Robert Armin (c. 1563 – 1615) was an English actor, a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. He became the leading comedy actor with the troupe associated with William Shakespeare following the departure of Will Kempe around 1600. Also a popular comic author, he wrote a comedy, The History of the Two Maids of More-clacke, as well as Foole upon Foole, A Nest of Ninnies (1608) and The Italian Taylor and his Boy.
Armin changed the part of the clown or fool from the rustic servingman turned comedian to that of a high-comedy domestic wit.
The timing of Armin's joining the Chamberlain's Men is as mysterious as its occasion. That it was connected to Kempe's departure has been generally accepted; however, the reasons for that departure are not clear. One traditional view—that the company in general or Shakespeare specifically had begun to tire of Kempe's old-fashioned clowning—is still current, though the main evidence for this view consists of Kempe's departure and the type of comic roles Shakespeare wrote after 1600. Armin played on the Globe stage by August 1600; Wiles theorizes that he may have joined the Chamberlain’s Men in 1599, but continued to perform solo pieces at the Curtain; however, he may also have played with the company at the Curtain, while Kempe was still a member.
Armin is generally credited with all the "licensed fools" in the repertory of the Chamberlain's and King's Men: Touchstone in As You Like It, Feste in Twelfth Night, the Fool in King Lear, Lavatch in All's Well That Ends Well, and perhaps Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, the Porter in Macbeth, the Fool in Timon of Athens, and Autolycus in The Winter's Tale. Touchstone is the fool of these three about which there is the most critical debate. Harold Bloom describes him as "rancidly vicious," and writes that "this more intense rancidity works as a touchstone should, to prove the true gold of Rosalind’s spirit". John Palmer disagrees and writes that "he must be either a true cynic or one that affects his cynicism to mask a fundamentally genial spirit". Obviously, as Palmer continues, a true cynic does not belong in Arden, so the clown "must be a thoroughly good fellow at heart". Touchstone affects the front of a malcontented cynic, thus serving as proof of Rosalind’s quick wit. When she confronts both Jaques and Touchstone, she exposes their silliness and prevents the fools from making Arden out to be worse than it really is.
Armin may have played a key role in the development of Shakespearian fools. "If any player breathed," Hotson tells us, "who could explore with Shakespeare the shadows and fitful flashes of the borderland of insanity, that player was Armin". Robert Armin explored every aspect of the clown, from the natural idiot to the philosopher-fool; from serving man to retained jester. In study, writing, and performance, Armin moved the fool from rustic zany to trained motley. His characters—those he wrote and those he acted—absurdly point out the absurdity of what is otherwise called normal. Instead of appealing to the identity of the English commoner by imitating them, he created a new fool, a high-comic jester for whom wisdom is wit and wit is wisdom. When Robert Armin replaced Kemp in the Chamberlain's Men, it was considered the "taming of the clown". Armin's new style of comedy brought into play the "world-wisely fool". This urged Shakespeare to create Feste in his Twelfth Night, who was a philosophical social insurgence. He had a place everywhere, but belonged nowhere. Ken Kesey told an interviewer of this notion of a fool. "That fool of Shakespeare’s, the actor Robert Armin, became so popular that finally Shakespeare wrote him out of Henry IV. In a book called A Nest of Ninnies, Armin wrote about the difference between a fool artificial and a fool natural. And the way Armin defines the two is important: the character Jack Oates is a true fool natural. He never stops being a fool to save himself; he never tries to do anything but anger his master, Sir William. A fool artificial is always trying to please; he’s a lackey."