( England: 1585-1603)
James P. Bednarz
One of the best-known celebrities of the Elizabethan period, William Kemp was both a solo performer, who projected the persona of a rustic clown/musician/ dancer, and one of the original members of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, who premiered in the clown's role in several of Shakespeare's early plays. Traces of original stage directions in the first printed editions of Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado about Nothing prove that he played the Capulets' festive servant Peter in the former and the ridiculous constable Dogberry in the latter (Chambers 326). Modern scholars speculate that he also appeared as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream and became the first Falstaff ( Wiles73-82).
But it is possible that the tension between his desire to improvise and the need for him to subordinate his peculiar talents to the script caused his break with the Lord Chamberlain's Men in 1599, after which he was replaced by Robert Armin, whose wit tended to be more self-consciously urbane and intellectual. Shakespeare wrote for a repertory company and had to have the specific skills of its clowns in mind when he composed his plays. Armin would consequently premiere as the professional jester Touchstone in As You Like It ( Felver 9-14).
Nothing of Kemp's early life is known. He first surfaces as a servant to Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, with whom he is connected in 1580. From 1585 to 1586, he was one of Leicester's Men during the earl's appointment as the governor of the Low Countries. Having been sent to London on a diplomatic mission, bearing letters concerning negotiations with the king of Denmark, Kemp