William Kempe (Kemp) is the next most famous Elizabethan clown after Richard Tarlton. Associated early in his career with players who would join the Chamberlain's Men in 1594, he was with the earl of Leicester's men in the mid-1580s when the company toured the Low Countries and beyond (McMillin and MacLean describe the company as "by far the most widely travelled, the most knowledgeable professionals on the road" [p. 21]). Kempe is widely presumed to be the "'Lord of Leicester's jesting player'" who delivered (or misdelivered) an important letter from "Sir Philip Sidney in the Low Countries to Walsingham" (McMillin and MacLean, p. 22).
Along with fellow players George Bryan and Thomas Pope, Kempe joined the company of Lord Strange's men when Leicester died and his company collapsed (1588-9). His popularity is confirmed by the 1594 title page of A Knack to Know a Knave, which advertises his merriments (A Knack to Know a Knave was introduced to the repertory of Strange's men on 10 June 1592, according to Philip Henslowe's diary). Strange's men became the earl of Derby's men in September 1593, when their patron inherited his father's title; but he too soon died, and the company collapsed. A number of its players including Kempe joined the newly forming company of the Chamberlain's men. There he took a leadership role, being one of the joint-payees for the company's performance at court in December 1594. He also acquired a share in the lease of the Globe c. 1598, but he sold it when he left the company sometime toward the end of 1599.
In 1600 Kempe (famously) danced the morris from London to Norwich over a stretch of nine days. He himself produced a pamphlet, Kemps Nine Daies Wonder (1600), which is (as it sounds) a daily account of the phenomenon. Following a continental celebrity tour in the wake of the morris dance, Kempe in 1601 joined Worcester's men, where several players from the Admiral's men including John Duke and Christopher Beeston had recently migrated. Kempe was also famous for his jigs, and several were registered at Stationers' Hall for publication but no copies (if printed) have survived. Kempe also had sufficient notoriety to be referenced in other theatrical works, for example in Jack Drum's Entertainments (1601) where he and his morris dance are recalled; and in 2 Return from Parnassus (1602), he and Richard Burbage are characters.
By 1602 (if not earlier) he had moved from Samson's Rents in Southwark (Nungezer, p. 220) to Paris Garden near the Swan playhouse (Eccles, p. 294). Although Kempe belonged to the company that became Queen Anne's men in the spring of 1603, it is not clear how active a player he still was then. A burial entry on 2 November 1603 in St. Saviour, Southwark, of "Kempe, a man" probably refers to him.
lead merrimaker among the men of Goteham, A Knack to Know a Knave
actor list, Every Man in his Humour
Peter, Romeo and Juliet
Dogberry, Much Ado About Nothing
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