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William Kempe

William Kempe (fl. 1600) was an English actor and dancer.

He probably began his career as a member of the earl of Leicester's company, but his name first appears after the death of Leicester in a list of players authorized by an order of the privy council in 1593 to play 7 miles out of London. Ferdinand Stanley, Lord Strange, was the patron of the company of which Kemp was the leading member until 1598, and in 1594 was summoned with Burbage and Shakespeare to act before the queen at Greenwich.

He was the successor, both in parts and reputation, of Richard Tarlton. But it was as a dancer of jigs that he won his greatest popularity, one or two actors dancing and singing with him, and the words doubtless often being improvised. Examples of the music may be seen in the manuscript collection of John Dowland now in the Cambridge university library. At the same time Kemp was given parts like Dogberry, and Peter in Romeo and Juliet; indeed his name appears by accident in place of those of the characters in early copies. Kemp seems to have exhibited his dancing on the Continent, but in 1602 he was a member of the earl of Worcester's players, and Philip Henslowe's diary shows several payments made to him in that year.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.