As we have had Whit Sunday we are now, by tradition, in to the first holiday of the Summer when much merrymaking does occur. Some of these strange rural, nay pagan, amusements have remained – the traditional Morris dance being one.
Incredibly Will Kemp, a Shakespearean actor, Morris danced all the way from London to Norwich in 1599. It took him about 9 days – though about a month with stop offs – and a few pitfalls on the way. The mayor of Norwich received him and there was much fuss made about it – a good excuse for the locals to crack open a keg or two of beer.
All of this reminds me of the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, an artist thoroughly adept at depicting rural merrymaking; the rhythmic nature of the works finding a voice in the 20th century through such artists as Matisse with his famous take on dancing.
But back to Will Kemp. Such was his feat that he went on to write a pamphlet about it. It seems the venture to Norwich was a bit of self publicity after having been dropped by the bard as his theatre company fool. Apparently even at the end of some of Shakespeare’s most serious theatrical endeavours a “fool” would often dance a jig or two, no doubt to cheer the massed audiences and prevent any risk of rotten tomatoes being projected towards the stage. Critics at the time often used to complain that this ruined the atmosphere of a tragedy play – as you might imagine. Experts have conjectured that Kemp was a scene-stealer who always played himself. Shakespeare was possibly mocking Kemp’s tendency to improvise when he had Hamlet declare ‘let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them’.
And so to get one over on the great playwright he danced to Norwich….and in to obscurity, after much song and dance and pamphlet printing. It seems this was his finest, and final, hour after which all fell silent for poor Mr. Kemp.
But thankfully he did what he did and must go down as a complete British eccentric, which is definitely worth toasting.