judge goes in, and immediately Tarlton (in his clownʼs clothes) comes out and asks the actors. “What news?” “Oh,” saith one, “hadst thou been here thou shouldst have seen Prince Henry hit the Judge a terrible box on the ear.” “What, man,” said Tarlton, “strike a Judge?” “It is true in faith,” said the other. “No other like,” said Tarlton “and it could not but be terrible to the Judge, when the report so terrifies me that methinks the blow remains still on my cheek, that it burns again.” The people laughed at this mightily, and to this day I have heard it commended for rare, but no marvel, for he had many of these.”

Most of the tales in Tarltons Iests are about witty repartee, clever word-play. The majority of stories are not those of his stage performances, but incidents which allegedly happened in the street, at court, in taverns, etc. Common to all the stories is his ability to make mirth in the moment. Just as there was a strong element of matching wits when, for example, audience members called out their themes – short rhymes – for Tarlton to respond in kind and in song (explored in the third article about Tarleton the musician), so in the off-stage jests of the book there is a constant motif of competition, of besting the other.

Some of Tarltons Iests push this besting to the limit, portraying him as a comic thug, a bully who delights in defeating a person he has needlessly turned into an opponent. He humiliates a woman for her pimpled complexion so “the rest of the ladies laught, and she, blushing for shame, left the banquet.” He verbally abuses a diner at a meal, making him the butt of a joke for all others, so that the “gentlemans salamanders face burnt like Etna for anger.” He insults an audience member at a play merely for pointing him out to his wife, who was seeing Tarlton for the first time: “the poore fellow, plucking his hat over his eyes, went his wayes.” He proposed to a “a pretty nut-browne lass” only so that he could humiliate her: when it came to the vows in the wedding ceremony he ran out of the church and “told his fellowes of his success with his wench.”

Such stories contradict the picture of Tarlton in the biographical tribute song willie and peggie, in the Stationers’ Register only 23 days after his death, which states he “had eyes for to see least any he might offend”, that “To rich and to poore my willy [Tarlton] was found so meeke, so courteous, and kynde” (sung in the fourth article), a portrayal repeated by Thomas Fuller in his History of the worthies of England, 1662: “his Jests never were profane, scurrilous, nor satyrical; neither trespassing on Piety, Modesty, or Charity.” So what are we to make of these accounts of Tarlton’s cruelty, and how are we to reconcile them with the contradictory character depiction? We may surmise that Tarlton was so well-loved that his bouts of victimising were forgiven, perhaps even celebrated, but such an explanation is incongruous and does nothing to resolve the inconsistency. Since jest books traded on the name of the jester, and were a mixture of the real, the recycled (from other jest books under different names) and the apocryphal, the most obvious explanation is that those malicious stories were fantasies trading on Tarlton’s name. But this begs the question: if there was such a contradiction between his real inoffensive character and the manufactured offensiveness, how did those tales become attached to him?

Clowns and other characters on the Elizabethan stage gained some of their laughs by acting in ways that, with real people, would be cruel, vindictive, and sometimes illegal. For example, in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, 1602, Malvolio is Olivia’s steward, i.e. he runs her household, and he would like to become her husband. Malvolio insults other characters – Sir Toby Belch, a relative who lives with Olivia; Maria, Olivia’s maid; and Feste, Olivia’s fool – and spoils their fun, so they plot their revenge. Maria writes a letter to Malvolio as Olivia, declaring her love. ‘Olivia’ asks Malvolio to wear cross-gartered yellow stockings, which the real Olivia loathes, to smile constantly and explain himself to no one. When the delighted but tricked Malvolio presents himself to Olivia doing exactly this, his behaviour appears to her so odd that she is convinced he has gone mad.

Malvolio (Stephen Fry) presents himself to Olivia (Mark Rylance) in cross-gartered
yellow stockings in The Globe’s 2012 production of Twelfth Night.

