Richard Burbage (c. 1567-1619) was a well-known actor in Elizabethan England. A friend and business associate of the playwright William Shakespeare, Burbage was the first actor to utter some of the Bard's most famous lines on stage, including Hamlet "s lament, "to be or not to be, that is the question."
Acting Considered Disreputable
Burbage was probably born around 1567, in an area northeast of London called Shoreditch. Shoreditch was a bustling quarter just outside of the city boundaries, and the family lived on the main thoroughfare, Holywell Street. Nearby was the former site of Holywell Priory, which stood from the mid-twelfth century until the early 1540s. Some of the outbuildings still stood, and in 1576 Burbage's father, James, leased its Great Barn. By then his father was listed as head of the Earl of Leicester's acting company. Sometimes called Leicester's Men, it was the first organized Elizabethan acting troupe and dated back to 1559; it took its name from the fact that its initial founders were members of the Earl of Leicester's household. Though plays were becoming wildly popular among Londoners of all classes, acting was not legally considered a profession at the time. According to the Tudor Poor Law of 1572, actors could be targeted as "rogues" or "vagabonds" for being without an occupation, and such offenses were punishable by whipping or even death. Thus actors in Elizabethan England, who played both male and female roles, skirted the law by forming troupes that enjoyed the patronage of a noble or royal.
Theater performances were a relatively new and novel form of entertainment still in late sixteenth-century England. Drama emerged in classical Greek and Roman times, but by the early centuries of the Christian church, public performances had descended into a more bawdy form of popular amusement, and leading theologians condemned the theater as licentious and immoral. Church fathers eventually banned most theater performances altogether, save for works of a religious theme. The stricture carried on until the Renaissance era of Burbage's day, but the rediscovery of the classical Greek and Roman plays had brought a renewal of interest in drama across Europe, and new playwrights were emerging who adopted events of English history into entertaining tales that also served as social or political commentary for the times. These were usually performed by traveling troupes of actors, most of whom were patronized by wealthy nobles.
Joined Lord Chamberlain's Company
The forward-thinking English queen, Elizabeth I, encouraged drama, and the 1574 Licensing Act stipulated that only nobles with the rank of baron or higher were permitted to sponsor an acting troupe. Two years later, she established a Master of Revels office, which licensed theatrical productions and levied a fee on each performance. London itself, however, was administered by a Privy Council with a strong Puritan streak. Puritanism was a religious reform movement in England based on some of the more ascetic doctrines of Calvinism. Austere and dogmatic, the Puritans banned theater performances during Burbage's day. Shoreditch, however, stood just outside the Council's jurisdiction, and the elder Burbage used the Great Barn land and materials for what became London's first permanent venue for drama, the Theatre in Shoreditch. Young Burbage likely took his first roles on its stage with the Earl of Leicester's company. It is known he was with another company, Lord Chamberlain's Men, after 1588, and the Admiral's Men company after 1590.
Among Burbage's first known roles was that of King Gorboduc in The Seven Deadliest Sins by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, two young nobles, around 1590, which is considered English drama's first genuine tragedy. Shakespeare arrived on the London theater scene about 1592, and began writing plays that were performed by Lord Chamberlain's Men the following year; he also acted with the troupe. In 1594, Burbage appeared in a performance before Elizabeth I along with Shakespeare and fellow thespian Will Kemp. He was listed as a joint-payee of Lord Chamberlain's Men by 1595.
Carted Theater Across Thames
In 1597, after the death of his father, Burbage and his brother Cuthbert inherited the Theatre in Shoreditch, but the landlord of the site was a Puritan, and tried to raise the rent exorbitantly to shut the venue down. The lease did state, however, that the building itself belonged to the Burbages, and so on a late December day in 1598, Burbage and the men of the company dismantled the Theatre and took the timber across the Thames River to Southwark, a half-mile west of the London Bridge. There, the materials were used to build a new theatre, called the Globe, which opened for business in 1599. Besides Cuthbert Burbage and their sister, Alice, the other partners in the venture were Shakespeare and Kemp. The venue would stage the first performances of many of Shakespeare's plays. It had a thatched gallery roof and may have been cylindrical in form, but little concrete information survives regarding its design.
Burbage's rise as the leading actor of his day was linked to the growing popularity of Shakespeare's plays with London audiences and even royal audiences. Though the exact chronology of the Shakespeare canon is unknown, their order can be surmised from dates when they were published or from secondary sources in which they were mentioned. It is known that Burbage played the title role in one of the earliest, Richard III, in which he uttered the famous opening line: "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York."
Debuted in Appealing, Enduring Roles
Burbage went on to appear as Berowne in the more lighthearted Love's Labour's Lost, which is also thought by scholars to be the first that Shakespeare wrote with him in mind. "It is a part well suited to the versatility that we know to have been Burbage's particular characteristic," declared Martin Holmes in his Shakespeare and Burbage. "He has to be, in succession, the shrewd, dry commentator on other men's ideas, the smart society conversationalist, the serious, self-confessed, self-criticising, reluctantly self-tormenting lover, and finally the champion of love."
