William Kempe

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William Kempe (also spelled Kemp) (fl. 1600) was an English actor and dancer.

He probably began his career as a member of the Earl of Leicester's company, but his name first appears after the death of Leicester in a list of players authorized by an order of the privy council in 1593 to play 7 miles out of London. Ferdinand Stanley, Lord Strange, was the patron of the company of which Kempe was the leading member until 1598, and in 1594 was summoned with Richard Burbage and William Shakespeare to act before the queen at Greenwich.

He was the successor, both in parts and reputation, of Richard Tarlton. But it was as a dancer of jigs that he won his greatest popularity, one or two actors dancing and singing with him, and the words doubtless often being improvised. Examples of the music may be seen in the manuscript collection of John Dowland now in the Cambridge University library. At the same time Kempe was given parts like Dogberry, and Peter in Romeo and Juliet; indeed his name appears by accident in place of those of the characters in early copies. Kempe seems to have exhibited his dancing on the Continent, but in 1602 he was a member of the Earl of Worcester's players, and Philip Henslowe's diary shows several payments made to him in that year.

In the spring of (probably) 1599 Will Kemp undertook what he was later to call his "Nine Days Wonder" a somewhat bizarre excursion in which he morris danced from London to Norwich (a distance of over a hundred miles) in a journey which took him several months, often amid cheering crowds. In 1600 he published a description of the event in order to prove to doubters that it was true.

In the 1998 John Madden film Shakespeare in Love Kempe was played by veteran character actor Patrick Barlow.

In Harry Turtledove's alternate history novel Ruled Britannia Kempe is one of the main characters. As befitting a great comedian his antics provide much of the novel's humour, and includes references to his "Nine Days Wonder".

Much of this entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

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