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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?

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • 12th century illustration of Fighting Knight-Puppets
  • Puppets on display similar to a format of what Punch and Joan would have appeared like in Shakespeare’s lifetime
  • 19th century illustration of Marionette Puppets
  • Cover image for Every Man Out of His Humor, a play by Ben Jonson, 17th Century
  • “Polish Marionettes” (Les Marionettes polonaises), 18th century, Jean-Pierre Norblin de La Gourdaine
  • Image of the 20th Century Punch and Judy Performance, England
  • An image Commemorating the First Recorded Performance of Punch and Judy, 1662
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Books & Resources Maureen Benfer Recommends

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