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Welcome to Episode #98 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

Biron in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost declares:

O my little heart:—

And I to be a corporal of his field,

And wear his colours like a tumbler's hoop!” 

And in Romeo and Juliet there are stage directions which call for Romeo to 

[He climbs the wall, and leaps down within it]

These references have gone largely overlooked by theater companies who perform these plays, being glossed over in dialogue, or constraints of the theater space itself determining what precisely it will look like for Romeo to leap down a wall. Our guest this week, Dawn Tucker, Executive Director of the Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival, has done research into the history of leaping, tumbling, and feats of activity on stage in Shakespeare’s lifetime and discovered that acrobats were a key part of Elizabethan theater. 

Tumblers, as they were called, travelled to England from places like Italy and the records of performance for playing companies like The Queen’s Men, show that acrobats were employed in the theaters, and that death defying leaps of acrobatics and performance were a regular part of performances in plays like Hamlet, As You Like It, and even Romeo and Juliet. 

I had the pleasure of hearing Dawn speak on this topic of acrobatics in Shakespeare’s England at the Blackfriars conference last year, and I am delighted to welcome her to the studio today to share with us what she found inside the Master of the Revels accounts and Chambers archive about Shakespeare’s performance history. 

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Having grown up in Flagstaff, Dawn’s lifelong dream has been to bring her passion for Shakespeare to her beautiful hometown. In 2015, Dawn Tucker founded the Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival and is current the Executive Director. Dawn has a Master’s Degree in Shakespeare in Performance from the American Shakespeare Center in partnership with Mary Baldwin University and a BFA in Theatre Performance from the University of Wisconsin. She worked for five years as an actor and the Director of Education for Southwest Shakespeare Company in Mesa, Arizona. 

In this episode, I’ll be asking Dawn Tucker about :

  • What kinds of Feats of Activity were performed on stage during a performance? Will you give us some examples from Shakespeare’s plays where you believe acrobatics and tumbling might have been used?
  • When I first heard Dawn present on this topic, I questioned the presence of tumblers in the theater because so many of her historical references referred to tumbling as something children did, almost like a playground activity, and in my mind that was in opposition to the idea of a professional theater actor, but then I realized that for Shakespeare, actors were often times children. Dawn, do you think the reality of players often being young boys in Shakespeare’s theater, supports the idea of playing companies including acrobatics?
  • The reference from Hampton Court also suggests that acrobats from Italy were travelling to London to perform for the holiday seasons. Was London a destination for Italian tumblers, and would they have been regarded as a separate form of entertainment from the official playing companies like The Kings Men, for example? Or did they work together?
  • … and more!
With that, they all did tumble on the ground,
With such a zealous laughter, so profound,
That in this spleen ridiculous appears,
To cheque their folly, passion's solemn tears.

Love's Labour's Lost (V.2)

17th century Anonymous Italian drawing of Two acrobats tumbling Graphite (?) and red chalk. From the British Museum. Source

Children Tumblers

When I first heard Dawn present on this topic, I questioned the presence of tumblers in the theater because so many of her historical references referred to tumbling as something children did, almost like a playground activity, and in my mind that was in opposition to the idea of a professional theater actor, but then I realized that for Shakespeare, actors were often times children.

According to Dawn's research, acrobatics was not, however, exclusively relogated to children despite playing companies often hiring boys. She makes a specific point to say that the entire realm of acrobatics on the Elizabethan stage cannot be simplifed to assuming all acrobatics was performed by children. 

She points to historical records which record tumbling, and whenever a woman or a child is the one performing the tumbling, there is a specific reference to indicate children or women. This distinction leads Dawn to believe that the records assume acrobats are adult males, unless otherwise noted.

Despite the general assumption that references in historical documents are adult males, by standard, there was a popular manual on tumbling specifically aimed at training children for tumbling.

Darren Freebury-Jones has a forthcoming article about children’s playing companies which points out that a stage direction that specifically says “two young children to tumble down the walls” and the word “tumble” indicates acrobatics. It is interesting to note that while acroabtics is obviously  a part of Elizabethan theater, the roles requiring tumblings and acrobatics are most often given to the non-primary acting roles. 

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Because their legs are both of a bigness, and ‘a
quoits well, and eats conger and fennel, and drinks off
ends for flap-dragons, and rides the wild mare with the boys,
jumps upon join'd-stools, and swears with a good grace, and
his boots very smooth, like unto the sign of the Leg, and
no bate with telling of discreet stories

Henry IV Part II (II.4)

“The Festival of Fools”; 1570-1585, Peter Bruegel the Elder, Lettered “P:Brueghel Inventor” at lower left; engraver's monogram next to this; “Aux Quatre Vents” at centre bottom edge; four Flemish quatrains in the lower margin. in the foreground several fools play a game of bowls; behind them two fools lead each other by the nose; others dance, perform acrobatics, and play instruments. c.1570 Engraving The British Museum. Source

Sisley Peadle and Her Official License to Tumble

In 1631 Sisley Peadle, her husband Thomas, along with their son Elias were granted an official license to perform. This license was standard practice for theater or performance specialists in England, according to a law at the time which said anyone who would not want to be considered a vagrant had tobe given specific permission in the form of a license to perform anything.

The license for Sisley Peadle and her family is unqieu because it includes a specific reference to their express permission to perform “dancing on ropes, tumbling, vaulting or any such feats that they are practiced in…”

As this reference comes some 20 years after Shakespeare's death (and as you know a substantial amount of change occured over that time period with regards to performance), I was intrigued by Sisley Peadle and whether her reality represented an isolated case, or represented an overall reality about the acrobatics of theater companies in general.

