The actor who first played King Lear, Hamlet, Richard III and Macbeth was Richard Burbage. Son of James Burbage, the actor, impressario and owner of The Theatre, Richard was born on January 7, 1568. Five years younger than William Shakespeare and three years younger than Edward Alleyn, by the age of 20, Richard Burbage was considered one of the great actors of his generation.
Although his early career is undocumented, we know that he and Shakespeare were together in The Lord Chamberlain's Men and subsequently The King's Men. There is no doubt that Shakespeare could not have written his greatest roles without confidence that Richard Burbage would do them justice in performance. Alongside Alleyn, Burbage ruled the Elizabethan stage, taking leading roles in plays by Ben Jonson, John Marston, and John Webster. His performance style was characterised by natural and believable playing, transforming himself into the roles so totally, that for many years after, the characters were defined by Burbage's interpretation.
Richard Flecknoe in his Short Discourse of the English Stage of 1664 wrote that Burbage was '...a delightful Proteus, so wholly transforming himself into his Part, and putting off himself with his Cloathes, as he never (not so much as in the Tyring-house) assum'd himself again until the Play was done...' Flecknoe continues '...he had all the Parts of an excellent actor, animating his words with speaking and speech with action...' His characterisation was so complete with facial and body gestures that he kept his characterisation '...never falling in his Part when he had done speaking; but with his looks and gesture, maintaining it still until the heighth...'
Samuel Rowlands describing what must have been Richard Burbage's interpretation of Richard III in The Letting of Humour's Blood in the Head-Vaine of 1600 speaks of young gallants who 'like Richard, the usurper, swagger, that had his hand continual on his dagger'.
In Sir Thomas Overbury's Characters of 1613 is the chapter on An Excellent Actor, which is thought to have been inspired by Burbage:
'Whatsoever is commendable to the grave orator is most exquisitely perfect in him, for by a full and significant action of body he charms our attention. Sit in a full theatre and you will think you see so many lines drawn from the circumference of so many ears, while the actor is the center. He doth not strive to make nature monstrous; she is often seen in the same scene with him but neither on stilts nor crutches; and for his voice, 'tis not lower than the prompter, nor louder than the foil or target. By his action he fortifies moral precepts with examples, for what we see him personate we think truly done before us: a man of a deep thought might apprehend the ghost of our ancient heroes walked again, and take him at several times for many of them. He is much affected to painting, and 'tis a question whether that make him an excellent player, or his playing an exquisite painter. He adds grace to the poet's labors, for what in the poet is but ditty, in him is both ditty and music. he entertains us in the best leisure of our life--that is, between meals, the most unfit time either for study or bodily exercise. The flight of hawks and chase of wild beasts, either of them are delights noble; but some think this sport of men the worthier, despite all calumny. All men have been of his occupation; and indeed, what he doth feignedly, that do others essentially. This day one plays a monarch, the next a private person; here one acts a tyrant, on the morrow an exile; a parasite this man tonight, tomorrow a precisian; and so of divers others. I observe, of all men living, a worthy actor in one kind is the strongest motive of affection that can be; for, when he dies, we cannot be persuaded any man can do his parts like him. But, to conclude, I value a worthy actor by the corruption of some few of the quality as I would do gold in the ore-- I should not mind the dross, but the purity of the metal.'
Bishop Corbet, visiting the battlefield of Bosworth in 1635 wrote of his guide: 'Besides what of his knowledge he could say, He had authenticke notice from the Play; Which I might guesse, by's mustring up the ghosts, And polycyes, not incident to hosts, But chiefly by that one perspicuous thing, Where he mistook a player for a King, For when he would have said King Richard dyed, And called - a horse! a horse! he Burbidge cryed.'
One story shows the extent to which Burbage and Shakespeare were linked, in their social as well as their professional lives. The diary of John Manningham of March 13 1601 relates, 'Upon a tyme when Burbridge played Rich.3 there was a Citizen greue soe farr in liking with him, that before shee went from the play shee appointed him to come that night unto hir by the name of Ri: the 3. Shakespeare overhearing their conclusion went before, was intertained, and at his game ere Burbridge came. Then message returne to be made that William the Conquerour was before Rich. the 3. Shakespeare's name William.'
As Michael Wood notes in his series In Search of Shakespeare, it is fascinating to remember that alongside King Lear, Antony, Hamlet and Macbeth, Burbage would have played a very wide range of parts by other writers in the King's Men. While Shakespeare is now considered the main draw of the Elizabethan stage, there were also works by highly theatrical writers like Middleton, Fletcher, Chapman and Webster alongside social realism, topical issue based plays, romantic comedies, broad comedy, semi-historical pieces and revivals of past successes. Between 1604 and 1606 there was a broad repertoire of plays at the Globe from Middleton's highly poetic and fast moving The Revenger's Tragedy, to The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, an almost documentary-like examination of domestic violence, to A Larum for London, an anti-Spanish diatribe, to The Fair Maid of Bristol, a romance, to the comedy of The London Prodigal. Along with touring and and court appearances, Burbage would have had to keep in his repertoire at least 20-30 shows, ready to be performed at short notice if required for a staging before the King. It is almost unheard of now for an actor to be required to keep more than 3 or 4 major parts in shows in a repertoire.
