Robert Armin, Shakespeare’s clown

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 Armin’s 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 protege of  Richard Tarleton, one of the most famous clowns of his time. Robert Armin’s early acting experience included a stint with Lord Chandos’s Men as well as solo performances. He wrote about these experiences in “Foole upon Foole; or, Six Sortes of Sottes”, about six household fools, and “Quips upon Questions, A Nest of Ninnies”, a collection from his performances where he extemporized verse responses to audience questions, from which came the phrase “a flea in his ear.”  Both books were published in 1600 under the pseudonym Clonnico de Curtanio Snuffe.

Robert Armin (circa 1568-1615)

In 1599, Robert Armin joined the Chamberlain’s Men, William Shakespeare’s play company, succeeding  Will Kempe, and was soon listed as one of the “Principall Actors” in the Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Among his earliest roles with the company were Dogberry in “Much Ado About Nothing” (a role he inherited from Kempe) and Touchstone in “As You Like It”, 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 play’s more noble characters. Roles written for him include  Verges, the watchman, in “Much Ado About Nothing”,  Touchstone  in “As You Like It”€,  Feste  in “Twelfth Night”,  Lear’s Fool  in “King Lear”, the  clown  in “Othello”,  Lavache  in “All’s Well That Ends Well”, and the  first gravedigger  in “Hamlet”.

As M. C. Bradbook relates in her book, “Robert Armin and Twelfth Night”, Armin did influence Shakespeare’s writing. “From the time that Armin joined the company Shakespeare very noticeably began to give his clowns the catechism as a form of jesting.”  David Wiles, in his book “Shakespeare’s Clown: Actor and text in the Elizabethan playhouse“, writes that Robert Armin “was 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 type”. Bradbook also points out that “Armin’s 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 folly”.

Armin wrote the play “The History of the Two Maids of More-clacke” (1609), and a book of ballads entitled “The Italian Taylor and His Boy” (1609). Beryl Hugill calls Kempe and Armin “the first important stage clowns of any note.”