Lucy Munro on The King's Men

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 147

Who were the actors who first performed Shakespeare’s plays? Shakespeare was a member and shareholder of a company called the King's Men. You might know the names of some of his fellow members, like Richard Burbage, Will Kempe, or Robert Armin. But who were their co-stars? How were they cast? And what was it like to watch their performances?
In this episode, we talk to Dr. Lucy Munro, author of the latest book in Bloomsbury’s Shakespeare in the Theatre series, The King’s Men. By exploring theatrical contracts, the handful of existing cast lists, and what there is of 16th- and early 17th-century theater criticism, the book gives us a peek into the inner workings of the company that brought Shakespeare’s plays to life for the first time. Munro is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. 
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Dr. Lucy Munro is a lecturer in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at King's College London. She is the author of Children of the Queen’s Revels: A Jacobean Theatre Repertory, published by Cambridge University Press in 2005, and Archaic Style in English Literature, 1590-1674, published by Cambridge in 2013. She is the editor John Fletcher's Taming of the Shrew sequel, The Tamer Tamed, for Methuen Drama in 2010. Her latest, Shakespeare in the Theatre: The King’s Men, was published by Bloomsbury in 2020.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published June 23, 2020. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “What Players Are They?”, was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: What do you need to bring the magic of Shakespeare to the stage? If you listen to the man himself, it’s simple. An unworthy scaffold. Maybe a cockpit, and a wooden O. Certainly a muse of fire helps. And maybe, most important, especially if you don’t have any princes to act… you need players.

[Music plays]

WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. The actors who first recited Shakespeare’s words on stage are, for the most part, fairly obscure. People have certainly heard of Richard Burbage. Others might know of Will Kempe and maybe Robert Armin. But the first man to play Caliban? The first boy to play Juliet? They’re a mystery… though maybe a little bit less so now. Doctor Lucy Munro, a Professor of Shakespeare and Early Modern Literature at Kings College London, has written a new volume that fills in some of the blanks.

The latest edition in Bloomsbury’s Shakespeare in the Theatre series is her book, The King’s Men. It leans on theatrical contracts, the handful of existing cast lists, and what-there-is of 16th and early 17th century theater criticism to give us a look close-up at the actors who first brought Shakespeare to life.

Dr. Munro talked with us recently from her home in London. We call this podcast, “What Players Are They?” Lucy Munro is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: I've always wondered, what style of acting did the King’s Men perform? Help us picture them on stage. Would they seem so vastly different from what we're used to today?

LUCY MUNRO: One of the funny things about acting is that almost every generation thinks that the generations before them were terrible and melodramatic and exaggerated. So, we probably would think that they were maybe a bit exaggerated, maybe a bit hammy, by our standards.

When people talk about the King’s Men, they talk about particular moments that struck them. They talk about the way that lines were delivered. They talk about movements. There's an anecdote in the elegy for Richard Burbage where the writer, who's probably John Fletcher—he wrote plays for the King’s Men—talks about the impact that he made when he leapt into the grave, which is probably the trap door in the playing house. So, there are things that would, I think, feel quite familiar to us. But, there was probably more emphasis on gesture than we tend to see today.

There were a series of very legible gestures. So, for instance, putting your hands together was quite widely understood as a gesture through which you made a plea to someone's emotions, or you begged them for mercy. There's a wonderful gesture which, in at least one handbook of gestures, signifies intense emotion, which is actually where you raise your leg and you kind of slap your thigh. Things that, to us, would look more posed.

BOGAEV: Ah, interesting. And what do we know about what roles Shakespeare played? For example, the ghost in Hamlet or whatever roles he might have played in Jonson's plays or other plays.

MUNRO: There's a series of odd little bits of evidence about Shakespeare as an actor. So, he's mentioned twice in the collected edition of Ben Jonson's plays. He's first in the list of the principal comedians in Every Man in His Humor, and second in the list of the principal tragedians in Sejanus. But we don't know what parts that means he actually played. A poet called John Davies of Hereford said that he played some kingly parts in sport, and he's writing around 1610. So, we might speculate on some of the royal roles.