In 1616, William Shakespeare remembered his fellow actors in his will and left 26 shillings 8d for John Hemmings, Henry Condell and Richard Burbage 'to buy them rings'.
After Shakespeare's death, Burbage continued to perform to great acclaim, taking leading roles in plays by the writers who followed in Shakespeare's trail.
John Webster's Induction to John Marston's The Malcontent of 1604 lists Richard Burbage and has him playing himself in conflict with a dissatisfied playgoer: 'Sir, you are like a patron that, presenting a poor scholar to a benefice, enjoins him not to rail against anything that stands within compass of his patron's folly. Why should we not enjoy the ancient freedom of poesy? Shall we protest to the ladies that their painting makes them angels? Or to my young gallant that his expense in the brothel shall gain him reputation? No, sir, such vices as stand not accountable to law, should be cured as men heal tetters, by casting ink upon them.' A moment later Burbage leaves and the conversation continues; 'Doth he play the Malcontent?' 'Yes sir.' 'I durst lay four of mine ears, the play is not so well acted as it hath been.'
'The Return of Parnassus' of 1606 in Act IV Scene 5 has Richard Burbage and Will Kemp playing themselves descrying the Cambridge scholars seriousness: Kemp bemoans 'O that Ben Jonson is a peshlent fellow, he brought up Horace giving the Poets a pill, but our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him beray his credit.' Burbage replies 'It's a shrewd fellow indeed.'
Unlike Alleyn or even Shakespeare, Burbage never retired from the stage or became a manager, and he kept performing until his death at the age of 50, on March 13, 1619. His widow Winifred after his death married Richard Robinson, the actor and fellow member of the King's Men. He is buried in St. Leonard's in Shoreditch.
A Funeral Elegy was written on Burbage's death. Although there were earlier transcripts of the text, it was first published in 1825 in The Gentleman's Magazine:
'A funerall Elegy on the death of the famous Actor Richard Burbage: who died on Saturday in Lent, the 13th of March 1618'
The Play now ended, think his grave to be
The retiring house of his sad Tragedie,
Where to give his fame this, be not afraid,
Here lies the best Tragedian ever played.
No more young Hamlet though but scant of breath
Shall cry revenge for his dear father's death:
Poor Romeo never more shall tears beget
For Juliet's love and cruel Capulet;
Harry shall not be seen as King or Prince,
They died with thee, Dear Dick -
Not to revive again. Jeronimo
Shall cease to mourn his son Horatio;
They shall not call thee from thy naked bed
By horrid outcry; and Antonio's dead.
Edward shall lack a representative,
And Crookback, as befits, shall cease to live.
Tyrant Macbeth, with unwash'd bloody hand
We vainly now may hope to understand.
Brutus and Marcius henceforth must be dumb,
For ne'er thy like upon our stage shall come
To charm the faculty of eyes and ears,
Unless we could command the dead to rise.
Vindex is gone, and what a loss was he!
Frankford, Brachiano and Malevolo
Heart-broke Philaster and Amintas too
Are lost forever; with the red-haired Jew,
Which sought the bankrupt merchant's pound of flesh,
By woman-lawyer caught in his own mesh.
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.
But let me not forget one chiefest part
Wherein beyond the rest, he moved the heart,
The grieved Moor, made jealous by a slave
Who sent his wife to fill a timeless grave,
Then slew himself upon the bloody bed.
All these and many more with him are dead,
Thereafter must our poets leave to write.
Since thou art gone, dear Dick, a tragic night
Will wrap our black-hung stage. He made a Poet,
And those who yet remain full surely know it;
For having Burbadge to give forth each line
It filled their brain with fury more divine.
Henry Austin Dobson (1840-1921) wrote a rondeau entitled 'When Burbage Played':
'When Burbage played, the stage was bare
Of fount and temple, tower and stair,
Two broadswords eked a battle out;
Two supers made a rabble rout;
The Throne of Denmark was a chair!
And yet, no less the audience there
Thrilled through all changes of Despair,
Hope, Anger, Fear, Delight and Doubt,
When Burbage played.
This is the Actor's gift; to share
All moods, all passions, nor to care
One whit for scene, so he without
Can lead men's minds the roundabout,
Stirred as of old, these hearers were
When Burbage played.'