Today Will Kemp is probably best known for his "Nine Days Wonder" when he danced a "morrice" from London to Norwich in 1600. Exactly what kind of dance this was is not clear but it must have involved primarily leaps and steps, rather than traditional morris dancing which is done on the spot in a group or "side". It is also not clear how far morris dancing was by this period a folk dance as known today, as the few references to it seem to relate to a court setting or the London Lord Mayors' Processions, and it included men and women.
Kemp was already well known in Norwich and it is possible that he was related to a local Kemp family. But before this he was already famous in London and elsewhere as a maker of jigs and merriments and as the most important stage clown of the Elizabethan period, playing with Burbage and Shakespeare in Shakespeare's company, where he was a partner in the building of the new Globe theatre in 1599.
He seems to have left Shakespeare's company soon after the Globe was built and began the dance to Norwich on 11th February 1600, completing it on March the 8th, as he interspersed his nine dancing days with sixteen rest days in all. The aim of it seems to have been financial speculation together with some clever self-promotion. He laid money with backers who promised to return three times the sum if he completed the feat and then wrote a pamphlet, "Kemp's Nine Daies Wonder", in which he describes in detail his encounters and events along the way. Significantly he dedicated this to Mistress Anne Fitton, a maid of honour to the Queen, describing the beginning of his journey: "I, otherwise called Caualiero Kemp, head-Master of Morrice-dauncers, high Head-borough of heighs, and onely tricker of your Trill lilles, and best bel-shangles betweene Sion and mount Surrey, began frolickely to foote it, from the right Honorable the Lord Mayors of London, towards the right worshipfull (and truely bountifull) Master Mayors of Norwich".
His route to Norwich was from London via Romford, Ingatestone, Chelmsford and Braintree. En route from there to Melford he was met by a "stout butcher" who danced with him for two miles and was replaced by a "comely lass" in Melford. From there he continued to Bury St. Edmunds, and then Thetford, where a landlord offered to dance with him to Hingham but collapsed after two fields.
As he drew near Hingham more and more people began to crowd the roads and he spent Tuesday, March 4th in Hingham as a rest day. He was obviously determined to maximise the publicity value of his dance, since the next day, Wednesday the 5th, as he approached Norwich he agreed with the Mayor that he should have three days rest to allow time for the knights and gentry to gather to welcome him. He says, "I was advised ....to stay my Morrice a little above Saint Giles his gate, where I took my gelding and so rid into the Citty". The Mayor, Roger Wiler, "not only very courteously offered to beare mine owne charges and my followers, but very bountifully performed it at the common charges: the Mayor and many of the Aldermen often times besides invited us privately to theyr several houses".
On the Saturday, March the 8th, Kemp resumed his dance at St. Giles Gate, and proceeded to St. Stephen's Gate where there were whifflers waiting to clear a way through the crowds. He danced on through the market place to the cross where the City Waits were in attendance: "such Waytes fewe Citties in our Realme have the like, none better". Here he trod on a young lady's dress :"as I was fetching a leape, it fell out that I set my foote on her skirts ..... off fell her petticoats from her waste .... the poore wench was so ashamed .... now had she her cheeks all coloured with scarlet". He then "went towards the Mayors (house), and deceived the people, by leaping ouer the Church -yard wall at St.John's (Maddermarket), getting so into Mr Mayors gates a nearer way". The wall was just opposite today's Maddermarket Theatre where there is a commemorative plaque. (There is a nice coincidence about this too, in that the Maddermarket in its early days under Nugent Monck in the 1920's and 30's was one of the theatre companies responsible for re-establishing an Elizabethan style of staging Shakespeare's plays). The Mayor then gave him a reception in the Guildhall, five pounds in angels and a pension of forty shillings a year for life.
However, Kemp had an "overseer" George Sprat, a kind of referee, who forced him to repeat the last part of the dance on the following Tuesday because, due to the crowds, he had not been able to observe Kemp in person on the Saturday. Kemp donated his dancing shoes to the city and they were fastened to the wall in the Guildhall.
The earliest references to Kemp are to his appearances with the Earl of Leicester's Men in the 1580's, working in England and in the Netherlands. He then worked in Denmark and with a number of companies in England. By 1590 he had acquired a considerable reputation as a comic performer, specialising in independent comic episodes within plays and also in jigs, a kind of song and dance routine done at the end of a play; some of which were considered quite indecent. After playing with Strange's Men at The Rose, in 1594 he was with the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Burbage and Shakespeare's company, at the Theatre and the Curtain, creating the clown parts in Shakespeare's plays, including Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. Some believe that he created the part of Falstaff too. One wonders how far Shakespeare devised these parts with Kemp in mind.
In the year after the Nine Days Wonder Kemp travelled to Germany and Italy and in 1602 he was working with Worcester's Men, which is the last record of him. He may have died at Southwark in the following year.
Chris Harris: Shakepeare's Forgotten Clown (1983)
Nine Daies Morris: a Celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of Will Kemp's morris dance (2000)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004 - 07)
Will Kemp: Nine Daies Wonder (1600) (text from http://eaasdc.de/history/shekempj.htm)
(All quotations from Kemp's "Nine Daies Wonder")