It's also been speculated that maybe he played Julius Caesar, based on a reference in Ben Jonson's book, Discoveries. And then there's also Restoration tradition that links him with the ghost in Hamlet, with Old Adam in As You Like It, and also with Old Knowell in Every Man in His Humor. But, those Restoration traditions are really hard to assess. We don't know quite how much truth is in them.

BOGAEV: So, a mixed bag of speculation.

MUNRO: A mixed bag of speculation, with a few little hints of evidence at the heart of it.

BOGAEV: So, I hate to keep asking you to speculate, but was Shakespeare a good actor? Do we have any basis to believe that?

MUNRO: His reviews are mixed. So, there's a couple of his contemporaries that do say that he was a good actor. In contrast, one of the earliest theatre historians, James Wright, in the very late 17th century, says that he was never accounted as much of an actor. Maybe his acting wasn't for everyone's taste.

BOGAEV: Well, acting really is in the eye of the beholder. But you do cite one writer who describes the skills required of a good actor at the time, and his name is Thomas Gainsford. Maybe you could read this passage for us that's on page 22?

MUNRO: Of course, yeah. I'm going to read a slightly fuller version of this than the one that appears in the book. I had to cut a couple of nice bits out in the book version. So, Gainsford writes that, “Player hath many times many excellent qualities, as dancing, activity, music, song, elocution, ability of body, memory, vigilancy, skill of weapon, pregnancy of wit, and such like.” And then he also says that, “Player must take heed of rested and enforced action, for if there be not a facility in its deliverance, and as it were, a natural dexterity, it must need sound harsh the auditor, and procure his distaste and displeasure.”

BOGAEV: Well, I think that's a pretty good description of acting in any age. I mean, I love that, “pregnancy of wit.”

MUNRO: It does feel like it, doesn't it? It's a really striking mixture of bodily things and verbal things, and conceptual things. So, the actor has to be somebody who is physically at ease, and intensely skillful in activities such as dancing and music and song. But, he also has to have a good memory, and he has to have this awareness. One of the words I really like in this description is “vigilancy.” So, he has to be almost hyperaware of what's around him.

And there's another commentator later in the 17th century who's talking about Burbage, who actually talks about how good Burbage was at acting when he wasn't actually speaking. So, this quality of over listening is something that people seem to associate with good acting.

BOGAEV: And that's so modern. That's such a modern value.

MUNRO: Yeah, it feels very modern. But, the fact that it was thought to be remarkable in Burbage maybe suggests that not every actor was as good at doing this. And I do wonder whether one of the reasons why the King’s Men was so successful is that they may have had a group of actors who were, kind of, hyperaware of what each other were doing. A lot of Shakespeare's plays do seem to depend on ensemble performance and the ways in which different performers interact. You maybe get a glimpse of that in some of this writing about good acting.

BOGAEV: Okay, let's talk about Richard Burbage. What roles did he originate, and what's known also about the other actors who were the first to play some of Shakespeare's greatest roles?

MUNRO: So, the Burbage roles that we have good evidence for him playing are Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. And we know a few more roles that actors in his company who were his successors played. So, Joseph Taylor seems to have taken over at least some of Burbage's roles. He was known for playing Hamlet, but also for playing Iago, which doesn't seem to have been a Burbage role. John Lowin, who joined the King’s Men around 1603, is linked with Falstaff and with Henry VIII in Shakespeare and Fletcher's play, and also again with Iago.

Then we have speculation that goes beyond that. So, we have some ideas of roles that people like the comic actor Robert Armin played. We actually know a few of the roles that his predecessor, William Kempe, played. So, we know that Kempe played Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, and he played Peter in Romeo and Juliet. And then there are other things that we speculate on a bit more.

