Who Is Jane Nightwork

There’s a time in any life when you hear Shakespeare for the first time. If he gets to you at all, he can have the effect of stopping you in your tracks with wonder. Amazement at his insight into how people tick, at his interest in so vast a range of human action; personal and political… and the aptness and jokiness of the names he gives his characters.

Jane Nightwork is an off-stage person who’s talked about in Henry IV Part 2, Act 3 sc. ii. Falstaff, reminiscing about old times with his legal mate Justice Shallow, remembers the girls they knew. He calls Jane a ‘bona roba’. Not at all a common tart, she was clearly married, but made herself available on terms for that little bit extra in the house. She was also fussy, had her standards; she obliged Sir John Falstaff, knight, but clearly drew the line at Shallow who wasn’t noble. Bona roba means she dressed showily (quite something to see in Elizabeth’s day) and wasn’t at the lowest level of her part-time trade.

The two Henry plays were by far the best productions I took part in at the end of two years at my very first job ever at The Old Vic. As a beginning actor, when I first heard it, I was oddly moved by the perfect choice of name; the name alone opened up a picture of who Jane was and what she did and how she lived. This was mid-fifties, remember – now, it might strike a novice actor as fustian, even tame. And, of course, the riches to be mined in Shakespeare’s comprehension of humans have piled up for me ever since.