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Nobodies and Somebodies: Embodying Precarity on the Early Modern English Stage

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 May 2022

Mattie Burkert*
English, University of Oregon


Stock characters named “Nobody” and “Somebody” were mainstays of British performance culture in the mid- to late eighteenth century. Playbills and newspaper advertisements show that these roles were popular with audiences in London, Dublin, and Edinburgh, as well as on the regional stages. Men and women alike took on these personae to deliver songs, prologues, and epilogues, often as part of benefit performances where they chose their most crowd-pleasing roles to maximize ticket sales. Some of the pieces spoken by Nobody and Somebody were popular enough to make their way into print, excerpted in novels and miscellanies. The duo appeared in George Alexander Stevens's wildly popular Lecture on Heads (1764), which traveled across the Atlantic to stages in Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York, continuing to be performed in the early Republic until the nineteenth century. Offstage, the figures were staples of visual culture; as Terry Robinson has shown, audience awareness of these figures from Romantic-era political cartoons formed an important backdrop for Mary Robinson's theatrical afterpiece Nobody (1794).

Copyright © The Authors, 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of American Society for Theatre Research, Inc.

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My deepest gratitude goes to Karen Britland for introducing me to Nobody and Somebody over a decade ago, and to the numerous colleagues who have supported and responded to versions of this work since then. I am especially indebted to my writing group, Jane Wessel, Chelsea Phillips, Leah Benedict; editor Brandi Catanese and two anonymous reviewers for Theatre Survey; and the conveners of and participants in the ASTR 2018 working session “Arousing the Bodies of Pre-1850 Performance,” particularly Julia Fawcett and Laura Engel.



1 The Appendix to this essay provides a starting point for tracking the roles of Nobody and Somebody in London, Dublin, and Edinburgh, and contains bibliographic information for works cited herein by abbreviation. Data for the regional theatres remain scarce, although Fiona Ritchie, Michael Gamer, and others are working to make this information more accessible. The British Library Theatrical Playbills (BLTP) website, “a research tool to find and view playbills . . . from some collections of the British Library's theatrical playbills,” includes a bill for a performance of Love Makes a Man at the New Theatre in Portsmouth on 21 June 1782, featuring “An Epilogue on every Body, to be spoken by Somebody, in the Character of Nobody, by Mr. EVERARD” (found using the search term “nobody” at, 1 September 2020).

2 See, for example, “An Epilogue spoken by Nobody,” in R. Lewis, The Adventures of a Rake, in the Character of a Public Orator: Interspersed with Several Serious and Comic Pieces, . . . , 2 vols. (London, 1759), I: 62–7; and “An Epilogue, In the Character of SOMEBODY, with a malicious design against NOBODY” in The Spouter's Companion; or, Theatrical Remembrancer. Containing a Select Collection of the Most Esteemed Prologues and Epilogues, . . . (London, [1770?]), 10–11. Both accessed 12 June 2018 through ECCO.

3 Wessel, Jane, “‘My Other Folks’ Heads’: Reproducible Identities and Literary Property on the Eighteenth-Century Stage,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 53.2 (2020): 279–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar,, accessed 1 September 2020; Garret, Kurt L., “Palliative for Players: The Lecture on Heads,Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 103.2 (1979): 166–76Google Scholar; Gerald Kahan, George Alexander Stevens and “The Lecture on Heads” (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984), 61.

4 Robinson, Terry F., “Becoming Somebody: Refashioning the Body Politic in Mary Robinson's Nobody,” Studies in Romanticism 55.2 (2016): 143–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Ibid., 149–56; Catherine Gallagher, Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670–1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 205–7.

6 Jones, Joseph R., “A Gathering of Nobodies: The Oldest Joke in the World and Its Traces in Cervantes and Hispanic Literatures,” Comparative Literature Studies 31.2 (1994): 128–47Google Scholar, at 128.

7 Calmann, Gerta, “The Picture of Nobody: An Iconographical Study,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 23.1–2 (1960): 60–104CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Luke Wilson, Theaters of Intention: Drama and the Law in Early Modern England (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 219–21; Martha Bayless, Parody in the Middle Ages: The Latin Tradition (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 57–86; for edited and translated Latin texts, see also 259–310,, accessed 22 March 2022.

