Actors' Names as Textual Evidence

By Kathman, David | Theatre Notebook, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Actors' Names as Textual Evidence


Kathman, David, Theatre Notebook


The presence of actors' names in early modern printed playtexts has resulted in a sometimes uneasy intersection between theatre history and bibliography. Theatre historians have used such stray names as evidence for the biographies and company affiliations of the actors involved, usually based on assumptions about the provenance of the texts. Bibliographers, in turn, have used such names as evidence for the type of copy underlying a printed text, usually drawing on what they know (or think they know) about the actors in question. Of course, neither theatre history nor bibliography is a static field, and new discoveries and interpretations can have an impact in surprising ways. As an illustration of how this works, consider three Shakespeare plays whose First Folio texts include actors' names which are not present in the corresponding quarto texts--Much Ado About Nothing, 3 Henry VI, and 2 Henry VI. In each case, previously unknown biographical information about the actors named in the Folio text can be used as evidence to either support or challenge the narratives created by bibliographers.

On page 107 of the Comedies section of the Folio, in what corresponds to act 2, scene 3 of Much Ado About Nothing, there is the stage direction, 'Enter Prince, Leonato, Claudio, and Iacke Wilson,' though in the subsequent scene the 'Iacke Wilson' character is 'Balth' in speech-prefixes, and is addressed by Don Pedro as 'Balthasar'. At the corresponding point in the 1600 quarto of Much Ado, the stage direction reads, 'Enter prince, Leonato, Claudio, Musicke,' and five lines later is 'Enter Balthaser with Musicke,' immediately before Don Pedro asks Balthasar to sing. (1) 'Jack Wilson' is generally assumed to be the name of the actor who played Balthasar, and who sang the song 'Sigh no more, ladies'. (2)

On page 150 of the Histories section of the Folio, corresponding to act 1, scene 2 of The Third Part of King Henry the Sixth, a stage direction says 'Enter Gabriel', and the character is also 'Gabriel' in a subsequent speech-prefix. At the corresponding point in the 1595 octavo True Tragedie of Richard Duke of York (A7th), the same character is identified as 'Messenger'. Eight pages later, at the beginning of what corresponds to act 3, scene 1 of the same play, a stage direction says, 'Enter Sinklo, and Humfrey, with Crosse-bowes in their hands,' and 'Sink'/'Sinklo' and 'Hum' appear as speech-prefixes throughout the subsequent scene. At the corresponding point in The True Tragedie (C5v), the stage direction says, 'Enter two keepers with bow and arrowes,' and only one 'Keeper' appears in the stage directions of the subsequent scene. (3) The three names in the Folio speech-prefixes of 3 Henry VI correspond to the names of three minor actors active in the late 1590s and early 17th century. 'Gabriel' has often been identified as Gabriel Spencer, who was famously killed by Ben Jonson in a 1598 duel; 'Sincklo' is generally assumed to refer to John Sincklo (or Sincler), whose name similarly appears in several other playtexts of the period and in the manuscript 'plot' of The Second Part of The Seven Deadly Sins; and 'Humfrey' here is often assumed to refer to Humphrey Jeffes, who appears as a player in various records from 1597 to 1615. (4)

Possibly related to the three names in 3 Henry VI is another stage direction on page 138 of the Histories section of the Folio, at what corresponds to act 4, scene 2 of The Second Part of King Henry the Sixth. This direction says 'Enter Beuis, and Iohn Holland', and in the speech-prefixes these characters are 'Beuis' and 'Hol'. At the corresponding point in the 1594 quarto First Part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of York and Lancaster, the stage direction reads 'Enter two of the Rebels with long staues', and in the speech-prefixes (and in their address to each other) the characters are 'George' and 'Nick'. (5) The 'John Holland' of the Folio stage direction has generally been taken to be the same John Holland who appeared alongside John Sincklo in The Seven Deadly Sins, and in the manuscript play John of Bordeaux.

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