BOGAEV: Yeah, and now I'd like to ask you to speculate a little bit, because if we're talking about roles, we're really talking about casting and casting decisions. Do you know how casting worked in the King’s Men's productions? I mean, was it similar to casting practices today? Typecasting by looks and bearing, and skill levels, and then you take into account the star factor…?

MUNRO: It seems to vary quite a bit. So, there are some actors that seem to have a particular type. There's an actor in the King’s Men, Robert Benfield, who nearly always seems to play high-status kinds of roles. He very often plays kings.

There's a boy actor called John Thompson, who was with the King’s Men in 1620s and 30s, who really does seem to have a type. Most of the roles that he's linked to are of these very imposing, stately kinds of women.

But, for a lot of other actors, versatility seems to be something that's demanded. So the roles are, perhaps, linked by particular skills that they demand from the performer, rather than necessarily a type in the way that we might think of it.

BOGAEV: And, actors move between roles a lot, right?

MUNRO: They seem to, yes. This is one of the things that, I think, is surprising when you look at the evidence for who played which roles and the kind of snippets of evidence that survives, is that at one point there was an assumption that the actors had a line of roles which they would play until they either retired or died.

But, actually, what I've been looking at suggests that the actors do move around a bit more. There are references occasionally in prologues to roles being passed on because an actor's too old to play them convincingly. And there are bits of evidence that associate multiple actors with the role of Iago, and actors who actually overlapped at some point. So, it does look as if some actors at least moved between roles.

BOGAEV: But, despite this fluidity in casting, did Shakespeare write parts for, say, Burbage, the way that Marlowe wrote parts like Tamburlaine for Edward Alleyn?

MUNRO: Yeah, I think there's a really creative partnership between Burbage and Shakespeare. That Shakespeare is thinking about what Burbage can do, but also what he can make Burbage do in writing particular parts. So, if we think about Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear; these are parts, in some ways, that the actor has to sell to the audience. They're not immediately sympathetic in every respect. And we might think about other roles that have been linked with Burbage, like Leontes or Prospero. We don't have direct evidence that he played them, but it seems more than likely that he did.

And Shakespeare does seem to think about Burbage's age in some ways when he's creating these roles. So, if you think about a movement from Hamlet through to Leontes or Prospero at the end; early on acting companies didn't cast age realistically, but writers do seem to have thought about the age, or maybe the life experience, of their actors. A later writer for the King’s Men, Philip Massinger, seems to refer quite precisely at some points to the age of the actor, or the kind of life stage of the actor who's playing a particular role.

BOGAEV: So, when actors did age out of a part or if they left the King’s Men or died, and new actors came in to assume roles that that actor was already known for, how did that work? Did they copy the gestures and the style of the actor who came before them, or did they recreate the role? I mean, what was the expectation?

MUNRO: By the time we get to the Restoration, there's an idea that there's a way of doing the role, and you can pass on that way of doing the role. So, there's a writer called John Downes, who was very involved in the theatre in the late 17th century, early 18th century, who talks about Hamlet. He says that Thomas Betterton learned how to play the role from William Davenant, who'd seen Joseph Taylor play it, who had been instructed by Shakespeare. This is kind of fantasy. Taylor wasn't in the company when Shakespeare was. But it is this idea that there's a way of doing a role, and you can pass it on.

But we don't know whether that was the same for the period before the Civil War. And, somebody like Joseph Taylor, who comes into the King’s Men when Richard Burbage dies, and who takes over some of his roles, was really well-known as an actor in his own right and may not have wanted to do a “Burbage: Part 2” kind of performance in those roles.

BOGAEV: Now, I know there wasn't anything like theatre reviews back then, so we can't go back and trace those. But you do have this handful of things that tell us what audience members thought about what these performers and performances were like. You cite a book from 1699 called Historia Histrionica.

MUNRO: Yeah, it is a fabulous book. So, it's by a man called James Wright, and in some ways it's the first history of the English stage. He writes a dialogue about plays and actors between two characters that he calls Trueman and Lovewit. And, Trueman is a pre-Civil War playgoer, and Lovewit is a post-Civil War playgoer.