8 Jones, “Gathering,” 136; Forcione, Alban K., “El desposeimiento del ser en la literatura renacentista: Cervantes, Gracián y los desafíos de Nemo,” Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica 34 (1985–6): 654–90Google Scholar, at 668 n. 26. Thanks to Felipe Valencia for pointing me to these sources.

9 Nobody and Somebody was entered in the Stationer's Register in 1606 but may have circulated in performance years before publication; see Richard Simpson, The School of Shakespeare, 2 vols. (New York: J. W. Bouton, 1878), I: 270–2; Roslyn L. Knutson, “The Start of Something Big,” in Locating the Queen's Men, 1583–1603: Material Practices and Conditions of Playing, ed. Helen Ostovich, Holger Schott Syme, and Andrew Griffin (Farnham, Surrey, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009), 99–108, at 106; and David Hay, Nobody and Somebody: An Introduction and Critical Edition (New York: Garland, 1980), 63–6.

10 Nobody appears in a 1603 masque by Ben Jonson, “attired in a pair of breeches which were made to come up to his neck”; see The Entertainment at Althorpe, ed. James Knowles, in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson Online,, accessed 22 March 2022. Philip Henslowe also noted in his diary that he lent comedian Will Kempe money in August 1602 to purchase buckram for “a payer of gyente hosse,” possibly the costume for Nobody; see Bourke, Roger, “Falstaff, Nobody, and Will Kemp's ‘Giant Hose,’Notes and Queries 55.2 (2008): 183–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Womack, Peter, “Nobody, Somebody, and King Lear,” New Theatre Quarterly 23.3 (2007): 195–207CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Robinson, “Becoming Somebody,” 152. Gallagher points out that they also appeared on playing cards and as “stock masquerade characters” (Nobody's Story, 207).

13 On the relationship between markets and theatrical culture during this period, see Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550–1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); and Mattie Burkert, Speculative Enterprise: Public Theaters and Financial Markets in London, 1688–1763 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2021).

14 Berlant in Jasbir Puar, “Precarity Talk: A Virtual Roundtable with Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Bojana Cvejić, Isabell Lorey, Jasbir Puar, and Ana Vujanović,” TDR: The Drama Review 56.4 (2012): 163–77, at 166,, accessed 25 October 2021. See also Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

15 Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 11. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang voice important critiques of the colonialist understandings of labor and land at play in the Occupy movement in “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 1.1 (2012): 1–40,, accessed 9 January 2022.

16 Hindle, Steve, “Imagining Insurrection in Seventeenth-Century England: Representations of the Midland Rising of 1607,” History Workshop Journal 66.1 (2008): 21–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar,, accessed 22 March 2022. Thanks to Karen Britland for drawing my attention to the link between Nobody and Somebody and the Midland Revolt.

17 Butler in Puar, “Precarity Talk,” 168.

18 On bare life, see Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).

19 Butler in Puar, “Precarity Talk,” 171, 174.

20 Nobody and Somebody is compared frequently with King Lear; see Womack, “Nobody, Somebody, and King Lear”; Archdeacon, Anthony, “Somebody and Nobody: The Authorial Identity of the Player-Playwright-Poet in Early Modern Theatre,” Authorship 5.2 (2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar: n.p.,; and Nuyts-Giornal, Josée, “King Lear's Reflection in the Mirror of Nobody: An Iconographical Question,” Cahiers Élisabéthains: A Journal of English Renaissance Studies 54.1 (1998): 55–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 On the courtroom scene in particular, see Oldenburg, Scott, “The Petition on the Early English Stage,” Studies in English Literature 1500–1900 57.2 (2017): 325–47Google Scholar.

22 Bosman, Anston, “Renaissance Intertheater and the Staging of Nobody,” English Literary History 71.3 (2004): 559–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649–1849 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 3.

24 Wilson, Theaters of Intention, 217.

25 No-Body, and Some-Body. With the True Chronicle Historie of Elydure, Who Was Fortunately Three Severall Times Crowned King of England (London, [1606]), D3r; Yale University Library,, accessed 22 March 2022. Further references to this text are cited parenthetically.

26 Archdeacon, “Somebody and Nobody: Authorial Identity,” Authorship 5.2 (2016): para. 20.

27 Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (New York: Palgrave, 1998), 151.

