This article was first published in the May 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine


If you walk into the church of St Leonard’s, Shoreditch in east London, and sneak up the back stairs to the first floor, you’ll find a memorial plaque on the wall. It contains a long list of names of theatre people buried in the church. Most are nowadays pretty obscure. There’s Gabriel Spenser, an Elizabethan actor whose main claim to fame was being stabbed to death by Ben Jonson in a duel (Jonson claimed that Spenser started it, and managed to get off on a technicality). There’s William Sly, another actor, a colleague of Shakespeare’s. Right in the middle of the list is the name of Richard Burbage, simply described as “the first actor to play the parts of Richard III and Hamlet”. It’s easy to miss him in the throng.

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Nonetheless, the first time I saw that plaque, soon after I moved to east London a decade ago, I remember being caught by it. I’d known that Burbage was an actor who’d appeared in some of Shakespeare’s plays, and that his father, James (also commemorated on the plaque), built England’s first theatre since Roman times, a stone’s throw from the church where he was buried. But the memorial set me thinking: who was Richard? If he genuinely had been the first actor to play Richard III and Hamlet, he must have been extraordinary – extraordinary enough to have inspired Shakespeare. Why had I barely heard of him?

I wasn’t the only one: whereas there are hundreds of biographies of the playwright, I could only dig up one of Burbage, by the long-forgotten historian Charlotte Carmichael Stopes. It was published in 1913.

But though facts were hard to come by, everything I read about Burbage seemed astonishing. Not only had he played Richard III and Hamlet, he also acted (and presumably collaborated in the creation of) the roles of Romeo, Shylock, Macbeth, King Lear, Pericles and Othello. He’d taken starring parts by many other writers too, in some of the greatest tragedies of the age – the title role in Jonson’s Volpone, Malevole in Marston’s The Malcontent and Hieronimo in Thomas Kyd’s blood-soaked revenge drama The Spanish Tragedy.

Nor did Burbage’s achievements end there. With his older brother Cuthbert, he took a starring role in the audacious operation to dismantle the Shoreditch Theatre over Christmas 1598 (the company had fallen out with their landlord and needed to relocate) and recycle the timbers to erect a new theatre on Bankside – the Globe. And the Shakespearian links didn’t stop at all those roles, either. It’s possible that the Burbage clan were the reason the playwright moved from Stratford-upon-Avon to London in the first place, perhaps offering him a home in the city, as well as a theatre and actors to write for.

So when I was discussing ideas for radio documentaries with a BBC producer last year, it seemed obvious that Burbage was our man. We had a host of questions: would it be possible to piece together his life? Could we conjure what he might have been like to watch on stage? And perhaps the most tantalising question of all: how did he and Shakespeare work together? One fact is beyond doubt – without Burbage’s singular talents, a significant chunk of early modern drama might never have existed.

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Portrait of the artist?

There’s a tradition that a hauntingly intense portrait of a man, in perhaps his 40s, now in Dulwich Picture Gallery (shown right) is a picture of the actor, perhaps even a self-portrait. This last theory is difficult to prove, though not inconceivable – after all, there is other evidence that Burbage worked as a painter.

One reason Burbage’s story has been neglected is that there is frustratingly little to go on: flashes of a life, rather than a fully fleshed-out biography. We know that he was a Londoner born and bred, baptised at St Stephen’s, Coleman Street in the City, on 7 July 1568. By the mid-1580s, in his teens, he was already on stage, initially as a “hired man”, then as a named actor: a surviving “platt” (plot) for a play called The Seven Deadly Sins lists “R Burbadge” as playing two of the main parts.

When James Burbage died in 1597, Cuthbert seems to have followed in his footsteps and become an impresario-cum-producer. Richard, still in his 20s, was already a star, the lead actor of the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He was the man who everyone wanted to see – and indeed cast. The published text of Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour, first performed in 1598, lists him as one of the “Principall Comoedians”, but subsequently Burbage seems to have specialised in tragedies, playing nearly every major role available to him and staying with the company when it became the King’s Men under James VI and I in 1603.