There is a whole chapter on Sisley and Thomas Peadle, their license, and other Feats of Activity you can read on page 31 of Magic on the Early English Stage by Philip Butterworth, which you can read parts of online here. 

Dawn was able to supply well over 88 additional records in Early English drama which indicate playing companies performed specifically acrobatics, and she feels confident there are more. Dawn did not provide us with her entire list of references (seeing as how she's contributing to a book on them that is forthcoming). But you can find a transcript of her presentation on acrobatics that she gave at The Blackfriars Conference in 2019 where she shares a few of them right here. (Thank you, Dawn, for this great resource!)

Another resource for showing tumblers and acrobats as a distinct part of society, as opposed to fellow company members with actors come from some of the records we have of street performers. I found this engraving, shown above, from 1570 by Peter Bruegel the Elder, for example. The image itself has a lot going on in it, but you can see jugglers in the top/middle left hand side (identifiable primarily by the large balls they are tossing into the air). The image is titled “Festival of Fools”, or a gathering of individuals who perform “feats of activity.”

Make sure you don't miss the cat sitting on the man's shoulder in the bottom right hand of the image, talking to what appears to be a midwife. This image is fun because you could revisit it a thousand times and continue to discover something you didn't see on the first look.

[Leaps in the grave.]

Hamlet (V.1)

Circus performance, showing an acrobat, wearing a plumed hat, swinging over the back of a horse, galloping from right to left; print by Thomas Bewick, wood-engraving, British c. 1773-1828. Source

Travelling Acrobats

In the late 1580s, one of the best known actors from the Commedia dell’arte in Italy was a man named Harlequin, who was a comic servant character, not unlike Falstaff, but he was known for being very good at both acting and specifically acrobatics. We know Shakespeare was influenced, perhaps substantially, by Commedia dell'arte, as many historic scholars have observed. While Dawn does not call attention to the influence of Commedia Dell'arte specifically, she does point out that their were Italian acrobats travelling to England as part of the mass Italian immigration going on during this time period, and they brought a strong influence over performance with them.

While the official first circus in England would not arrive until the late 1700s with Philip Astley, there were feats of activity and performances of human spectacle going on for entertainment and profit well before then.

The Peadle family was just one example of families travelling around to perform circus-like acts before an organized circus performance was industrialized. These travelling acrobats were alot closer to what we think of as gypsies than professional actors, however, as they generally had their own system of operation. Even when they did come to England on purpose from Italy, these acrobats were doing so in order to travel and sell their performance independent of the established playing companies in London.

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If I could win a lady at
leap-frog, or by vaulting into my saddle with my
armour on my back, under the correction of bragging
be it spoken. I should quickly leap into a wife.
Henry V

Henry V (V.2)

1792 century painting by Henry Fuseli titled “Falstaff in a laundry basket” Oil on Canvas Kunsthaus de Zúrich. Source

Jumping Will Kempe 

One of the places circus like performance shows itself in the plays of William Shakespeare is in the second act of Two Gentlement of Verona. We know that Shakespeare's primary clown-actor, Will Kempe, was not only a large and obsese man, but was also consistently tasked with feats of activity, like jumping or in this play, to juggle.

In his work, Body and Voice Performances in Elizabethan Theatre, Professor Miroslaw Kocur writes about Will Kemp and his acrobatic feats on stage by saying:

In his famous monologue with a dog he uses his shoes to reconstruct the emotionally agonizing parting with his family. His struggle is great. His family is large and his shoes are only two. Throughout this scene Launce endlessly modifies and improves the arrangement of the shoes and the dog.

How did Will Kemp actually play this scene? Did he keep bending his huge body to reach the shoes? Did he sit on the floor all the time? Or maybe he stood and juggled his shoes? And what about his dog? Of course, the actor’s obesity made the scene more entertaining. Shakespeare, if he really wrote this part for Kemp, proved to be an excellent stage director. There was no official post for a director in the Elizabethan theatre, so the author had to build all the stage directions right into the dialogues and monologues of the characters.[3] By forcing fat Kemp to juggle with his shoes, Shakespeare enabled the actor to fully exploit his natural and exceptional gifts. As a result, however, the remarkable, rich humor of this scene was best manifested and recognized only during a live performance.


Prof. Kocur goes on to identify Kemp as routinely called up to perform acrobatics, tumbling, and juggling in several of Shakespeare's plays which call for Falstaff, or a clown figure, to perform physical comedy on stage. We expect comedy from plays that call for a “clown” but in Henry IV Part 2, we have perhaps Falstaff's most hilarious moment where physical comedy, and not his lines, bring a laugh from the audience so significant that 18th century bookseller Thomas Davis described the moment this way:

“No joke ever raised such loud and repeated mirth, in the galleries, as Sir John’s labour in getting the body of Hotspur on his back.” (Source)

Books & Resources Dawn Tucker recommends:


You might enjoy exploring Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival. Visit their website here.

Resources related to Acrobatics and Tumbling in 16th Century England

as well as Elizabethan Theater I feel you might find useful:

Journal Articles I recommend:

Wright, Louis B. “Juggling Tricks and Conjury on the English Stage before 1642.” Modern Philology, vol. 24, no. 3, 1927, pp. 269–284. JSTOR, Accessed 15 Feb. 2020.

Graham, Kenneth, and Alysia Kolentsis, editors. Shakespeare On Stage and Off. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2019. JSTOR, Accessed 15 Feb. 2020.

Forrest, Jennifer. “Théodore De Banville and Funambulesque Aesthetics.” Dalhousie French Studies, vol. 72, 2005, pp. 17–31. JSTOR, Accessed 15 Feb. 2020.

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