28 Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

29 Compare with today, when credit scores translate a lifetime of financial transactions into a number between 1 and 850 that is used to decide how expensive consumer debt will be for that person. Individuals deemed to be a safe bet enjoy lower interest rates than those who have missed payments or defaulted on loans in the past—an even more abstracted and depersonalized version of the system of reputation on which early credit culture was built.

30 The campaign's name evokes the historical ritual of jubilee: in Jewish scripture, a time every fifty years when debts are forgiven and enslaved people liberated (“jubilee, n.,” definition 1a, OED Online, Oxford University Press, 2021).

31 Nagler, Christian Riley, “Strike Debt's Rolling Jubilee: The Promise and the Performativity of Financial Contracts,” TDR: The Drama Review 62.1 (2018): 113–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 117.

32 Ibid., 126, 121.

33 Carl Wennerlind, Casualties of Credit: The English Financial Revolution, 1620–1720 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 2.

34 Burkert, Speculative Enterprise, 10–13.

35 Bosman, “Renaissance Intertheater.”

36 The title page of George Baron, No-Body his Complaint A Dialogue between Master No Body, and Doctour Some-Body (London, 1652) features a woodcut engraving of the two title characters, pictured with cartoonish proportions evocative of those from the 1606 play's frontispiece and back matter. A Letter from No Body in the City, to No Body in the Countrey. Published at the Importunity of No Body (London, 1679) states on its title page that it was “Printed for Some-Body”; an ostensible response, Some Bodyes Answer to a Letter sent from No Body in the City, to No Body in the Country. Written at the Request of Some Body ([London]; 1679), declares that it was “Printed by Some Body, for Any Body.” In November 1681, a new periodical satirized Roger L'Estrange's royalist Observator; the first two issues were titled A New Dialogue Between Some Body and Nobody; or, The Observator Observed, and numbers 3–5 were called A New Dialogue Between Somebody and Nobody; or, The Observator and Heraclitus Observed. All items accessed 30 May 2018 through EEBO.

37 Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, “Dating Play Premieres from Publication Data, 1660–1700,” Harvard Library Bulletin 22 (1974): 374–405. On the limitations of the records that can be gleaned from these advertisements, see the London Stage Database “About” page,

38 See the Appendix for documentation of performances discussed throughout this section.

39 Female Tatler 41 (7–10 October 1709).

40 They are sadly absent from Pierre Danchin's encyclopedic The Prologues and Epilogues of the Eighteenth Century: A Complete Edition, 8 vols. (Nancy, France: Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 1990–2001).

41 For first performance, see The London Stage, 1660–1800: A Calendar of Plays, Entertainments and Afterpieces, . . . , part 3: 1729–1747, ed. Arthur H. Scouten, in 2 vols. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1961), 1: 46. For advertisements for both the second performance and the first printing, see Daily Post 3285 (31 March 1730); accessed 21 March 2022 through BN.

42 Ahern, Susan K., “The Sense of Nonsense in Fielding's Author's Farce,” Theatre Survey 23.1 (1982): 45–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 45; Robert D. Hume, Henry Fielding and the London Theatre 1728–1737 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 68; Albert J. Rivero, The Plays of Henry Fielding: A Critical Study of His Dramatic Career (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989), 31; Thomas Keymer, “Fielding's Theatrical Career,” in The Cambridge Companion to Henry Fielding, ed. Claude Rawson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 17–37, at 24.

43 J. Paul Hunter, Occasional Form: Henry Fielding and the Chains of Circumstance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 51.

44 Jill Campbell, Natural Masques: Gender and Identity in Fielding's Plays and Novels (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), 32; Brean S. Hammond, “Politics and Cultural Politics: The Case of Henry Fielding,” Eighteenth-Century Life 16.1 (1992): 76–93; J. Douglas Canfield, “The Critique of Capitalism and the Retreat into Art in Gay's Beggar's Opera and Fielding's Author's Farce,” in Cutting Edges: Postmodern Critical Essays on Eighteenth-Century Satire, ed. James E. Gill (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995): 320–34.

45 Scriblerus Secundus [Henry Fielding], The Author's Farce; and the Pleasures of the Town (London, 1730), 1; ECCO, accessed 30 May 2018. Although Fielding made later revisions, I follow the common editorial practice of using the first 1730 printing as my source text. Further references to this text are cited parenthetically.

