Richard Tarlton  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Richard Tarlton (1530 – September 3, 1588), an English actor, was the most famous clown of his era.

He was born in Condover, Shropshire. Firm information on his early life is scarce; traditions maintain that he started out as either a London apprentice, or a swineherd in Shropshire; and it is not impossible that he was both. At one time he may have been an inn-keeper, but in 1583, when he is mentioned as one of the original member of the Queen's Men, he was already an experienced actor.

He was an early yet extraordinary influence on Elizabethan clowns. His epitaph 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. He would spend time after the play in a battle of wits with the audience. He worked with Queen Elizabeth's Men at the Curtain Theatre at the beginning of their career in 1583. The 1600 publication Tarlton’s Jests tells how Tarlton, upon his retirement, recommended Robert Armin take his place.

He was Elizabeth's favorite clown, and his talent for impromptu doggerel on subjects suggested by his audience has given his name to that form of verse. To cash in on his popularity, a great number of songs and witticisms of the day were attributed to him, and after his death the text Tarlton's Jests, containing many jokes in fact older than him, made several volumes. Other books, and several ballads, coupled his name with their titles. Some have suggested that the evocation of Yorick in Hamlet's soliloquy was composed in memory of Tarlton.

In addition to his other talents, Tarlton was a fencing master. He wrote at least one play, The Seven Deadly Sins (1585); though it was enormously popular in its day, no copy has survived. Besides ballads and a play, Tarlton wrote several pamphlets starting in the 1570s, one of which was A True report of this earthquake in London (1580). These were apparently genuine, though after his death a variety of other works were attributed to him as well. Gabriel Harvey refers to him as early as 1579, indicating that Tarlton had already begun to acquire the reputation that rose into fame in later years. That fame transcended the social limits that judged players to be little more than rogues: Sir Philip Sidney was the godfather of one of Tarlton's sons.

Tarlton, according to one source, even played a role in the Martin Marprelate controversy; a contemporary pamphlet writer "claimed that the violence of abuse that was a feature of the controversy began with" Tarlton.

Tarlton lived in Shoreditch and is buried in Shoreditch church, where a modern monument commemorates him and other actors of the Elizabethan period who lived and died in what was London's earliest theatrical district.





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