James Wright is right at the end of the 17th century—he didn't remember Burbage, he didn't remember John Lowin, or Shakespeare. But, he drew on the memories of his father, Abraham Wright, who would have had a chance to see John Lowin and Joseph Taylor act. Maybe not Burbage.

And one of the lovely things is that Abraham Wright wrote down his ideas about some plays in a commonplace book. So, he really liked Othello, for example, but he thought that Hamlet was, “But an indifferent play,” and nothing like Othello. This commonplace book was probably preserved by his son. So, you have this sense of a dialogue about plays that goes across the generations, and is also preserving these little bits of information about the actors.

BOGAEV: Oh, what a handy family. What a goldmine.

MUNRO: I know. If only there were more of them.

BOGAEV: I know. What is it like for you to discover and read this kind of history—personal history of theatre goers who were such fans? It must really bring it to life for you.

MUNRO: It's… it does, yes. I think that those are moments in Historia Histrionica, where Trueman, the older playgoer is talking about, you know, “In my time before the wars.” And he says, “Lowin used to act with mighty applause. Falstaff, Morose, Volpone, and Mammon in The Alchemist.” And he talks about Taylor acting Hamlet incomparably well. And you sort of want a few more adjectives. You know, you want him to tell you more about what those performances were actually like.

But, there is that sense of the impression that these actors made on the people who saw them, which really kind of leaps off the page. I get very jealous of colleagues who work on, you know, Restoration and 18th-century theatre, where you have far more of this kind of commentary. But you're starting to get bits of it, particularly in the 17th century.

BOGAEV: Yes, and you cite something like that… that reading it—I really get that kind of feeling from this passage from Philip Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, who some people think was the fair youth of Shakespeare sonnets. And, you cite this passage. It's what he's saying about Richard Burbage. It's when he went to see a performance of Pericles at King James’ court. He's just all got his knickers in a twist to see that someone other than Burbage is playing the lead role. I think I have the pa… do you have the passage there?

MUNRO: I have the passage, yeah. It's a wonderful comment. So, Herbert is at this big court occasion, and he writes to a friend that basically, he stole away. He says, “Even now,”—so, at the point where he's writing his letter, “Even now, all the company are at the play, which I being tenderhearted could not endure to see so soon after the loss of my old acquaintance, Burbage.” And that line about “being tenderhearted” suggests maybe that there's a friendship between the two men, but also maybe suggests the impact that Burbage's performances made on Herbert as well.

And Herbert, as well as possibly being the fair youth in the sonnets, goes on to be one of the two dedicatees of the First Folio. Hemmings and Condole, in one of their prefaces, talk about the, “Many favors we have received from your lordships.” The preface is addressed to Herbert and his brother. So, there is a sense of Herbert as somebody who was interested in plays.

BOGAEV: So, you took that as meaning he was upset because of his friendship with Burbage. It wasn't that feeling that you get when you go to see a real celebrity in a role, and it's the understudy.

MUNRO: I think it's tenderhearted that—

BOGAEV: In the sense that I would take it, the modern sense of being upset.

MUNRO: Yeah, yeah. That the way that he talks about his emotion suggests, to me, that there's some kind of personal link there and or a kind of feeling that he doesn't… maybe doesn't want to deal with at that point. I think the way that he talks about, “My old acquaintance.”

BOGAEV: I feel bad about saying knickers in a twist. I think he was really upset. I apologize to Philip Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. [LAUGHTER] You have also unearthed this documentation that gives us an idea of what the early comic players were like. What were Will Kempe and Robert Armin like as comedians?

MUNRO: I think they were quite different. William Kempe, the couple of Shakespeare roles that we associate him with are Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, and Peter in Romeo and Juliet. And Dogberry… I mean, the evidence of that is rather lovely; that an early edition of the play actually has speech prefaces that say “Kempe” at one point in the play, rather than “Dogberry.”

