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  • “Wise Enough to Play the Fool”: Robert Armin and Shakespeare’s Sung Songs of Scripted Improvisation
  • Catherine A. Henze (bio)

Primarily known as Shakespeare’s comic actor after William Kemp, Robert Armin was also an author in his own right and a solo improvisatory comedian. Most critics believe he joined the Chamberlain’s Men in 1599 prior to As You Like It, initiating a shift in Shakespeare’s comic role.1 However, as Frederick Sternfeld notes, not only was Armin a “wise fool,” but his advent brought with it an increase in singing.2 Further developing Sternfeld’s observations, I have discovered that the increase was substantial, and that, consonant with Armin’s background as an improvisatory artist who turned his comedic acts into pamphlets, the singing was often what I term “musical scripted improvisation.” That is, songs were either interrupted with dialogue and/or their words were revised from their versions in the music sources.3 These alterations might appear to the audience to be spontaneous, but they are actually part of the script. Although scholars have studied myriad topics such as music in productions by the children’s acting companies, [End Page 419] the impact on Shakespeare’s plays of the move to Blackfriars, Armin’s singing in individual roles, Shakespeare’s clowns and fools, and music in Shakespeare’s plays, the comic actor’s connection to song has not received adequate attention, particularly with regard to improvisation.4

In support of Sternfeld’s thesis, my research demonstrates that after Armin’s arrival, singing increased in Shakespeare’s solo-authored dramas from an average of 1.25 songs per play to 3.44 (204 percent) and from 9.95 lines of singing per play to 29.75 (226 percent).5 Moreover, the percentage of plays with songs increased from 55 to 81, while the relative number of those songs that are fragments of fewer than four lines decreased by almost half, from 32 to 18 percent. These increases, far greater than the 16 percent increase in Shakespeare’s comedies and romances, are “statistically significant.”6 More important than the increases, however, is the alteration in songs and song fragments, collectively termed “songs.” After Armin, the “skilled mimic”7 seems to have sung 70 percent of the songs that were interrupted with spoken dialogue. In addition, word revisions occurred in just 12 percent of the songs before Armin, but afterwards, their frequency doubled to 24 percent, with Armin singing up to 62 percent of the revised songs. Interestingly, there were also more singers involved. Considering only plays with songs, that number increased from 1.55 singers per play to 2.54. While, expectedly, the relative percentage of songs sung by comic actors (primarily Armin) increased from 12 to 33 percent, the number of songs by female characters also increased, from 6 to 18 percent. Critics have aptly noted that it is Shakespeare’s marginalized characters, such as comics and women, who more often sing, and it would seem that this practice applies particularly to songs after Armin’s arrival.8 Might these boy actors have been trained by Armin?

After examining Armin’s life and additional possible impacts on the changes in singing, I examine the form and function of two songs from Twelfth Night, which I present in reconstructed editions, followed by interpretation of the music combined with analysis of the lyrics and surrounding text.9 As Tiffany Stern states, play-specific songs—which did not matter “less than words”—contributed to plays’ meanings, and are “so performative as to be already semi-‘lost’ when without their music.”10 Throughout this inquiry, fully lost songs constitute a principal textual challenge. At least four songs, almost all pre-Armin, have been lost, and I have accounted for this in my study.11 Stern observes, “songs are less likely [End Page 420] to be written by the author than other bits of text,”12 and further explains that the material production of the plays explains this loss. Composers, not playwrights, wrote the music, almost always asynchronously with the writing of the plays, often long before its use in a drama. Many of the songs were already known to the audience...


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pp. 419-449
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