In come Sir Toby, Maria and Fabian (a member of Olivia’s household) to work the next part of their revenge. They declare that Malvolio is possessed by the devil, so they imprison him in a dark, windowless room. Feste arrives as the fictional “Sir Topas the curate, who comes to visit Malvolio the lunatic.” As Feste stands unseen outside, talking to Malvolio imprisoned within, Malvolio pleads his sanity and begs Feste for release. Feste deliberately misleads, misunderstands, and torments the distressed Malvolio, asking ridiculous questions and having a mock conversation between himself as the curate and himself as himself. Malvolio declares, “I say there was never man thus abused”.

Feste (Peter Hamilton Dyer) torments the imprisoned Malvolio (Stephen Fry)
in The Globe’s 2012 production of Twelfth Night.

We can laugh at the cartoonish comeuppance of Malvolio, the caricatured cruelty of Feste, and similar scenes enacted by Laurel and Hardy, Tom and Jerry, Frank Spencer, or Alan Partridge, precisely because the characters are unreal, the situations ridiculous, and no actual person was harmed. Knowing a stage character well and knowing little or nothing of the private person, it would be easy enough for the writer of a jest book, looking for material, to portray the off-stage Tarlton in the guise of his public persona. I suggest that this merging of the stage character and the real person explains and reconciles these brutal stories with Tarlton not “trespassing on Piety, Modesty, or Charity”: many of the jest book tales are fantasies clumsily imagining what his stage clowning may have looked like transferred to the everyday. They aren’t funny because they illustrate the difference between hitting someone over the head with an oversized mallet on stage, seeing the overstated comic reaction, and actually smashing a real hammer into someone’s head. To merge player with persona, to place staged stories in actuality, is to turn shared mirth into spiteful malevolence.

Robin Williams

The mistaken merging of persona and player remains with us. In 2007, psychologist Pamela Stephenson-Connolly interviewed the comedian Robin Williams for the Channel 4 series, Shrink Rap. She asked him, “What’s the most common misconception about you?” He replied, “That I’m manic, that I’m just like manic and crazed, to the point where a woman came up to me once in an airport and said, ‘Be zany!’ I first didn’t understand her, and then it was like, ‘Be zany!’ Oh … OK. I love performing, I love having a good time … but yes, that’s a misconception … People say, ’Are you on now?’ ’No, I’m here right now.’ ‘What’s wrong? Is something wrong?’ ‘No.’” A similar merging of actor and part happened in 2015, when the BBC Radio 4 drama, The Archers, ran a storyline of coercive control and domestic abuse by Rob Titchener, played by Timothy Watson, against his wife Helen, played by Louiza Patikas. When Timothy Watson appeared at The Radio Times Festival that year, the audience booed him as if character and actor were the same. An audience member appealed for calm, saying he had been mistaken for the actor online and was faced with a tirade of 60 abusive comments. Sir Roger Williams, author of A Briefe discourse of Warre, 1590, would have understood the point made by Robin Williams and that festival audience member when he noted the difference between Tarleton the actor and the private individual: “Diuers play Alexander on the stages, but fewe or none in the field. Our pleasant Tarleton would counterfeite [act] many artes, but hee was no bodie out of his mirths.”

Tarleton the serious actor

Tarlton also played serious parts, and evidently made a great impression upon the boy Henry Peacham in such a role, as he recalled in Of Parents and Children, an essay in his collection of 1638, The Truth of Our Times. “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, and I pray God blesse you with it: The eldest sonne replyed, Father, I trust in God you shall yet live to enjoy it yourselfe. 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 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 knee (as his brothers) said, O Father, I doe not desire it, I trust in God you shall live to enjoy it your selfe.” Peacham comments, “There are many such sons of honest and careful parents in England at this day.” He uses Tarlton’s remembered performance as a springboard to discuss children who, through rebelling against parents, fail to thrive, children who become good through loathing their parents’ vices, and the example of good living which parents must be to their children.

