Back to News

Shakespeare's clown - the story so far

Will Kemp was born in London, but is thought to have had relatives in Suffolk and Norfolk. He was already aged 50 or more at the time of his famous dance from London to Norwich, with a reputation as a comedian in Europe as well as throughout England.

In 1589 he joined Edward Alleyn's company of actors, known as Lord Strange's men, who played in theatres, and when they were closed because of the plague, in the open air all round the country. Later Kemp joined the Lord Chamberlain's Men, the company who are portrayed in the film "Shakespeare in love". For example, in 1598 he played Dogberry in As You Like It. That year the company had to move to a new theatre on the bank of the Thames, The Globe, which was completed in 1599.

Kemp was reputed for his 'jigs'. These were a sort of interval or end-of-performance entertainment, combining ribald verse, dance and song, and using all the skills of a stand-up comic to get people laughing and bring the house down. This improvisatory, rude and populist art may have been at the root of his parting with Shakespeare and the rest of the company, and was certainly disapproved of by puritan sentiment.

Later in 1599, Kemp sold his shares in The Globe and left the Lord Chamberlain's Men, so found himself probably unemployed and short of funds. Capitalising on his daancing ability, he laid a number of wagers that he could dance a morrice to Norwich in nine days, at odds of three to one. Not only did he win his bet, but he also received a pension from a grateful Lord Mayor of Norwich, which suggests that the stunt brought benefit to Norwich as well as to Kemp.

Kemp then proceeded to write a book about the exploit, to counteract misinformation put about by his detractors, which he named "The Nine Daies Wonder" - giving rise to the phrase that has passed into the English language.

A modern reprint of the book (ISBN 0 948400 53 6) is available from: Larks Press, Ordnance Farmhouse, Guist Bottom, Dereham, NR20 5PF, tel. 01328 829207, price 2.70.

Even though the original dance took place in 1599, the quatercentenary falls in 2000. Kemp commenced his dance on "the first Monday in clean Lent", 1599 - that is, on February 11. However, at that time the year was reckoned to start on 25th March, so by modern reckoning the year would have been 1600.

Previous re-enactments have included a relay version of the dance in 1977 in honour of the Queen's Silver Jubilee.

A solo walk of the whole route was performed by Dick Hutchinson in 1997 to coincide with the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, at which a work on the theme of Kemp's exploit was written by David Bedford.

Background reading:

Kemp's Nine Daies Wonder, performed in a daunce from London to Norwich; containing the pleasure, paines and kinde entertainment of William Kemp betweene London and that Citty in his late Morrice, in the year 1600. Reprint, Lark's Press (see above).

Harris, Chris: Shakespeare's forgotten Clown. Kylin Press, 1983. ISBN 0 907128 09 2

(Article supplied by the organisers of Nine Daies Morris)

2000 Simon Pipe, Mark Rogers, The Outside Capering Crew

Back to News