20 Facts and Speculations about William Kempe

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William Kempe

20 Facts and Speculations about William Kempe

 @ChasquiPenguin  has written another brilliant interesting facts article for us. This one’s about the real William Kempe who really was ‘big in Italy’ and also quite the modern comedian it seems, not too dissimilar to Ricky Gervais after all.

Personal Life

  1. With no records found of his birth/baptism, William Kempe’s early life is shrouded in mystery but there is conjecture that he was born in 1560 in Kent.
  2. Little is known of his appearance aside from the description of him as a big man.
  3. In February–March 1600 he morris danced from London to Norwich. This is said to have taken him several weeks, with crowds cheering him along the way, and is thought to have been a publicity stunt, which he called his “Nine Days Wonder”.
  4. Later that year he wrote a description of the event, to prove its validity. This was published and the book, “Kempe’s Nine Days Wonder”, is still in print.
  5. There is a wood carving depicting Kempe in Chapelfield, Norwich.
  6. He is thought to have died in late 1603, possibly from the plague. The parish records of St Saviour in Southwark include the death of “Kempe, a man” in that year but it is by no means certain that this was the Elizabethan actor. However, his disappearance from around that time gives rise to this speculation.
  7. Despite his successful theatre career, he appears to have died in poverty.

    Kempe’s Nine Day’s of Wonder book cover


Theatre Life

  1. William Kempe was a comic actor and dancer, his style being more physical than verbal.
  2. Thomas Nashe considered him to be the successor to another great comic actor, Richard Tarlton.
  3. The first known record of his acting is in 1585 when he was part of Leicester’s Men and toured Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, as part of their troupe that year.
  4. In 1592 he was a member of Lord Strange’s Men, later joining The Lord Chamberlain’s Men with whom he stayed till 1599.
  5. After his “Nine Days Wonder” in 1600, he is thought to have undertaken a tour in Europe, possibly in Italy.
  6. In 1601 he is recorded as being part of the acting troupe, Worcester’s Men.
  7. He is said to have performed at The Rose Theatre, with The Admiral’s Men, and the last record of his life is documented in Philip Henslowe’s diary in 1602.
  8. Will Kempe appeared in many of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as “Knack to Know a Knave” and Ben Jonson’s “Every Man in His Humour”.
  9. He always played comedic characters and may have taken the role of Bottom. It seems that Shakespeare wrote comedy roles for Kempe specifically.
  10. Kempe was so famous in his own right that news of his appearance in plays would apparently draw in the crowds.
  11. He was much given to improvisation in his roles, a trait which many of his fellow actors objected to, and it may have been this which led to his leaving The Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1599.
  12. He was famous for his stage jigs (short comic plays with singing and dancing) and wrote at least three of these, two of which are extant. These were less sophisticated versions of Italy’s commedia dell’arte, which was popular in Europe in the 16th–18th centuries.
  13. Though he never appeared at The Globe, he was one of the original shareholders, along with Shakespeare, Richard Burbage (son of James, owner of The Curtain Theatre) and others, but is said to have backed out of this soon after, with his fellow actors having to make up the resultant shortfall.


The above details are correct to the best of my ability but please let me know if you notice any inaccuracies.

Twitter: @ChasquiPenguin