It is possible to date this performance and name the acting company. In the Folger Shakespeare Library is a copy of A manual for the collector and amateur of old English plays, 1892, by W. Carew Hazlitt, including the author’s own annotations in the margin. It includes the note: “A Lord and His Three Sons. A play, in which Tarlton took a part, seems to have been acted in London about 1585, which includes the incident of a much older date of a father dividing his estate among his three children on his deathbed.” Hazlitt apparently had access to a source that has eluded other commentators on Tarlton, apparently to be included in his revised manual, alas never published. If we accept this information then it is notable that, taking 1585 as the year, it must have been with The Queen’s Men, Henry Peacham must have been 6 or 7 years old when he saw the play, he recalled it 53 years later, and he was impressed not only by Tarlton’s performance in a serious scene, but by the attention to detail in his physical presentation, very different in this serious role to his well-known country clown clothes, described in the first article.

The prodigal son was a common theme in renaissance art and literature. Above we see
The Prodigal Son Among Courtesans by the Flemish painter, Frans Pourbus the Elder (1545–1581).
The New Testament story of the prodigal son in Luke 15: 11-31 says the youngest son “squandered
his property in reckless living” and “devoured [his] property with prostitutes”. Pourbus depicts him
dressed in black and white, a lecherous drunk making unwelcome sexual advances to a visibly scared
middle class woman who is distracted from her singing. Behind him a concerned-looking fool views
the woman’s obvious discomfort, and to our right a servant views the same. Though wearing the asses’
ears and coxcomb and holding a marotte, the artificial fool is wiser than the prodigal son, who is an
ungodly immoral fool, and the servant has more class than the privileged squanderer. In the biblical
story, the father celebrates the return of the repentant son with the words, “my son was dead, and
is alive again; he was lost, and is found”. By contrast, in the theatrical version in which Tarlton
played the wayward prodigal son, the father says “you have beene an ungracious villaine, I have
nothing to bequeath to you but the gallowes and a rope”. The son’s villainy is confirmed by his
reply: “O Father, I doe not desire it, I trust in God you shall live to enjoy it your selfe.”
(Click to see larger in a new window, click again in the new window to enlarge further.)
John Stradling’s collection of epigrams, Epigrammatum Libri Quatuor, 1607, makes plain that Tarlton was remembered for his serious roles as well as his comic parts. Translated from the Latin, Stradling wrote:

“Epitaph for Richard Tarlton, Prince of Clowns

You wish to learn, traveller, whose is this uninscribed tomb? Stop, stay your step a little while, you’ll learn his unknown name. In this grave lies Tarlton, the prince of clowns produced by England’s soil. With him dead, the spurned Muses of comedy and tragedy are silent in confusion. Mutely they long for their glory of the stage, and sardonic Laughter is gone. Here is buried the British Roscius, than whom none was better known. Depart, traveller. If his name still eludes you, any boy can tell you.”

In a few lines, Stradling’s epitaph for Tarlton gives noteworthy information. Stradling named Tarlton “the British Roscius”: Quintus Roscius Gallus (d. 62 BCE) was a Roman comic actor of such grand reputation that his name became an honorary epithet. Stradling stated “the spurned Muses of comedy and tragedy are silent in confusion”, i.e. he was a master of both. Tarlton’s name and reputation were so well-known that “any boy can tell you.” His tomb was “uninscribed”, probably due to a posthumous dispute over his will: Tarlton was tricked in his dying hours by his friend Robert Adams, who thereby defrauded Tarlton’s mother Katharin and his 6 year old son Phillip. His wife Kate is not mentioned in the will and had therefore probably died. An account from August 1588, now collected in the British state papers, records: “Richard Tarlton to [Sir Francis] Walsyngham. Being on his death-bed, he had been induced to put all his goods and lands into the hands of a sly fellow, one Mr. Adams, fuller of law than of virtue, in trust for his child and his mother. Implores him to see that they are not defrauded; his son being six years of age, a godson of Sir Philip Sydney, whose name he carries, and his mother a silly old widow of fourscore years. Signed in three places by Tarlton, the last time evidently in the agonies of death.”

