A great man of the Elizabethan theatre died in the second decade of the 17th century. He was the A-list superstar of his age, intimately connected to many of the playhouses in London’s new Theatre-Land, but the Globe in particular. His fans adored him and he was described as ‘their mortal god on earth’ and a man ‘not to be matched.’ The public outpouring of grief at his passing was so great that it almost eclipsed the regulation mourning for Anne, the Queen consort of James I, who had recently died. Both city and theatre, the common and the great, felt his loss: the Earl of Pembroke wrote that he could not bear an evening at the playhouse – ‘being tender-harted …so soone after the loss of my old acquaintance’ – while a sincere, if somewhat lacklustre poet lamented: ‘He’s gone and with him what a world are dead.’
This was not Shakespeare. We imagine, perhaps, that it should have been. But, though this man was praised and mourned in his own time, he seems to be half-forgotten and almost to have been air-brushed out of history. There exists only one biography of him, written in 1913, whereas the life and work of Shakespeare have been minutely examined and speculated upon. No theatre is named after him or displays his name. Yet he was Shakespeare’s friend and closest colleague who had been a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men from 1594, remaining with the Company through its transition into the King’s Men in 1603, and beyond.
Our man is considered to be the first great actor of the English stage. His name is listed second to Shakespeare’s In the First Folio of 1623. And for him, Shakespeare wrote leading roles in at least a third of the canon from Lear, Othello and Richard III to Coriolanus, Romeo and Hamlet. He was in his time the greatest actor anyone had seen; testimony is unanimous in saluting his remarkable talents.
He was described as having a ‘wondrous tongue’ and for John Gee, writing in 1624, he was: ’the flower and the life of his company, the Loadstone of the Auditory, and the Roscius of the stage.’
Otherwise he was regarded as ‘the best Tragedian ever played’ while a long funeral ode refers to the various Shakespearean characters he had made so memorable who had ‘died with him…. never to revive’ – a loss so great that ‘tragic night/ Will wrap our black-hung stage.’ A later poem imagines how the audience at the playhouse:
‘Thrilled through all changes of Despair,
Hope, Anger, Fear, Delight and Doubt
When Burbage played.
For Richard Burbage it was (who else?} who inspired such adulation.
Who was Burbage? How did his rise to greatness come about? Unlike many another great artist, he did not apparently spring out of nowhere, or from humble origins. The theatre was in his genes and in his blood, for he was born into a family dynasty which dominated theatrical management and enterprise in London for over 70 years.
His father James, was born around 1531, probably in Warwickshire. A carpenter by trade, he left the safe, beaten track of his profession and re-emerged as the chief of the actors nominally attached to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. This was a tenuous position, for players lacked the status of ‘servant’ which would have granted then greater job security. As players were obliged to move from place to place, they were generally classed with the raggle-taggle of rogues and vagabonds who thronged the roads. It is James Burbage who is the leading signatory in a letter to Leicester, begging that he and his colleagues should be recognised as bona fide servants of their Lord. In response, Leicester obtained the first Royal Patent ever granted to a group of actors, elevating them to the status of artists. In a bold stroke of innovation, James Burbage, realised that a permanent theatre in the capital itself would bring in more money and act as a stable, permanent base. Having rented a site in Shoreditch he built The Theatre in 1576. In construction and name, it referred to the Roman amphitheatres of antiquity and it was the first ever playhouse in this country.
James Burbage and his two sons, Cuthbert and Richard, born in 1565 and 1568 respectively, receive frequent mention in histories of the stage. Cuthbert, the elder brother, was never an actor but managed the family enterprise. He owned the ground lease of The Theatre, played a major role in the construction of the Globe, and, by the cultivation of wealthy patrons, contributed to the Burbage’s success and longevity – and to the career of Shakespeare. Women were equally important in the business, particularly James’ wife Ellen, and Richard’s wife Winifred. The latter retained shares in the Burbage properties until 1643 when Parliament closed the theatres.
It was into this larger family of colleagues and collaborators that Shakespeare entered in the early 1590s. He had already shown his versatility in plays in a variety of genres: Two Gentlemen of Verona, Henry VI, Richard III and Titus Andronicus. He had also gained the Earl of Southampton as both friend and patron, and this gave him an entrée to a world of literary and intellectual patronage. He was probably a founder member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, along with his colleague, Richard Burbage, amongst others.
Richard was well known as a gifted actor early in his career: as a young boy, he had almost certainly played female roles in his father’s theatre. He had taken the role of Old Knowell in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour, had been one of the duo of conmen in The Alchemist, and Duke Brachiano in Webster’s White Devil. He was in demand by a number of other Elizabethan playwrights too, and, by his early twenties, was playing Richard III. Already he was a sensation, and never more so than when he was playing Shakespeare. One of the odes in his honour recalls:
‘ Oft have I seen him leape into a grave
Suiting ye person (which he seemed to have)
Of a sad lover, with so true an eye
That then I would have sworn he meant to die’
The Ode continues:
‘What a wide world was in that little space,
Thyself a world, the Globe thy fittest place!
Thy stature small, but every thought and mood
Might thoroughly from thy face be understood,
And his whole action he could change with ease
From ancient Lear to youthful Pericles.’
And the apothecary, Simon Forman, a regular theatre-goer, records a striking piece of acting when the entrance of Banquo’s ghost in the banqueting scene, throws Macbeth (Burbage) into ‘a great passion of fear and fury.’
Clearly, Burbage was a compelling performer, able to move seamlessly from one role to the next. ‘He was a delightful Proteus,’ wrote a contemporary, ‘so wholly transforming himself into his part and putting off himself with his clothes, as he never…assumed himself again until the play was done.’ He was praised, too, for his expressive hand gestures and his ability to stride, pace or stalk, as his role demanded. It was even said that he could blench or blush at will, and that, when at the height of a passionate speech, buttons would fly off his coat. These, though exaggerations, attest to his emotional power and huge presence on stage.
