How Shakespeare's writing was influenced by his lead actor

The influence of one of Shakespeare's principal actors on many of the bard's plays has been revealed by an Oxford University academic.

Dr Bart van Es of Oxford University's Faculty of English Language and Literature has found that the writings of Robert Armin, who became lead comic actor in Shakespeare's company in the summer of 1600, shaped how Shakespeare portrayed fools and jesters in plays including King Lear, As You Like It, Troilus and Cressida, Twelfth Night and All's Well that Ends Well.

Dr van Es has published his findings in the Times Literary Supplement.

'As the only other published poet and playwright in Shakespeare's company, Robert Armin was the author who spent most time working with Shakespeare day to day, so it is odd that Armin's work is not included in Shakespeare source books and rarely quoted in introductions to Shakespeare's plays,' he said.

'Shakespeare almost certainly first became aware of Armin through his fame as a writer – the two men make an appearance in the literary record at around the same time in late 1592 – and it is clear that Shakespeare incorporated many of the features of Armin's characters into his plays after Armin joined his company.'

Robert Armin was best known for producing popular print ballads and poems. He wrote a compendium of 'fools' or jesters called Fool upon Fool, in which he described a series of jesters with a dark, irrational side, who are often violently punished by their masters. Armin’s jesters also tended to be 'kept' court jesters who exchange witticisms with men of high rank.

When Armin took over as Shakespeare’s lead comic actor, Dr van Es notes that Shakespeare’s portrayal of the fool moved a lot closer to Armin's model.

'Touchstone in As You Like It is Shakespeare’s first comic creation after making Armin his lead actor, and Touchstone's courtly status is diametrically opposed with the county clowns of Shakespeare’s previous plays,' Dr van Es said.

'In Lear, we meet a fool whose role directly matches those of Armin's descriptions and indeed the mood of the play comprises dark comedy, paradox and purgative judgment – all hallmarks of Armin.

'Given that Armin's Fool upon Fool (second edition) was published in 1605, the year Lear was being written, it is surprising that this book is not included in the play's sources.'

The fools in Lear and As You Like It were not the only characters borrowed from Armin, Dr van Es claimed.

He said: 'Armin pointed to the close link between jesting and baiting – in one poem he writes 'were I bear ward I would learn to bite...when I next see him, I'll make his brains bleed' which is similar to Sir Toby's plan for Malvolio's humiliation in Twelfth Night when he tells his companions 'to anger him, we'll have the bear again; and we will fool him black and blue'.

'Such moments open up the absurd and threatening aspects of fooling, which Armin had placed directly in Shakespeare's sight.'

Dr van Es added: 'Ajax's fool in Troilus and Cressida is locked in a circle of mockery and violence, while the Countess and Lavatch banter in All's Well with apparent lightness on the punishments of whipping.

'It can hardly be overstated how radically such exchanges differ from those that Shakespeare wrote when Kemp, Armin's predecessor, was the clown of the company.'

In The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare’s fool seems to take on the characteristics of Robert Armin himself. 'Autolycus is cast as a persuasive salesman who tries to sell popular ballads to customers who 'love a ballad in print', which mirrors Armin's status as a popular balladeer,' Dr van Es said.

Dr van Es will publish his findings in full in his book Shakespeare in Company, to be published in February 2013.