In Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead, Ros asks the Player, "Tumblers, are you?" What exactly does he mean by "tumblers"? Prostitutes? Actors?

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    most likely "acrobats". – Hellion Jan 13 '17 at 21:24
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    Tumbler One that tumbles, especially an acrobat or gymnast. thefreedictionary.com/tumbler – user66974 Jan 13 '17 at 21:26
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    I haven't researched this, but I seem to recall reading that tumbling—low-end comic acrobatics of a galumphing sort that you might associate with the Peter Quince Players—was a frequent element in Elizabethan entertainments performed for rustic audiences. So calling the members of an acting troupe "tumblers" would be rather insulting. – Sven Yargs Jan 13 '17 at 21:29
  • Thank you all! This really clarifies things and makes perfect sense in context. – René Jan 13 '17 at 21:44
  • @SvenYargs Your answer was perfect for me, since in the context of the play this is exactly what is meant. Please post an answer so I can accept it! – René Jan 15 '17 at 5:42

In Shakespeare's day, tumbling seems to have had a rather low status among forms of popular entertainment. Alexander Schmidt, Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary, third edition (1902) has these entries for tumbler and tumbling-trick:

Tumbler, one who plays mountebank tricks by various librations and movements of the body; a harlequin : wear his colours like a tumbler's hoop, L[ove's] L[abour's] L[ost] III, 190 ('tumbler's hoops are to this day bound round with ribbons of various colours'. Harris).

Tumbling-trick, a trick performed by a tumbler: a Christmas gambold or a tumbling-trick. [The Taming of the] Shr[ew] In[tro]d[uction] 2, 140 (Sly's speech).

You can get a sense of the low esteem in which cultured Elizabethans held tumbling from this fuller account of the quotation that Schmidt cites from The Taming of the Shrew:

Enter a Messenger.

Messenger. Your honour's players, hearing your amendment,/ Are come to play a pleasant comedy;/ For so your doctors hold it very meet,/ Seeing too much sadness hath congeal'd your blood,/ And melancholy is the nurse of frenzy:/ Therefore they thought it good you hear a play/ And frame your mind to mirth and merriment,/ Which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life.

Sly. Marry, I will, let them play it. Is not a comonty/ A Christmas gambold or a tumbling-trick?

Page. No, my good lord; it is more pleasing stuff.

Sly. What, household stuff?

Page. It is a kind of history.

Sly. Well, we'll see't. Come madam wife, sit by my side/ And let the world slip: we shall ne'er be younger.

In this introductory scene to the actual play, Sly is a drunken, penniless tinker who has been set up as a make-believe nobleman by a lord to see how he will react to his change of fortune when he awakens. Sly's tastes are therefore quite low.

For a troupe of actors to be mistaken for tumblers—as happens in the exchange between Rosencrantz and the leader of the traveling players in Tom Stoppard's play—is therefore not at all complimentary to them.

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