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Welcome to Episode 154 of That Shakespeare Life, the show that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

According to an article on the Victoria and Albert Museum website, puppetry as an art form in Britain can be traced back over 600 years, with the first recorded puppet theater performance in London happening around 1600, when William Shakespeare was 36 years old. Medieval clergy used puppets to tell Bible stories, with one performance in 1599 at Coventry featuring a puppet version of the devil. When theaters like Shakespeare’s Globe were closed due to plague, puppet theaters were allowed to remain open, often travelling the country with puppet performances in tow to entertain all around Britain. While the rod and string puppets we know today as marionettes would flourish in England by the 18th century, for Shakespeare’s lifetime glove puppets were the star of the show, and shadow puppets can be found in woodcuts and engravings of the period. Shakespeare himself uses the word “puppet” in his plays at least 11 times. Here today to help us explore the world of puppets in 16th century England is our guest, Maureen Benfer

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Maureen Benfer is an artist and craftsman with the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a group that specializes in recreating elements of pre 16th century history without the social restrictions that were true for the time period. Maureen specializes in the study of Tudor material culture and specifically puppets, children’s toys, and early modern fashion dolls. Maureen uses experimental archaeology and sewing techniques to reproduce highly detailed replica fashion dolls featuring period clothing, authentic materials, and Tudor accessories. Maureen is the owner and lead historian at Tudorosities, a blog and Youtube channel that explores her research into the history of Tudor England.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Maureen Benfer about :

  • Medieval clergymen would use puppets to tell Bible stories. Maureen, by the 16th century were puppet shows a regular part of the secular theater industry in England? 
  • We know that Shakespeare’s human theater had playing companies like the Lord Chamberlain’s Men or the Queen’s Men. Did puppet theater also have playing companies, and if so, what were the ones most popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime?
  • When we say “puppets” I think about the marionettes with strings and rods that control from above the wooden human like figure performing on a small stage. Maureen, what were puppets like mechanically for Shakespeare’s lifetime–did they all have this string and rod approach or were there other kinds of puppets, too?

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    I could interpret between you and your love, if I could see

    the puppets dallying


    Hamlet (III.2)

    witch feeding familiars 1604

    Fighting Knight-Puppets | Author Herrad of Landsberg | from Hortus Deliciarum | c. 1167 – c. 1185 | Hohenburg Abbey, France | Image used under CCBYA1.0

    Puppets Got Their Start in the Church

    For England, puppet theater (as with human stage theater) began as part of the Church, where puppets were used to tell Bible stories. As the theater developed, puppet theater started being most popular for what is known as “raucous” or “bawdy” humor. These loud, often inappropriate/crude humor based shows were seen as unfit for the Church environment, so the theater was moved outdoors. 

    The outdoor theaters featured gloved puppets behind a stage and while what we know today as “Punch and Judy” shows would not develop until after Shakespeare’s lifetime, the format of a “Punch and Joan” show, based on Italy’s Commedia dell’Arte puppet shows, was licensed in London well before, and during, Shakespeare’s lifetime. Maureen explains, 

    We have an early example from a Flemish manuscript, (The Romance of Alexander ) Li Romans Du Bon Roi Alixandre painted between 1338-1344. In the painted scene, we see a puppet theater stage with possible early Punch and Judy.  Punch with his club and Judy puppet interacting, while three women stand a small distance away watching the show. This depiction proves this particular type humor skit was in development much earlier in theater entertainment.

    Puppets on display similar to a format of what Punch and Joan would have appeared like in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Punch and Joan would have been glove puppets with wooden heads, manipulated by a puppeteer behind/beneath the stage | Public Domain | Image Source

    A letter from the Privy Council addressed to the Lord Mayor of London on the 14th, of July, 1575, removes all possible doubt as to [puppets] original nationality, for It expressly authorises Italian Marionettes to settle In the City and to carry on their strange motions as in the past and from time immemorial.” </blockquote>(Source: Unknown, Yorick. “History of Puppets.” Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University, Jan. 1914, )

    Puppet theater was popular enough in Shakespeare’s lifetime that William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker, and other contemporary playwrights are cited by researchers as writing plays intended for puppet performance. (Source: Unknown, Yorick. “History of Puppets.” Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University, Jan. 1914, Pg. 205 )

    Fie, fie! you counterfeit, you puppet, you!


    Midsummer Night’s Dream (III.2)

    william strachey mermaid tavern group

    19th century example of Marionette Puppets | Illustration from Chapter XXVI of Don Quixote | Artist: Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883) | Public Domain | Image Source 

    Glove Puppets and Wooden Marionettes

    Glove puppets would have been foundational to the puppet industry development in England. They are considered the most common type of puppet in the 16th century, but rapidly developing and increasing in use for Shakespeare’s lifetime was the wooden marionette from Italy. This design was more complex and able to feature more detail than the traditional glove puppet. There are records of puppet companies setting up shop in England and establishing a booming puppet business, despite frequent bouts of plague closing traditional theater. Maureen explains, 

    There were companies of [puppet] players [in Shakespeare’s lifetime]. [One example is] Captain Pod, native to England, exhibited in 1599, [and is] mentioned in Every Man Out His Humor by Ben Jonson.

    When we say “puppets” I think about the marionettes with strings and rods that control from above the wooden human like figure performing on a small stage. Maureen, explains that there were rod and string puppets for Shakespeare’s lifetime, featuring wood bodies and clothing that mimicked the time period. 

    Mechanically, the earliest development was the glove puppet. Hollow head, human hand, operated from below. The puppet master’s body was hidden by the theater set itself. These gave way to the marionette, which developed in Italy in the 15-16th century, quickly became popular, and spread across Europe especially in France/Italy. [The marionettes had] wooden bodies, covered in detailed clothing, and were manipulated by strings or wires. [With this design, the puppet is] now operated from above. Puppet masters still hid behind the stage. Eventually this style came to England, and the detail was much finer than the glove puppets. Very lifelike. Quite a stir during the time, even resulting in public accusations of wizardry. 

    Related Episode

    Why, true; he means to make a puppet of thee.


    Taming of the Shrew (IV.3)

    Southampton portrait wriothesley

    Cover image for Every Man Out of His Humor, a play by Ben Jonson that was originally written for a small marionette theater in London, 17th century | Public Domain | Image Source

    Shakespeare & His Contemporaries Wrote Plays for Puppets

    The documentation of puppet theater leaves a great gap when it comes to documenting what happened in England for puppet theater in the 16th century, but we do have enough evidence of their presence that we know they were popular.

    In 1573, the first permanent theater for Italian marionettes was established in London. During this time frame, it made an impression on Shakespeare. 1609, a new puppet theater, French marionettes, appeared in London. Also was of note here that marionettes were of really fine quality. Ben Jonson refers to their movable eyes. Technically impressive. Captain Pod started his own company, written about in 1599. Brought over by immigrants and became a part of English culture.

    “Polish Marionettes” (Les Marionettes polonaises) | 1779/80 | Jean-Pierre Norblin de La Gourdaine | Public Domain | Image Source

    One journal, from 1914, writes about Shakespeare, Jonson, and Dekker, writing plays specifically to be performed by puppet theaters:

    The comedy ” Every man out of his humour ” was originally composed by Ben Jonson for a small Marionette theatre in the City and evidence is not wanting to show that the first representation of “Julius Caesar” by Shakespeare took place in a ” Puppet Show ” near to the Tower of London. Robert Greene wrote for them his two celebrated mysteries, 44 Man’s wit ” and ‘* The dialogue of Dives “.  Swift devoted one of his best works to them, The Tale of a Tub “, illustrated by Hogarth with a beautiful drawing ” Enthusiasm delineated “, wherein is seen a Jesuit preacher in a pulpit, working with both hands the wires of two “Puppets the one representing God the Father and the other the Devil. On a projecting part of the pulpit there appeared six other figures, Adam, Eve, St. Peter, St. Paul, Moses and Aaron. About the year 1562 the great revolution in European taste, which was called the renaissance, introduced into England new dramatic forms and led to the first attempts to establish stable and regular theatres. were the first to extend and enrich their collection of plays with new profane comedies. Dekker wrote for them his “sprightiiest li Drolleries”

    Source: Unknown, Yorick. “History of Puppets.” Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University, Jan. 1914, 


    Shakespeare uses the word “puppet” several times in his plays, indicating he knew the format well enough to utilize them metaphorically and literally in his productions. 

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    20th Century Punch and Judy Performance, England | Taken by Jonathan Lucas | Islington, 2011| Image used under CCBYA3.0

    Puppets Are Artisanal Creations

    Whether you were using a glove puppet or a marionette, creating one was a highly skilled artisan craft. Due to the nature of puppet theater, most puppet masters would create their own glove puppets from fabric scraps and materials they had on hand. When it came to more complicated marionettes with fine detail and attributes hand carved into wood, puppet companies would often hire a company member who specialized in this craft to create the puppets for performance. Maureen explains that some puppets would have been available to purchase commercially, but even in that instance, each puppet would have been made to order by a specialist artist.

    Commemorating a Puppet Performance | 1662 | First Recorded Performance of Punch and Judy | St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden | Image used under CCBYA1.0

    Books & Resources Maureen Benfer Recommends

    Get a visual guide to16th Century puppets!

    I’ll send you a full history guide that will go even further into today's topic with archival images and more history on the puppets we learn about on the show.

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