Richard Burbage: Actor

Burbage was the A-list superstar of his day, certainly the leading player of the Chamberlain’s, later the King’s Men, playing before James 1. Who else could capture the intensity of Shakespeare’s roles with such delicacy? He went on acting when younger, talented actors joined the company and his popularity only died with his death.

‘He had all the parts of an excellent orator, animating his words with speaking, and speech with action; his auditors being never more delighted than when he spake, nor more sorry than when he held his peace. Yet even then he was an excellent actor still, never falling when he had done speaking, but with his looks and gesture, maintaining it still unto the heighth…’

Burbage was extremely versatile, modulating his voice, face and gesture to find all the nuances of a character. It wasn’t just that he knew how to convey all the emotions:

‘And yet, no less the audience there
Thrilled through all changes of Despair,
Hope, Anger, Fear, Delight and Doubt,
When Burbage played.’ (Stopes)

His characters could change like a chameleon. His swordsmanship could bring gasps from the audience.

It’s likely that Richard 111 was the most popular of all Shakespeare’s plays with Burbage in the leading role. His power of impersonation was so great that he became his characters. He didn’t just play Richard 111, for his audience he was Richard 111. Legend has it that he so impressed a woman in the audience that she begged him to come to her chambers later under the name of King Richard. But Shakespeare overheard the assignation and as joke, left the theatre early to take Burbage’s place as a joke. Shakespeare was ‘at his game ere Burbage came. Then, message being brought that Richard 111 was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard 111.’ You might remember that scene in the film ‘Shakespeare in Love’.

Shakespeare and Burbage were close friends. You’d have to be a close friend to get away with that. When Shakespeare died in 1616 he left him money to buy a mourning ring in his memory. Burbage died three years later and ‘the true sound of Shakespeare’s lines as he had conceived them and as Burbage had interpreted them, was silenced forever (Holmes).

It’s easy to believe that Shakespeare had Burbage in mind when he wrote his finest roles. We know from an anonymous Funeral Elegy that Richard performed Romeo, Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Henry 111, Pericles and Shylock and that he appeared in Every Man in His Humour, Every Man out of His Humour, Sejanus, Volpone, Catiline, Alchemist, Captain, Valentinian, Bonduca, Queen of Corinth, Loyal Subject, Knight of Malta, and Mad Lover.

Burbage made Tragedy his genre as this elegy shows:

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.

William Shakespeare