Tarleton the playwright    

Like William Shakespeare and Robert Wilson, Richard Tarleton was a playwright as well as an actor. Only the title and plot of one of his plays is known to have survived. The ascription to Tarleton of The Seven Deadly Sins comes from a written dispute between scholar Gabriel Harvey and playwright and poet Thomas Nashe. In his Foure Letters, and certaine Sonnets, 1592, Harvey accuses Nashe of plagiarism, of copying Tarleton. Harvey addresses Nashe as “the high, and mighty Prince of Darkenesse” and says he has “right-formally coveied [incubated and hatched], according to the stile, and tenour of Tarletons president, his famous play of the seaven Deadly sinnes: which most-dea[d]ly, but most lively playe, I might have seene in London”.

Harvey tells us, then, that Richard Tarleton’s the seaven Deadly sinnes was a successful and popular play, but he was no fan of the man. He states that he “was verie gently invited thereunto at Oxford, by Tarleton himselfe, of whome I merrily demaunding, which of the seaven, was his owne deadlie sinne, he bluntly aunswered after this manner; By God, the sinne of other Gentlemen, Lechery.” If this is to be taken at face value, it corresponds to Robert Adams’ answer, denying the charge of defrauding Richard’s mother and son out of their inheritance, in which he said Tarleton died in Shoreditch at the house of “one Em. Ball, a woman of a very bad reputacion”. Harvey then recounts accusing Tarleton of hypocrisy, of being privately sinful while presenting a wholesome public image – Tarleton not only penned the seaven Deadly sinnes, he was a writer of religious moral verse and prose, as we will see in the third article. Harvey continues: “Oh but that, M. Tarleton, is not your part upon the stage, you are too-blame, that dissemble with the world and have one part for your frends pleasure, an other for your owne. I am somewhat of Doctor Pernes religion, quoth he: and abruptlie tooke his leave.”

Doctor Andrew Perne, painted in 1589.

Tarleton’s last words refer to the religiously adaptable Andrew Perne, his surname Tarleton’s byword for publicly espousing whichever view is expedient and profitable in the circumstance. In April 1547, under the new reign of the 9 year old Protestant boy-King Edward VI, Perne promoted Catholic doctrines, but quickly recanted so successfully that he was appointed Protestant royal chaplain and canon of Windsor. With the succession of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary in 1516, Perne became Catholic again, and was appointed Master of Peterhouse in 1553 and Dean of Ely in 1557. In 1557, under the Catholic Queen Mary, when the bodies of Protestant reformers Martin Bucer and Paul Fagius were exhumed and burnt for heresy, Perne was the Catholic preacher. In 1560, under Protestant Queen Elizabeth, a memorial was created for Bucer and Fagius’ restoration to favour, and on this occasion Perne preached again, now as a Protestant.   

In Strange Newes, Of the intercepting certaine Letters, 1592, Thomas Nashe responded to Gabriel Harvey’s attack: “Hang thee, hang thee, thou common coosener [imposter, swindler] of curteous readers, thou grosse shifter for shitten tapsterly iests [you coarse exchanger of the shit jokes of a barkeeper], have I imitated Tarltons play of the seaven deadly sinnes in my plot of Pierce Penilesse?”

Nashe’s angry words are confirmation of Tarlton’s authorship of the play. Nashe explains that we all use common cultural references, and that such use is not plagiarism: “Is it lawfull but for one preacher to preach of the ten commandements? hath none writ of the fiue senses but Aristotle? was sinne so vtterly abolished with Tarltons play of the seuen deadly sins, that ther could be nothing said supra of that argument? Canst thou exemplifie vnto mee (thou impotent moate-catching carper) one minnum of the particular deuice of his play that I purloind? … Is there any further distribution of sins, not shadowed vnder these 7. large spreading branches of iniquity, on which a man may worke, and not tread on Tarletons heeles. If not, what blemish is it to Pierce Pennilesse to begin where the Stage doth ende, to build vertue a Church on that foundation that the Deuill built his Chappell.”