And Kempe in some ways seems to have been a quite physical performer. He was known as a dancer. There was a famous publicity stunt in which he danced from London to Norwich. But, he's also somebody who has to manage timing and manage tone, and manage quite complex dialogue in a role like Dogberry.

But, there is a kind of broadness to the roles that are associated with Kempe, whereas Armin seems to have a slightly more delicate kind of touch. The roles that are associated with him are Feste in Twelfth Night, and the Fool in King Lear.

BOGAEV: And I want to ask that question I asked earlier about Shakespeare and Burbage. Is there any evidence that Shakespeare wrote certain roles for either of these actors? For instance, did he write the Fool in Twelfth Night for Armin?

MUNRO: I think the fact that the clown roles in Shakespeare's plays seemed to shift around the time when Kempe leaves and Armin comes in suggests that Shakespeare is thinking about the actor when he's constructing those roles. And if you think about the Fool, Feste in Twelfth Night, he could have written that role in a much broader way. He could have made him more like Dogberry, and the play would still work. It doesn't depend on having this wry, singing, slightly atonal kind of figure.

BOGAEV: Okay, can you do the elevator pitch kind of thing for us? Is there a contemporary actor that you think of as a Will Kempe and or a Robert Armin?

MUNRO: Oh gosh.

BOGAEV: Like, Will Ferrell, for instance. You know, I'm thinking more—or…

MUNRO: Yeah. No, I can imagine... Okay, so, I can imagine someone like Hugh Laurie in his comic kind of mode. Or that, he could almost do both of those kinds of figures in a way. I can sort of—I'm thinking about Blackadder now and I can sort of imagine him doing either.

BOGAEV: Neither. Larry David would be neither one of them.

MUNRO: No, no. Probably, probably not. Actually, something maybe like Jerry Seinfeld, someone like that in the Armin kind of mode. I mean—

BOGAEV: —just so smart.

MUNRO: Well they're… or they're less—yeah, yeah. The sort of smartness, but less that kind of pathos that some of Armin's roles seem to have. I'm having difficulty thinking of an actor who has that sort of… that combination of the comedy and the pathos.

BOGAEV: Well, switching gears to the business of theater, could you remind us why they were called the King’s Men? I mean, they were backed by the King, obviously, but then Shakespeare and others were also shareholders. So, how was it set up?

MUNRO: When James I comes to the throne in 1603, one of the decisions he makes is to take some of the playing companies into royal patronage. There had been a Queen's Men under Elizabeth, but they had slightly faded from prominence. And companies sponsored by prominent noblemen—Sir Admiral's Men, the Lord Chamberlain's Men—had become more prominent in the 1590's.

So, what James does when he comes to the throne is to take the Lord Chamberlain's Men and to rename them the King’s Men, or the King's Servants. And “servant” is a really charged word. On a very literal level, the company are the king's servants, so they can wear his livery. They are regularly issued with cloth to make livery, and this gives them legal protection. If a playing company are touring without the legal protection of the patron, then they're liable to be arrested for being vagrants.

So, you have this system in which Shakespeare's company is patronized by the king. But, this also goes in combination with a set of other, kind of, structures. Shakespeare is a shareholder in the company, and the company is sort of weirdly at the same time dependent on royal favor, which gives him access to call patronage to some forms of direct financial support. But, at the same time, they're dependent on a paying audience. And at the same time they have these structures in which the proceeds from performances are divided up in certain ways between the shareholders.

But the term “servant” has a charge to it as well, I think, because almost everybody in early modern society would have been somebody's servant at some point. So, whether you're an apprentice, whether you're a household servant; almost everybody's in a position of subservience to somebody.

BOGAEV: But some of the actors were also members of a trade guild.

