Thursday, June 21, 2012

Theatre Thursday: A-List Elizabethan Actor Richard Burbage

A detail of a portrait of actor Richard Burbage by an unknown artist. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Along with Edward Alleyn, Richard Burbage (c.1567-1619) was one of the two most celebrated actors of the Elizabethan age. Richard Burbage's unique interpretations of some of Shakespeare's more complex characters were what made him famous, although like his father he was also a businessman.

The son of James Burbage, the founder of The Curtain theatre and an owner of a prominent acting troop, Richard was trained as a thespian by his father. In 1587, when Richard was about 20 years of age, he followed in his father's footsteps by joining Leicester's Men, the Earl of Leicester's acting troop. Richard would remain an integral part of this group well into the 1590's, when Leicester's Men was re-incarnated as the Earl of Derby's Men and subsequently the Chamberlain's Men, finally becoming the King's Men upon the accession of James I (Wagner, 42).

Upon the death of Richard's father James in 1597, Richard and his brother inherited two London playhouses, The Theatre and Blackfriars. After a nasty dispute over the lease with landlord Giles Allen (James Burbage article) Richard and his brother feared that Allen might demolish The Theatre altogether in order to rent the land to someone new. Not wishing their father's legacy to be destroyed, the Burbage boys dismantled the entire structure themselves and had it reassembled in Southwark on the Thames. This newly assembled theatre was re-christened The Globe when it reopened in 1599 (Wagner, 42). The Globe, of course, is inextricably linked with the earliest performances of Shakespeare's plays.

The modern reconstruction of the Burbage's Globe Theatre on the Thames. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commins. Image public domain.

Richard Burbage, already a popular actor in Elizabethan London, quickly ascended to what would be the modern equivalent status of celebrity through his turns as Shakespearean leading men. He was the first actor to play Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, Othello, King Lear and Romeo (Wagner, 42). In the world of Elizabethan theatre and well through the period of the Restoration, theatrical performances were driven by roles, not the entirety of a play. Actors made particular roles popular through their portrayals and often became especially associated with one of their characters. Up-and-coming actors would find the task of re-inventing a role made popular by their predecessor a daunting one. For Burbage, the role that he defined as an actor was Richard III (Wagner, 42). As anyone familiar with Shakespeare's canon will have recognized, the roles played by Burbage all has an incredible amount of lines, and most were psychologically charged. While Burbage would have known his characters like the back of his hand, he still would have had to brush up a mere few days before a performance.

A portrait of King Richard III of England, c.1520 after an lost original. The most famous character portrayed by Richard Burbage was Shakespeare's villainous version of Richard III. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Being the majority shareholder of The Globe theatre afforded Richard Burbage more wealth than his acting career ever did. In 1609 he was able to afford buying out the lease of the acting company associated with the Blackfriars Theatre so that he could move The King's Men there (Wagner, 42).

Sadly, Burbage would live to see the destruction of The Globe in 1613, when it caught fire during a performance of Henry VIII. Richard Burbage barely escaped the fiery carnage with his life (Wagner, 42). The Globe was rebuilt remarkably quickly, re-opening in 1614. Never retiring, Richard Burbage continued to delight audiences acting there until his death in 1619. Like many of the widows of thespians past and present, Burbage's widow Winifred had to settle her husband's debts before marrying one of her husband's associates in The King's Men, Richard Robinson (Halliday, 77).

Though the location of Richard Burbage's grave is unknown, a memorial was erected to him, his brothers and other actors of the Elizabethan era in St. Leonard's, which is near the original site of The Theatre in Shoreditch.

A memorial plaque for Richard Burbage, his brothers, and other great actors of the Elizabethan era at St. Leonard's in Shoreditch on the Thames. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.


"Burbage, Richard." The Historical Dictionary of the Elizabethan World. Print. (By John A. Wagner)

F.E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin,1964; p.77.