In his fuming defence, Nashe gives us some indication of the play’s contents: “the Deuils dauncing schoole in the bottome of a mans purse that is emptie, hath beene a gray-beard Prouerbe two hundred yeares before Tarlton was borne: Ergo no gramercy [Therefore no gratitude to] Dicke Tarlton … Wherein haue I borrowed from Greene or Tarlton, that I should thanke them for alI I haue? Is my stile like Greenes, or my ieasts like Tarltons? Do I talke of any counterfeit birds, or hearbs, or stones, or rake vp any new-found poetry from vnder the wals of Troy?”

Tarlton’s play was written and staged in two autonomous parts, and the script of neither part survives, so we have no further details, alas, of Tarlton’s use of the proverb, ‘the Devil’s dancing school is in the bottom of a man’s purse that is empty’, nor the use of counterfeit birds, herbs or stones, the new-found poetry of Troy, or the jests of the play.

“The platt of The Secound parte of the Seven
Deadlie Sinns”, this production dated 1597–98. 
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.
Once open, click on the picture to enlarge again.)

We do, however, have a pasteboard headed The platt of The Secound parte of the Seven Deadlie Sinns. It lists 20 actors – most of those needed for the play and the most complete list of players surviving from the period – and a plot outline. It is written in large letters, and in the centre of the top half is a square hole for it to be hung on a wooden peg, making it most likely a summary of the play for a prompter. It survives because it was used for the cover of an anonymous manuscript in Dulwich College, a play called The Tell-tale, probably written in the 1630s.

The platt of The Secound parte of the Seven Deadlie Sinns has three acts on the themes of envy, sloth, and lechery, which means The First part of the Seven Deadly Sins covered pride, gluttony, wrath, and covetousness. The opening of the second part confirms this: “Pride Gluttony Wrath and Couetousnes at one dore. at an other dore Enuie Sloth and Lechery. The Three put back the foure. and so Exeunt”. What is striking about the plot is that it was a continuation in style of the medieval morality play, still popular in the Tudor period, in which characters represent vices the audience should avoid or virtues they should follow, to guide their souls away from the Devil’s perdition and toward God’s redemption.   

While we do not have Tarleton’s script, the pasteboard summary gives us enough information to construct the storyline. Just as in other plays of the period, including Shakespeare’s, the plot of the Seven Deadlie Sinns was familiar, and the originality was in the language and presentation, which alas we lack.

Tarleton’s staging of envy was based on The Tragedie of Gorboduc, also called Ferrex and Porrex, an English play by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, first performed in 1561, in which Gorboduc, King of Britain, divides his realm between his sons, Ferrex and Porrex. Dissension arising from envy leads the younger to kill the older son; their mother then kills the younger; the people of Britain are moved to rise up and kill both mother and father; members of the nobility then kill the rebels; and then, with no royal succession, there is civil war in which generations are slaughtered.

Sloth is illustrated by the mythical and gluttonous Assyrian King Sardanapalus, who had female and male concubines and considered physical gratification and self-indulgence his only purpose in life. This resulted in general unrest in the Assyrian empire and a successful plot to overthrow him, led by General Arbactus or Arbaces. When he knew defeat was inevitable, King Sardanapalus had a huge funeral pyre built for himself, in which were consumed his gold, silver and royal clothes, his eunuchs and concubines, and then himself. It is a story told by ancient Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus (Diodorus of Sicily), 1st century BCE, and in numerous renaissance sources, such as George Whetstone’s work of 1586, The English myrror, and Thomas Beard’s first book, The Theatre of Gods Iudgements, 1597 (both post-dating the Seven Deadlie Sinns).  

Lechery is exemplified by the Greek myth of Thracian King Tereus, told in Metamorphoses, written in 8 CE by the Roman poet, Ovid, also the chief source for William Shakespeare’s play of 1588–1593, Titus Andronicus. Tereus is married to Procne, but lusts after Philomela, his wife’s sister. He travels to Athens to lie to his father-in-law, Pandion, that Procne has died, and to ask for Philomela’s hand in marriage. This is granted, and Philomela travels to Thrace with Tereus, accompanied by her guards. Tereus throws the guards into the sea then rapes Philomela and cuts out her tongue. On his return, he gives the abused and mute Philomela as a concubine to King Lynceus then tells Procne, his wife, that Philomela is dead. Philomela weaves a tapestry portraying Tereus’ crime and sends it to her sister, Procne. King Lynceus’ wife, Lathusa, is a friend of Procne and, upon realising the crime against Philomela, she reunites her with her sister, and the siblings plot their revenge. Procne kills Itys, her son by Tereus, and serves his body as a meal to his father. The sisters flee, pursued by Tereus when he understands what has happened. Rather than see more carnage, the Olympian Gods change Tereus into a hoopoe or a hawk, Procne into a swallow who sings in mourning for her child, and Philomela into a nightingale, female nightingales being naturally mute.

Portrait of Richard Burbage, owner of The Theatre,
lead actor in Shakespeare’s plays, and lead in the
1597–98 staging of Tarleton’s Seven Deadlie Sinns,
painted by an unknown contemporaneous artist.
(As with all pictures, click to see
larger in a new window.)

The Seven Deadlie Sinns was first staged c. 1585 by The Queen’s Men, the company in which Tarleton acted. The pasteboard giving The platt of The Secound parte of the Seven Deadlie Sinns names most of the players but not the acting company, nor does it give a performance date. Drawing on all the available evidence, particularly the named players, David Kathman (2004) concludes that this production was staged by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company in which Shakespeare acted and for whom he wrote, and that it was performed in 1597–98, 9 or 10 years after Tarleton’s death. The plot summary states that Richard Burbage played two leading roles, King Gorboduc and King Tereus, just as he played leading roles in Shakespeare’s plays, such as Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. Richard Burbage has further significance in this connection: his father was the actor James Burbage, a member of The Queen’s Men alongside Dick Tarleton, and the man who established The Theatre in Shoreditch.

John Stradling’s Epitaph for Richard Tarlton, Prince of Clowns expressed that “the spurned Muses of comedy and tragedy are silent in confusion” at Tarlton’s death. As we have seen, there is solid evidence of Richard Tarlton’s output as a serious author, writing in the well-established tradition of the Christian morality play. There is also evidence that, just as he was playing a part on stage, as a dramatist he was “somewhat of Doctor Pernes religion”, playing the publicly-approved and expedient role of a Christian moralist to earn money, while privately living according to his own rather different rules. As we will see in the third article, Tarlton not only wrote in the Christian moralistic style for the stage, but also for broadsides.

Tarleton the musician

John Scottowe’s beautiful image in his alphabet book (right) was accompanied by a posthumous poetic tribute, the last verse of which is:

Now hath he plaid his p[ar]te
and sure he is of this
If he in Christe did die to live
with him in lasting blis.

These lines carry the same sentiment as a musical tribute by the great English lutenist, John Dowland, tarletones riserrectione, which can be heard by clicking on the picture below. It is the musical aspect of Richard Tarleton to which we turn in the third article.

Click the picture to watch the video.
tarletones riserrectione Jo: Dowlande from the handwritten Wickhambrook lute book, c. 1595,
played by Ian Pittaway on an orpharion by Paul Baker, with Ian’s divisions second time through.

© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.


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J. S. (1651) An excellent comedy, called, The Prince of Priggs revels: or, The practises of that grand thief Captain James Hind, relating divers of his pranks and exploits, never heretofore published by any. Repleat with various conceits, and Tarltonian mirth, suitable to the subject. Available online by clicking here.

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