‘He [Burbage] must have been extraordinary’ comments the actor Simon Russell Beale, who has acted nearly every Burbage role in the book. Russell Beale is struck by the psychological intensity of the roles played by Burbage: Lear falling into madness, the jealousy-crazed Othello, the murderous psychopath Richard III. Above all, it is Hamlet which requires a large range of emotions – anger, grief, sarcasm, desperation. ‘[Burbage] must have been extremely good at expressing those extremes of behaviour in a sympathetic way…a watchable way’ Russell Beale concludes.
Burbage also had responsibility for the running and upkeep of The Theatre and for the supplementary Blackfriars Theatre, set up by his father. In the glory days at the Globe, he and his fellow actors would have had to memorise up to 800 lines for each play in a repertory which presented up to 15 plays a month. Dynamic, hugely vigorous and energetic he must have been.
In 1597, James Burbage died, just before the lease on The Theatre expired. The Lord Chamberlains Men were in trouble. An extension on the lease had not been negotiated, though luckily there was a clause in the original agreement stating that while one Giles Allen owned the land, James Burbage owned the theatre he built on it. While Allen was away at his country home in Essex, around Christmas 1598, Richard with a dozen or so supporters and workmen, began the task of demolishing The Theatre with the intention of re-erecting it, phoenix-like, on a pre-selected site on Bankside, over the river. The aggrieved Allen afterwards testified that the Burbage faction armed with ‘swords, daggers, bills [and] axes….forcibly and riotously….in a very outrageous, violent and riotous sort’ began pulling down the theatre. Their appearance naturally drew a crowd – friends and tenants of the absent Allen, as well as supporters of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, including James Burbage’s feisty widow, Ellen. And presumably those whose livelihood was at stake, such as William Shakespeare, were present too.
The whole undertaking was described as being a ‘great disturbance’ and ‘terrifying…to [the Queen’s] loving subjects there near inhabiting.’ Nevertheless, during the next few days, the cannibalised timbers were carted across London Bridge and erected on new foundations to form the Globe theatre. The great days of the Globe were at hand.
History was made in the Globe over the next fourteen years. Shakespeare wrote his most famous plays for it and on its boards Burbage gave the first performances of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Coriolanus, amongst others. What was the relationship between playwright and performer? How did they work together?
An anecdote written down in 1602 by John Manningham, a law student, recounts how a woman in the audience developed a violent crush on Burbage during his performance of Richard III. An assignation was arranged, which was overheard by Shakespeare. When Burbage turned up for the tryst, sending word that Richard III was at the door, he found that Shakespeare had arrived earlier. A message was returned stating that William the Conqueror was before Richard III. Another amusing speculation concerns the Act V sword fight in Hamlet where Gertrude comments that her son is ‘fat and short of breath.’ Was this a sly jibe at Burbage’s increasing weight?
Shakespeare was no solitary genius. He wrote the plays in intimate collaboration with a resident team of players, most of whom he knew throughout his whole working life. He was completely familiar with Burbage’s capabilities – his voice, technique, and that emotional intensity which allowed the playwright to go deeper into the psychology of his characters, knowing that here was an actor who could interpret all their nuances. We feel intuitively that Burbage was Shakespeare’s muse, an equal and committed co-creator of the plays and roles. The dramatic inspiration ran both ways.
Practising actors understand that in a named play – such as Macbeth – the character with the most lines almost becomes the director. He needs the other actors to conform to his vision, and may stretch and pull in various directions, the author who is writing for him. How much input was Burbage allowed? Did Shakespeare re-arrange a scene at the urging of his most charismatic actor? Might one have said to the other, ‘Er – can we take a different approach here? Was Shakespeare reluctantly forced to change a word, a line or (God forbid!) a whole speech? As anyone who has ever sat in a rehearsal room must know, playwrights seldom have the last word. Whatever the facts, the collaboration of playwright and actor was to change the world.
Members of the Burbage family are buried in St. Leonards, Shoreditch, though their tombs are now lost. The story goes that Burbage’s stone bore only two words: ‘Exit Burbage.’ There is, however, a memorial plaque on the wall, containing a long list of theatre people buried in the church. Burbage is simply described as ‘the first actor to play the parts of Richard III and Hamlet,’ Otherwise, he is elusive, except for a painting in Dulwich Art Gallery. Long tradition claims that it is his portrait; a newer idea suggests it is a self-portrait, for he was said to be a skilled artist. Art historians, however, will not commit themselves either way.
The picture shows a plain, sober, even melancholy man. There is no sense of the theatrical or any real sign of the charismatic presence which Burbage demonstrated on-stage. For a man of such oratory, the mouth is small and insignificant though the gaze is direct, even compelling. We have no clue as to the context of the painting; if it is indeed Burbage, it may simply be a private image for family alone, and one unconcerned with showing off fame or status.
On March 13, 2019, residents of Burbage Road, Dulwich marked the 400th anniversary of Burbage’s death with a walk setting off from his resting place in St. Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch. Their journey commemorated his decision to remove The Theatre to Bankside, rebuilding it as the Globe theatre. ‘This has given us the opportunity to bring the message to those in Southwark, home of great Shakespearean theatre,’ said an organiser. A mural, celebrating Burbage, was unveiled on Burbage Road. It is sited on a railway arch and places him centre stage, surrounded by quotations from the plays he helped make famous.
When Shakespeare died in 1616, he left money to three colleagues to buy mourning rings in his memory. Two of these were Henry Condell and John Heminge, who eventually brought about the publication of the First Folio of the plays. And the third was Richard Burbage.
Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant