Running over the Stage: Webster and the Running Footman

  • David Carnegie Victoria University of Wellington


John Webster’s little-known ‘character’ of ‘A Footman’ (in the sixth edition of Overbury’s Characters in 1615) provides a starting point for an investigation of the stage presentation of footmen in the early modern English theatre. A footman is always a runner and a messenger. When an actor enters ‘in haste’, it generally means he is running. Evidence suggests that actors would signal their status as footmen through costume, footwear, entering on the run, wiping sweat from their brows, gasping for breath, and sometimes an Irish accent and drunkenness. Once the generic attributes of footmen on stage are documented, it becomes possible to speculate with more authority on, for instance, comedic routines such as early exits by messengers, the staging of the footrace in Hyde Park, and how the footman called Hamlet in Eastward Ho may have parodied Burbage’s performance in Hamlet.