Richard Tarlton (died September 1588) was an English actor and clown of the Elizabethan era. The most famous clown of his era, a “legend in his own lifetime”, he helped to turn Elizabethan theatre into a form of mass entertainment, paving the way for the Shakespearean stage. He was known for his extempore comic doggerelClumsy and awkward verse often employed for comic effect. verses, which came to be known as Tarltons; following his death, many witticisms and pranks were attributed to him, published as Tarlton’s Jests in 1611.
Tarlton was also an accomplished dancer, musician, fencer and writer, the author of several jigs, pamphlets and at least one full-length play, a two-part comedy The Seven Deadly Sins, written in about 1585, now lost.
Little is known of Tarlton’s early life. He may have been born to a Shropshire farming family, and he may have married Thomasyn Dann in 1577.
Tradition claims that Tarlton started his career in London as an apprentice, a swineherd in Ealing, or a water-carrier, and it is quite possible that he was all three. But by 1583, when he is mentioned as one of the original members of the Queen’s Men, an acting company set up by Thomas Radcliffe, the third earl of Sussex and lord chamberlain, Tarlton was considered a distinguished actor. He excelled particularly in what were known as post-play jigs, essentially vehicles for clowns, framed as raucous short farces featuring music, dancing and sexual misdemeanour.
Details of Tarlton’s private life “remain obscure”. He may have been born to a farming family in Condover, Shropshire, and his will of 1588 states that his mother’s name was Katherine. And from subsequent litigation it appears that he had a married sister called Helen.
A marriage is recorded in Chelmsford, Essex on 11 February 1577 between Richard Tarlton and Thomasyn Dann, who may have been the same “‘Thamsyn the wief of Richard Tarlton vintener” buried at St Martin Ludgate on 3 December 1585.[a]Tarlton was a freeman of the Company of Vintners.
Tarlton died in Shoreditch on 3 or 5 September 1588, and seems to have buried the same day, in St Leonard, Shoreditch. He is reputed to have written his will in the house of Emma Ball, a Shoreditch prostitute, where his destitution had forced him to take refuge. But the dispute over £700 of his property – equivalent to about £212,000 as at 2021[b]Calculated using the retail price index. – that broke out between two of the executors, Tarlton’s mother and the lawyer Robert Adams contradicts that account. In his will, Tarlton describes himself as “one of the Grooms of the Queen’s Majesty’s Chamber”.