By the time of his death in 1619, Burbage was acclaimed as the greatest actor England had ever seen. Lord Pembroke, a great enthusiast of the theatre, wrote that he could not bear to see another play “so soone after the loss of my old acquaintance Burbadg”. The playwright Thomas Middleton, who wrote for him, suggested that Burbage’s death “had made a visible eclipse of playing”.

When it comes to Burbage’s life off stage, though, there is far less to go on. We know that at some point he married a woman called Winifred Turner at the family church in Shoreditch, and the couple had no fewer than eight children together between 1603 and 1619. There was tragedy offstage as well as on: all but one of those children died young. Perhaps Winifred had chronic health problems – the astrologer and healer Simon Forman saw her in October 1601, recording that she was suffering from “moch pain head back belly shoulders”. But the couple kept desperately trying for a family. When Richard died suddenly, at the age of 50 – apparently taken ill so abruptly that he was forced to make an oral rather than written will – Winifred was pregnant yet again. Touchingly, the name of their sole surviving son was William. Born a few months after Shakespeare’s death in 1616, he was surely named in memory of the playwright.

Ducking and diving

Burbage’s will is short and decidedly vague, but that might tell its own story. Despite what was rumoured to be the actor’s significant wealth, he may have been determined to keep as much of it as possible under wraps (other lawsuits make it plain that the Burbages were not above a bit of ducking and diving).

My own favourite Richard Burbage story was recorded by the lawyer John Manningham in 1602. It relates how Shakespeare overheard the actor, then playing Richard III, planning a passionate tryst with a female fan. Determined not to be outdone by his leading man, Shakespeare reportedly seduced her instead, and sent Burbage a note reading: “William the Conqueror was before Richard III.” Although it’s hard to know if Manningham’s yarn can be believed – it has the flavour of a laddish pub joke heard at 19th remove – it hints that Burbage was a captivating presence. If you can convince someone to have an affair with you while playing a psychopathic murderer with a limp and a withered arm, is there anything you can’t do?

That Burbage was a ball of restless energy is apparent not just in reports of what he was like as a performer – so convincing at conveying horror that he could blench at will, so impassioned when angry that the buttons flew off his doublet – but also from clues secreted in scripts he was involved in. Varied though the roles he played were, all of them require show-stopping theatrics. To be Hieronimo or Lear you have to be able to plumb the depths of crazed insanity; as Othello, you have to summon murderous jealousy; as Hamlet, you must switch in an instant from desperate grief to frantic, sharp-tongued madness.

These parts must have pushed Burbage to the brink of endurance, particularly as he grew older. Literally so, in fact: today, actors talk of the ‘Burbage break’ – the fact that, in many of the scripts he was involved in, there’s a section in the second half where the hero doesn’t appear, which enables whoever is playing the role to sit offstage and recuperate. Hamlet contains a more amusing clue, too, one that was pointed out to me by the actor Simon Russell Beale. During the fateful, final fencing duel at the climax of the play, Hamlet’s own mother remarks that he is “fat and scant of breath”. Was Burbage not quite in fighting trim, and did the playwright insert the line to get back at him? Beale thought the answer might have been yes.

The abusive father?

The Romantic poet John Keats famously talked of Shakespeare’s “negative capability”, his ability to intuit the opposing side to every situation and never to come to definitive conclusions. No matter how many times we watch Lear, we never know whose side the playwright is on: is this a story of a king “more sinned against than sinning” and his ungrateful daughters, or of an abusive father who sows the seeds of his own destruction? The ambiguity is central to the play.

It’s like that with Burbage too, somehow – in trying to pin him down, he always seems to escape. But then, of course, the greatest actors always do. Their gift is to inhabit the role required, whether it’s that of the lovelorn romantic hero, the grief-stricken prince or the wrathful king. One awestruck 17th-century spectator recorded that Burbage “wholly transfor[med] himself into his part … [and] never assum’d himself again until the play was ended”. Perhaps his greatest talent – the talent that really fired Shakespeare’s imagination – was that he was never more himself than when playing other people.

Andrew Dickson is a broadcaster and author. His books include The Globe Guide to Shakespeare (2016) and Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe (2015)

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