46 A large body of scholarship addresses the relationship between the development of financial capitalism and literary genres like satire or the novel; see, in particular, Catherine Ingrassia, Authorship, Commerce, and Gender in Early Eighteenth-Century England: A Culture of Paper Credit (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Comparatively fewer studies address the imaginative reckoning with market culture that took place on the eighteenth-century stage.

47 Ahern, “Sense of Nonsense,” 47.

48 For a typical editorial gloss of the moment, see The Author's Farce, ed. Jill Campbell, in The Broadview Anthology of Restoration and Early Eighteenth-Century English Drama, ed. J. Douglas Canfield (Petersborough, ON: Broadview, 2001), 1782–1824. On the play's metatheatrical and satiric elements, see Hunter, Occasional Form, 54–5; Valerie C. Rudolph, “People and Puppets: Fielding's Burlesque of the ‘Recognition Scene’ in The Author's Farce,” Papers on Language and Literature 11.1 (1975): 31–8; Lisa A. Freeman, Character's Theater: Genre and Identity on the Eighteenth-Century English Stage (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 62–4; William B. Warner, Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, 1684–1750 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 242; and John O'Brien, Harlequin Britain: Pantomime and Entertainment, 1690–1760 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 199.

49 Peter Lewis, Fielding's Burlesque Drama: Its Place in the Tradition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1987), 97. Along similar lines, Sheridan Baker expresses disappointment that these characters “sing a brief duet with only the most general of political overtones.” See Sheridan Baker, “Political Allusion in Fielding's Author's Farce, Mock Doctor, and Tumble-Down Dick,” PMLA 77.3 (1962): 221–31, at 223.

50 This “quickstep” (ca. 1686), later popularized by Henry Purcell, is also burlesqued in John Gay's smash hit The Beggar's Opera (1728), a major intertext for The Author's Farce.

51 Author's Farce, ed. Campbell, 1787–8 n. 9, 1792 n. 19, 1793 n. 20, 1794 n. 24–5, 1804–5 n. 54; Baker, “Political Allusion,” 221–6; Rivero, Plays of Henry Fielding, 43; and Woods, Charles, “Cibber in Fielding's Author's Farce: Three Notes,” Philological Quarterly 44.2 (1965): 145–51Google Scholar.

52 Cibber's turn as Nobody might also be read as part of his strategy of “overexpression,” as identified by Julia Fawcett: his taking on of highly and unusually physicalized roles in order to disrupt audience attempts to read his body and reclaim control over the narratives of his own celebrity. Julia H. Fawcett, Spectacular Disappearances: Celebrity and Privacy, 1696–1801 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016), 3–4.

53 Elaine McGirr, “Shooting Star: Theophilus Cibber's Disastrous Self-Fashioning,” in Making Stars: Biography and Celebrity in Eighteenth-Century Britain, ed. Nora Nachumi and Kristina Straub (Newark: University of Delaware Press, forthcoming).

54 McGirr, Elaine M., “‘What's in a name?’: Romeo and Juliet and the Cibber Brand,” Shakespeare 14.4 (2018): 399–412CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 400.

55 Phillips, Chelsea, “Bodies in Play: Maternity, Repertory, and the Rival Romeo and Juliets, 1748–51,” Theatre Survey 60.2 (2019): 207–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 210–12.

56 See the Appendix for documentation of the performances discussed throughout this section.

57 Joseph R. Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 2, 3.

58 See also Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, [1957] 2016), 13.

59 Lavender, Andy, “Theatricalizing Protest: The Chorus of the Commons,” Performance Research 24.8 (2019): 4–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 10,, accessed 25 October 2021.

60 Cibber and Sheridan; or, The Dublin Miscellany (Dublin, 1743), 71; ECCO, accessed 12 June 2018.

61 Ibid.

62 On repertoire, see Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

63 McGirr, “What's in a name?,” 404.

64 Ibid., 399. The letter reads, in part, “After twenty-five Years being on the Stage, I am, without even a pretended Reason, excluded it; I have therefore resolv'd (with Permission) on taking a Benefit for my Child” (Daily Post 7887, 12 December 1744); accessed 20 September 2020 through BN.

65 BD 3: 257–8.

66 Freeman, Character's Theater, 18.

67 Ibid., 39.

68 Katharine Eisaman Maus, Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

69 On ghosting, see Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003).

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