Biography of Robert Armin (c. 1568-1612)
Robert Armin was one of the clowns that worked with William Shakespeare, and for whom Shakespeare created some of his most famous comic characters. Robert Armin was a master of extemporization, an accomplished singer, an author of several plays as well as a history of court jesters.
Robert Arminâs exact birthday is not known; it is known that he was born around 1568 in Lynn, Norfolk, (England), the son of a tailor. In October of 1581 he was apprenticed to a London goldsmith, and later became the friend and protÃ©gÃ© of Richard Tarleton, one of the most famous clowns of his time. Robert Arminâs early acting experience included a stint with Lord Chandosâs Men as well as solo performances. He wrote about these experiences in âFoole upon Foole; or, Six Sortes of Sottesâ, about six household fools, and âQuips upon Questions, A Nest of Ninniesâ, a collection from his performances where he extemporized verse responses to audience questions, from which came the phrase âa flea in his ear.â Both books were published in 1600 under the pseudonym Clonnico de Curtanio Snuffe.
In 1599, Robert Armin joined the Chamberlainâs Men, William Shakespeareâs play company, succeeding Will Kempe, and was soon listed as one of the âPrincipall Actorsâ in the Folio edition of Shakespeareâs plays. Among his earliest roles with the company were Dogberry in âMuch Ado About Nothingâ (a role he inherited from Kempe) and Touchstone in âAs You Like Itâ, which may have been written expressly for him. His unique verbal skills allowed him to transcend the country rustics that had been the specialty of Richard Tarleton and Will Kempe. With Robert Armin in mind, Shakespeare created fools that were sharp-tongued and often wiser than the playâs more noble characters. Roles written for him include Verges, the watchman, in âMuch Ado About Nothingâ, Touchstone in âAs You Like Itâ, Feste in âTwelfth Nightâ, Learâs Fool in âKing Learâ, the clown in âOthelloâ, Lavache in âAllâs Well That Ends Wellâ, and the first gravedigger in âHamletâ.
As M. C. Bradbook relates in her book, âRobert Armin and Twelfth Nightâ, Armin did influence Shakespeareâs writing. âFrom the time that Armin joined the company Shakespeare very noticeably began to give his clowns the catechism as a form of jesting.â David Wiles, in his book âShakespeareâs Clown: Actor and text in the Elizabethan playhouseâ, writes that Robert Armin âwas a pioneering realist in his study of how fools actually behaved. His stage fools were based on observation rather than on the recreation of an emblematic stage typeâ. Bradbook also points out that âArminâs interest in fools allowed Shakespeare to tap one of the richest veins in the medieval dramatic tradition: the idea that the Vice reveals vice to be follyâ.
Armin wrote the play âThe History of the Two Maids of More-clackeâ (1609), and a book of ballads entitled âThe Italian Taylor and His Boyâ (1609). Beryl Hugill calls Kempe and Armin âthe first important stage clowns of any note.â