MUNRO: Yes. So, actors are in an odd position in terms of their relationship to authority. So, if you think about the King’s Men in particular, their patron is the king. But they're also part of the civic structures within London. And, there isn't an Actors Guild, or no actors as company. And, so, a number of actors maintained membership of the City of London's livery companies. John Hemings, for example, was a grocer and he apprenticed a number of young men to him through The Grocer’s Company. But, those boys were actually being taught to act rather than become grocers.

BOGAEV: Huh. So, everyone worked an angle, it sounds like.

MUNRO: Basically, working an angle. Although there's another actor, Andrew Cane, who acted with the other companies, but later on who was an active goldsmith as well as being an actor. And we know about a number of his apprentices. Some of them become actors and some become goldsmiths.

BOGAEV: Well, okay. And, they all perform at the pleasure of the king. But you write that the king also had a hand in editing in the plays?

MUNRO: This is a bit later on. So, this is in the 1630's when we get to Charles I. And the Master of the Revels, who's the court official who organizes court performances—who in the 1630s is Henry Herbert— records in his office book various interactions that he has with the king.

One of the best of them is a play by Philip Massinger in 1638 called The King and the Subject. Herbert records in his account book that the king pointed to a particular speech in which a Spanish king was talking about basically bringing money from his people through taxing them in underhand ways, which is something that Charles was so accused of doing in the 1630's. Herbert says that Charles said, “This is too insolent and to be changed.” And he, and Herbert, actually writes out the speech with the king's comment, and that's the only bit of that play that survives.

There's another play, a William Davenant play called The Wits, where Henry Herbert tries to censor the use of profane language. Then a friend of Davenant's goes over Herbert's head and takes it to the king. But, actually Herbert, in his own records at least, gets the last laugh, because he makes some notes on what happens when The Wits is acted on stage. He records that it was well-liked, but then says, “It had a various fate on the stage and at court. Though the king commanded the language, but disliked the plot and characters.”

BOGAEV: Could you just maybe turn to the page? I think it's 117, 118. Because he runs down quickly a bunch of his impressions, his little pocket reviews of what's going on with the king and these performances.

MUNRO: Yeah, so these were written down—well, they were transcribed from the original of his book by a theatre historian called Edmond Malone in the late 18th, early 19th century. And Malone notes down a whole set of these things involving the King’s Men, involving other companies. But these are just a few of the ones for the King’s Men.

He says that, “On Tuesday nights in James', the 26th of November, 1633, was acted before the king and queen, The Taming of the Shrew. Liked.” And then a couple days later, he writes, “Was acted before the king and queen, The Tamer Tamed, made by Fletcher. Very well-liked.” Then, a couple of weeks later on the 10th of December, 1633, “Was acted before the king and queen, The Loyal Subject made by Fletcher, and very well-liked by the king.” On the first of January, 1634, “Cymbeline was acted at court by the king's players. Well-liked by the king.”

BOGAEV: There isn't all that much variation. Liked, well-liked, very well-liked.

MUNRO: Liked. Yes, yeah. And, actually what he says about the The Wits is one of the more detailed of these things. One of the things I like most here is the fact that you've got The Taming of the Shrew and then it's kind of mock sequel, Tamer Tamed. One on the 26th of November, one on the 28th. And, The Taming of the Shrew is “liked,” and the Tamer Tamed is “very well-liked.” So, the Fletcher play is liked better than the Shakespeare play, at least according to Henry Herbert.

BOGAEV: Huh. Burn. Sick burn, Shakespeare. It makes me think that the “very well-liked” just means he didn't doze off.

MUNRO: Yeah, although Charles is a bit more engaged, I think, in plays than his father may have been.

BOGAEV: And getting back to this idea that the king could have been maybe editing the scripts. Would he have been doing that if the troupe wasn't the King’s Men? Was this just because it was his pet servants?

MUNRO: I think the question and the problem is around what's thought to be politically acceptable. So, the king would be as likely to be offended by a play that wasn't by the King’s Men, and to be interested in what was being performed.

