William Shakespeare is known the world over for his work in theater, crafting masterpieces that live on today on stages from sea to sea and culture to culture. Even his plays are written with the actor in mind, with some of the lines of his plays specifically forming iconic acting advice for theaters today.
A showing of a heavenly effect in an earthly actor. – Lafeu in Alls Well That Ends Well II.3
Rosalind shows us the metadrama of stage performance when she says:
I'll prove a busy actor in their play. – Rosalind, As You Like It III.4
and Coriolanus reminds us the Elizabethan's keen eye for talent:
Like a dull actor now, I have forgot my part… – Coriolanus, V.3
and almost 100 other references to actors, acting, and playing parts to be found from the histories to the tragedies, and even the sonnets of William Shakespeare.
With such a strong presence in theater, and a keen sense of acting in particular, including plays that seem to really capitalize on particular roles for actors, it lead me to wonder:
Did Shakespeare act?
Despite the popularity of theater performances, and the attraction of attending a play, actors actually suffered from a bad reputation. They were seen as unruly and a threat to society.
The acting profession was only open to men and boys, women were not allowed to appear on stage. That meant all the roles in any Shakespeare production would have been played by men or boys.
Many actors first got into their careers by playing the girls parts. As young boys, their skin was smoother, voices higher, and in costume they passed successfully as the women they were set to portray. As they would get older, seasoned actors now experts on stage would move into the roles of men. Young boys getting their start early, and then growing into professionals before they were old might be one reason Shakespeare was able to stage such strong female roles in his plays.
But even with all of this experience and background in the knowledge of acting, Did William Shakespeare ever act himself?
In turns out, yes he did.
pg 72 of Ben Jonson's 1616 First Folio as a principal actor for Every Man In HIs Humour as displayed at Shakespeare Documented.
We know that in 1598 Shakespeare performed in Ben Jonson’s Every Man In His Humor from this copy of the play that clearly lists his name as a principal actor. Felix Schelling notes in his article on Gutenberg Press that even though we can see Shakespeare's name on that document as an actor for the play there are a few exceptions as to what that means Shakespeare's performance might of been that day:
The evidence of this is contained in the list of actors prefixed to the comedy in the folio of Jonson's works, 1616. But it is a mistake to infer, because Shakespeare's name stands first in the list of actors and the elder Kno'well first in the ‘dramatis personae', that Shakespeare took that particular part. The order of a list of Elizabethan players was generally that of their importance or priority as shareholders in the company and seldom if ever corresponded to the list of characters.
It would be five years later that Sejanus was staged with Shakespeare in the company. We know Shakespeare appeared in Ben Jonson’s play Sejanus, but that appearance is considered one of, if not the, last acting appearance of William Shakespeare on stage.
Before that, legend has it that he appeared as the ghost in his own production of Hamlet, and most historians think it was William Shakespeare who read the part of Chorus and/or prologue in several performances of his own plays, with some of the differences or variations in those lines which we find among various copies of the play sometimes being attributed to Shakespeare himself having altered the lines because of the potential political ramifications of saying them as originally written before a royal audience.
So while the answer is yes, Shakespeare did act, like much of Shakespeare’s life we have not yet discovered much in the way of examples of where he began acting, with whom, and there are only a few documented records of the performances he gave.
What we can glean comes from biographical information written about him largely after his death. For example, in 1640 a man named John Aubrey wrote one of the first biographies about William Shakespeare and in it he identified Shakespeare as “that famous Writer and Actor, Mr. William Shakespeare.” His account also quoted a man named William Beeston remembering Shakespeare as a man who “did act exceedingly well.” **
These accounts, while tantalizing, are complicated by a few historical timeline issues. For example, William Beeson was not born until 1606, so he personally did not see Shakespeare on the stage, because at least from our records we have currently, Shakespeare’s last performance on the stage was done in 1603, three years before Beeson was born. Does that mean Beeson is just a liar? Well, no, not exactly because William’s father, Christopher Beeson is recorded as performing with William Shakespeare in the 1590s, so while Beeson’s opinion of Shakespeare as a good actor was not perhaps from personal observation, we can conclude he knew of his abilities as an actor through his father and that those opinions were strong enough to extend generations.
That’s quite a solid reputation in my estimation.
**Note from Cassidy: I found a 1898 copy of Aubrey's Brief Lives, and I was unable to find in that copy an exact quote where Beeston says “did act exceedingly well” but Aubrey does note that Beeston was recounting his opinion of Shakespeare from someone else, having not known him personally, and he says that Beeston's father was a master of the playhouse. You can read the 1898 edition online here. Shakespeare is mentioned on page 50, 126, and 233, or you can use the provided search bar at that site to search “Shakespeare” The article from which I quoted William Beeston's opinion of Shakespeare's acting in 1640 can be found here. I was unable to find a 1640 version of Aubrey's biography online. If you know of a copy, please post it in the comments.
William Shakespeare named in a biography of William Davenant. p. 233 of John Aubrey's 1898 Brief Lives Archives.Org
Adding to Shakespeare’s reputation of an actor is the culture and environment of the theater itself. The Elizabethan audience was extremely critical of actors, and during performances would call out insults, advice, criticism, and even hissing or tossing food at the stage when a performer was not doing a good job.
This meant that if you weren’t good as an actor, you didn’t last on stage and would be quickly replaced. The workload, as well, was particularly horrendous. While there was a script written, it had to get approved by the Master of the Revels to be performed at court which would include the Master of the Revels striking out content deemed too obscene to present before the monarch, so on any given performance your fellow actors, your lines, and even your plot lines could all be adjusted, changed, or taken out entirely, at the last minute before you were expected to present the material before a highly critical audience that was, in many cases, able to imprison you if you offended them, not to mention your payment for these performances paid for your basic needs. You could not afford to fail by any measure.
So the fact that we can place Shakespeare on stage over the course of many years, combined with the fact that people decades after he left the theater as an actor remember him as having done a good job speaks to his talent and suggests he was not only good, but rather exceptional.
Despite the humble nature a lack of personal acting record or laud for Shakespeare in that regard leads us to believe about William Shakespeare’s character, it would be his words in his play, Hamlet, which form the fundamental rules of acting for many theater professionals centuries later.
“…let your own discretion be your
tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with
this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of
nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing…”
Hamlet III .2
As John Paul Rollert puts it in his article for The Atlantic,
“it seems appropriate that a man who left almost no trace of himself should have furnished the selves of so many others in so many imagined worlds. Perhaps the actor in him understood that his art was contingent on his own disappearance. For Shakespeare, the man, made no effort to proclaim to the world that he was there. Only that his characters were.”
In addition to being a world class playwright, it appears William Shakespeare's talent for the theater as an actor were equally as exceptional, which may explain why he was uniquely able to craft some of the best playing parts in history.
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