The first years of the seventeenth century became known as the Jacobean period of English drama, after the accession of a new English monarch to the throne, James I, in 1603. That same year, Burbage's Chamberlain's Men players were renamed the King's Men company after winning royal patronage. Burbage remained its principal actor, and Shakespeare its playwright. By this point both were well-known figures in London, and the Globe proved a profitable enterprise for them. Shakespeare's plays were proven money-makers, and while the financial links between the two men enriched both, Shakespeare's talent for writing for Burbage gave rise to some of the choicest dramatic parts in the history of drama. "It appears that Shakespeare either felt obliged to tailor roles to suit Burbage's particular capacities or else, far more likely, perceived that his gifts and style offered the possibility of exploring more rounded, more inward-looking personalities in a more profound fashion," noted the International Dictionary of Theatre essay.
Portrayed Increasingly Complex
In his day Burbage was deemed a skilled orator, which likely meant that he possessed an excellent memory for lines, as well as clear enunciation and believable gestures. He probably moved about on the stage as he spoke his lines, which was considered unusual at the time. His great rival was another London actor, Edward Alleyn, but Burbage's close association with Shakespeare enhanced his reputation. "Burbage's voice, it would seem, was not a trumpet like Alleyn's," noted Holmes, "but had more the quality of a stringed instrument, and Shakespeare wrote for it with consideration and full understanding of its potentialities."
As Shakespeare and Burbage matured, the roles offered to the actor grew more contemplative in character. Burbage appeared in the title roles of Shakespeare's great tragedies, Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello. These were compelling figures from history, and delivered memorable turns of phrase that became commonplace in the English language. Yet these and others from Shakespeare's pen were also compelling and relatively novel portrayals of human nature on the stage at the time: the characters were neither wholly good nor entirely evil. With his wealth of experience on the stage that dated back to his youth, Burbage was ideally suited to the nuances of such parts. "Without him, Shakespeare would most likely have had less opportunity to develop his talents," asserted the International Dictionary of Theatre of the actor, "and it is at least arguable that creating parts to suit Burbage's particular characteristics and temperament inspired him to explore more complex dramatic characters than might otherwise have been the case."
Opened Second Profitable Venue
In 1608 Burbage, Shakespeare, and some other partners opened the Blackfriars Theatre, between Ludgate Hill and the Thames, as a new home for the King's Men when not performing at Court. Burbage's father had leased part of an old Dominican friary (hence the term "black" friar because of the dark cloak its members wore) to stage plays back in 1596, but since the building was still within the boundaries of London proper and the neighbors objected as well, he instead leased it for performances of a children's theater company. When Burbage and his partners took it over, they added a solid roof to it so that it could serve as an all-season venue, which was another London theater first. The Globe, meanwhile, caught fire during a performance of Henry VIII one night in 1613 when a cannon shot to mark the king's entrance misfired. Burbage barely escaped alive, but rebuilt the theater the next year. It is known that this design was indeed circular in shape, and had a tiled gallery roof.
Burbage is thought to have acted in a long list of other roles from Shakespeare's pen, but these are not reliably documented. They include Angelo in Measure for Measure, Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Orsino in Twelfth Night, Prospero in The Tempest, and the title roles of Coriolanus, Macbeth, and Timon of Athens. He also acted in the plays of other leading dramatists of the era as well, including John Webster and Ben Jonson. He appeared in the latter's Every Man in his Humour in 1598 and Every Man out of his Humour the following year. For certain he appeared in Jonson's works Sejanus His Fall in 1603, Volpone in 1605, The Alchemist in 1610, and Catiline His Conspiracy in 1611. He also appeared as Ferdinand in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi in 1616, and may have acted in The White Devil, another work from Webster's pen.
Burbage lived in the same Holywell Street of his childhood, and is thought to have married his wife, Winifred, around 1601. They had six daughters and two sons. A painter as well as actor and theater manager, Burbage is thought to have done the Felton portrait of Shakespeare. A self-portrait hangs at Dulwich College. He died in London on March 13, 1619, leaving a small estate of 300 pounds. He is buried in the parish cemetery of St. Leonard's, the landmark Shoreditch church that dates back to the twelfth century. His Globe theater closed in 1642 during a renewal of Puritan religious fervor in England, and was torn down two years later. The Blackfriars theater also closed during this period, and was demolished in 1655. London's "Playhouse Yard" commemorates the latter theater's site.
Holmes, Martin, Shakespeare and Burbage, Chichester, 1978.
International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 3: Actors, Directors, and Designers, St. James Press, 1996.
Times (London, England), March 13, 1919.
"Shoreditch, Tudor Hackney Welcome Page,http://learningcurve.pro.gov.uk/tudorhackney/localhistory/lochsh.asp (January 10, 2004).
"The Globe Theater of 1599," Online Shakespeare,http://www.onlineshakespeare.com/globe1.htm (January 7, 2004).
A. S. Hargreaves