One of the interesting things about the King’s Men is there are a series of plays in which they do offer political commentary, or they offer a particular take on recent politics. And it might seem, in some ways, surprising to us that the King’s Men would be doing this kind of political work. But, actually, there seems to be a kind of space in which they can get away with things.

One of the things that interests me about what Henry Herbert says that Charles the First said about The King and the Subject is that he said, “This is too insolent.” So, not just “this is insolent,” but “this is too insolent,” and this is crossing the line. And I wonder whether the King’s Men thought that they could get away with more, because they were the king's, kind of, loyal subjects.

There was a tradition in this period that if you're a true subject, you should be able to offer counsel to the monarch. And this, in some ways, feels like a kind of inflated thing for a playing company to be doing. But I do wonder whether there's a sense in which they think that they have some sort of right to be advising the monarch.

BOGAEV: I'm thinking you have gleaned so much from these contracts and casting lists, and commonplace books and ephemera. What's missing? I mean, what is your dream find?

MUNRO: The thing I would absolutely love to have would be a Shakespeare play with a complete cast list. So, not just the major roles, but the small roles: the roles that the boy actors played, what happened in terms of doubling. What we have for Shakespeare's plays are these little snippets of one bit of casting from one play, or maybe two bits from one play, one from another play. It's nearly always the leading actors, or the leading comic actors.

Then you think about a play like Antony and Cleopatra, and that scene in which Cleopatra is hauling the messenger around by his hair. You know, I would love to know who played Cleopatra, who played the messenger. And because actors in the King’s Men did move from small roles to eventually being leaders in their company, it would be lovely to have a bigger picture of how that process actually worked. How an actor moved from playing leading female roles into playing leading male roles a few years later.

BOGAEV: I was sure you were going to say you wish you had Shakespeare's stage directions and notes from an entire rehearsal.

MUNRO: I think I'm going on the kind of thing that might pop up in the library somewhere. So, I think…

BOGAEV: That's very modest [LAUGHS].

MUNRO: I know, and there was an addition of a Richard Brome play called The Antipodes, did turn up in a library a few years back with notes on who played what role. So, there could be a Shakespeare quarto kind of lurking in a library somewhere with notes on the actors who played the roles.

I mean, obviously I would also love to have Shakespeare's commentary on a play. But, I don't know whether dramatists actually kept those kind of notes at the time. They didn't quite have rehearsals in the way that we do today. It would be lovely if Shakespeare had actually, you know, got a manuscript of his plays, or got one of the printed quartos, and then kind of grumbled in the margins about what the actors were doing. Although, in some ways, that feels like a slightly more Ben Jonson thing to do than a Shakespeare thing to do.

BOGAEV: Oh, so you don't read into that scene when—in Hamlet—when Hamlet is instructing the actors?

MUNRO: Oh yes, yes. He talks about “holding up a mirror to nature,” and “not to let your clown say more than has been set down for them.”

BOGAEV: Exactly. You don't think that's Shakespeare expressing what he thinks about bad actors?

MUNRO: I think it's Hamlet's feelings about actors. I'm not sure if it's Shakespeare's feelings about actors.

BOGAEV: “Don't saw the air.” I just imagine Shakespeare tearing out his beard.

MUNRO: It could. There could well be elements of that. But then Hamlet is kind of an idiot about actors. So, I don't know how much Shakespeare would have shared his views entirely.

BOGAEV: That's true. Lucy Munro, so fun to talk with you. Thank you so much for doing this.

MUNRO: No, thank you. It's been really fun.

WITMORE: Dr. Lucy Munro is a lecturer in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at King's College London. She is the author of Children of the Queen’s Revels: A Jacobean Theatre Repertory, published by Cambridge University Press in 2005; Archaic Style in English Literature, 1590-1674, published by Cambridge in 2013; and she edited John Fletcher's Taming of the Shrew sequel The Tamer Tamed for Methuen Drama in 2010. Dr. Munro’s newest book is Shakespeare in the Theatre: The King’s Men, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2020. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast episode, “What Players Are They?”, was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website,

Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.