Robert Armin

From Academic Kids

Robert Armin (c.1580-1612) was an English actor, a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

He became the leading comedy actor with the troupe associated with William Shakespeare, in succession to Will Kempe. The History of the Two Maids of More-clacke (1609) was at least partly written by him, as were Foole upon Foole (1605) A Nest of Ninnies (1608) and The Italian Taylor and his Boy (1609).



Template:Wikify This is a research paper, submitted at Louisiana Tech University in 2005 by C. Linza for Theatre History II. It's scope is Robert Armin's family, his fool characters, his acting and writing careers, the possible influences on his work by his contemporaries, his work with the Goldsmiths, and his death. All of this information comes from other sources, which may be found as works cited at the end of the paper. Students may use this to generate ideas or to find sources for original papers, but please avoid plaguerizing those sources which I offer here.


To Play the Fool Wisely…

“…the clown is wise because he plays the fool for money, while others have to pay for the same privilege.” – Leslie Hotson

Robert Armin, the second fool of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, changed the part of the clown or fool from the rustic serving man turned comedian to that of a high-comedy domestic wit. Armin was a clown for two theatres, a writer of ballads, plays, and studies on foolery, and one of the most important comic actors in the history of western theatre. Armin drew upon the history of the clown, the home-grown stock of natural idiots in England, and on his education to create and help create motley fools “ which surpass anything in that kind before or since” (Hotson 2). Robert Armin was one of three children born to John Armyn II of King’s Lynn, a successful tailor and friend to John Lonyson, a goldsmith of the same place (Sutcliffe I, 504). His brother, John Armyn III, was a merchant tailor in London. Robert Armin did not take up his father’s craft; instead, his father apprenticed him to John Lonyson under the London Company of Goldsmiths in 1581 (Wiles, 136). Lonyson was the Master of Works at the Royal Mint at the Tower of London, which according to Sutcliffe, was a position of great responsibility. The step from tailor to goldsmith was a large step-up, socially; the apprenticeship of a tailor’s boy either argues that Armin was an extraordinary child, or that his father’s friendship with Lonyson allowed him to secure a better future for Robert (Sutcliffe I, 504). According to David Wiles’s research, Robert Armin finished his apprenticeship in 1592.

The history of the clown is somewhat lengthier than that of Robert Armin—by several hundred years. Armin’s performances and his changes to the clown came from his understanding of this history and his study of natural fools, demonstrated when he authored Foole Upon Foole, published in 1600. The first appearance of a clown or comedian comes well before the Commedia dell’Arte, in the classical plays. Servants were frequently given comic roles in classical and Neoclassical plays (Wiles, 4). The character Folly began as the Vice; the Vice character was the personification of a sin, and ironically was the most popular character amongst audiences. Vice characters aside from Folly included Avarice, Gluttony, Sloth, Pride, and Mischief, among others. Meanwhile, in Commedia dell’Arte troupes popular for the hundred years beginning around 1550, multiple characters developed which would one day contribute to the Elizabethan clown; Harlequin, the Pantalone, the Capitano, and the Zanni (Wilson, 159).

An early yet extraordinary influence on the Elizabethan clownship was a man named Richard Tarleton (Wiles, 11). His epitaph—reprinted in Wiles’ Shakespeare’s Clown—says, “he of clowns to learn still sought/ But now they learn of him they taught.” Tarlton was the first to study natural fools and simpletons to add knowledge to his characters. His manner of performance combined the styles of the medieval Vice, the professional minstrel, and the amateur Lord of Misrule. During the play, he took it upon himself to police hecklers by delivering a “devastating rhyme” when necessary (Wiles 14). He spent the time after the play in a battle of the wits with the audience. He worked with the Curtain Theatre with the Queen’s Men beginning with their establishment in 1583 (Wiles 14). The 1600 printing of Tarlton’s Jests tells of how Tarlton recommended Robert Armin take his place upon his retirement (Wiles 11).

William Kemp was the first clown in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and thus the direct predecessor of Robert Armin; his time with the company ended in 1599 (Wiles, 35). His most famous role was Sir John Falstaff; Wiles writes that “the part was written for Kemp” (116). Kemp’s specialty in performance was movement; the medieval Vice was commonly expected to know how to dance, and it was dancing comic jigs at which Kemp excelled. Before the theatre, Kemp was a Morris dancer—or, a dancer of jigs for common entertainment— who boasted a nine-day dance from London to Norwich (Wiles, 24). In the 1590s, during Kemp’s work at the Globe and before Armin’s, the character of the clown received “a self-contained sub-plot and a smaller proportion of available stage time than the Vice used to receive” (Wiles, 43). However, as Wiles tells us, at the end of the play, the clown took over the stage and spent time with the audience improvising, dancing, and extemporaneous rhyming; the Morris dances and the Lord of Misrule tradition were forced from the streets to the theatres.

Armin began his career in entertainment with ballad-writing during his apprenticeship. He wrote The Italian Tailor and his Boy, published over a decade later, which reflected his family background of tailors. Wiles tells us that “The projection of his own personality is always central to Armin’s writing and performance” (137). He was a tailor’s son, who paralleled in the Italian tailor’s apprentice, and the ruby ring of the play’s lore parallels the goldsmith apprentice. Upon completion of his apprenticeship, he became a player for the Chandos company, which travelled England until 1597 (Wiles 137). In writing and performing Armin followed the example of Tarleton, but took it one step further; he wrote a book on the subject of natural fools. In 1600, after touring with the Chandos Company, under the pseudonym ‘Clonnico de Curtanio Snuffe’ or, Snuff, clown of the Curtain he published Foole upon Foole, his report on natural fools he observed during his travels. Later in the same year and under the same pseudonym, he published Quips upon Questions (Wiles 137). In Quips upon Questions, he demonstrates his style; instead of having a conversation with the audience, as Tarleton did, and entering into a battle of the wits, he jests using multiple personas, improvised song, or by commenting on a person or event (Wiles 139). Rather than exchange words, he gave words freely. Armin played on the Globe stage by August of 1600; Wiles theorizes that he may have joined the Chamberlain’s Men in 1599, but continued to perform solo pieces at the Curtain. During the plagues of 1608 and 1609, government authority shut down the theatres to limit the spread of the disease; in these years—perhaps to support himself—Armin published Nest of Ninnies, the previously mentioned Italian Tailor and his Boy, and Two Maids of More-clacke, this time all were under his own name (Wiles 140). Nest of Ninnies continued Fool upon Fool with the character of a “philosopher-fool;” Two Maids of More-clacke gave Armin, as an actor, a chance to play the two fool characters John in the Hospital and Tutch the clown (Wiles 140). The Two Maids was performed in Whitefriars a year or two earlier; printed in the preface of the published edition is an explanation for Armin’s absence in future performances: “I would have again enacted John myself, but tempora mutantur in illis, and I cannot do as I would” (Wiles 142). The closing of the theatres destroyed the King’s Revels Company, the original performers. Sutcliffe attempts to credit Armin with a pamphlet published in 1599, A Pil to Purge Melancholie, on the grounds that it was published by the same press, mentions a clown with Armin’s nickname, and makes many jibes which tie in with Two Maids of More-clacke, but no critical response to this attribution has yet resulted (Suttcliffe II, 171-175).

Robert Armin played many roles in many theatres, but the truly unique roles are the motleys, or the licensed fools; these include Touchstone, Feste, Lavatch, Thersites, Passarello, and Lear’s Fool. For the sake of brevity, the three representative roles will be discussed; Touchstone, Feste, and Lear’s Fool. These three fools are the court jesters; Hotson tells us that they “surpass anything in that kind before or since” (2). Touchstone is, oddly enough, the fool of these three about which there is the most critical debate. Harold Bloom describes him as “rancidly vicious,” and writes that “this more intense rancidity works as a touchstone should, to prove the true gold of Rosalind’s spirit” (218). John Palmer disagrees and writes that “he must be either a true cynic or one that affects his cynicism to mask a fundamentally genial spirit” (36). Obviously, as Palemer continues, a true cynic doesn’t belong in Arden, so the clown “must be a thoroughly good fellow at heart” (36). Touchstone affects the front of a malcontented cynic, thus serving as proof of Rosalind’s quick wit. When she confronts both Jaques and Touchstone, she exposes their silliness and prevents the fools from making Arden out to be worse than it really is (Bloom, 212). Touchstone’s character is different from usual clowns in that he is not merely around for entertainment purposes. Jaques is the clown in that sense. Touchstone’s foolery puts things into perspective; he sheds “the light of reality and common sense upon [the play’s] fanciful figures and diversions” (Palmer, 36). Feste is “the genius of Twelfth Night…the most charming of all Shakespeare’s fools, and the only sane character in a wild play” (Bloom, 244). In Feste’s character, we have the true philosopher-fool. “His wit is courtly,” Hotson tells us, “his admirable fooling scholarly, his singing exquisite” (90). The character is certainly written for Armin, as he is a gentleman, a scholar, a singer, and a wit. The true clowns here are the cast, and Feste is merely the wit; he was the court jester of Olivia’s father, inherited by Olivia, and welcomed by everyone but Malvolio. His purpose in the play was not merely entertainment any more than Touchstone’s purpose in As You Like It. Feste’s purpose is to reveal the foolishness of those around him, and to caution us “to seek no moral coherence in Twelfth Night” (Bloom, 245).

Lear’s fool differs from both Touchstone and Feste as well as from other clowns of his era. Touchstone and Feste are philosopher-fools; Lear’s fool is the natural fool of whom Armin studied and wrote. Armin here had the opportunity to display his studies. Lear’s fool urges “sharp truths in a vain effort to make his beloved master ‘see better’” (Hotson, 96). Hotson also tells us that the Lear fool’s lines have a “gnomic wisdom… like that of a Greek chorus” (96). The fool speaks the prophecy lines, which he tells—largely ignored—to Lear before disappearing from the play altogether; he is mentioned again in the king’s last speech, “And my poor fool is hang’d!” This is where “the identities of Cordelia and the Fool blend in Albion’s confusion” (Bloom 498). Lear’s fool is hardly around for entertainment purposes; rather, he is present to forward the plot, remain loyal to the king, and perhaps to stall his madness.

“If any player breathed,” Hotson tells us, “who could explore with Shakespeare the shadows and fitful flashes of the borderland of insanity, that player was Armin” (100-101). Robert Armin explored every aspect of the clown, from the natural idiot to the philosopher-fool; from serving man to retained jester. In study, writing, and performance, Armin moved the fool from rustic zany to trained motley. His characters—those he wrote and those he acted—absurdly point out the absurdity of what is otherwise called normal. Instead of appealing to the identity of the English commoner by imitating them, he created a new fool, a high-comic jester for whom wisdom is wit and wit is wisdom; for “to play the fool wisely… craves a kind of wit” (TN).


Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

Hotson, Leslie. Shakespeare’s Motley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.

Palmer, John. Comic Characters of Shakespeare. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1953.

Suttcliffe, Chris. "Robert Armin: Apprentice Goldsmith." Notes & Queries December 1994: 503-504.

Suttcliffe, Chris. "The Canon of Robert Armin's Work: An Addition." Notes & Queries June 1996: 171-175.

Wiles, David. Shakespeare's Clown. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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