The First Great Shakespearian Actor

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So, if Shakespeare himself wasn’t the first great Shakespeare actor (see my earlier blog), who was? The answer must be Richard Burbage.

We know all too little about the actors of Shakespeare’s company, but Burbage was among the founder members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and stayed with the company through its transition into the King’s Men and right to the end of his career, with his death in 1619, three years after Shakespeare himself had died.

Born four years after Shakespeare, in 1568, Burbage came from a theatrical family. His father James Burbage was both an actor and a joiner who built the first major English theatre, called simply that – The Theatre – in 1576. Richard is one of the three actors mentioned in Shakespeare’s will (the others are John Heminges and Henry Condell – all three received a legacy of twenty-six shillings and eight pence to buy mourning rings. Whether they actually did so no one knows. They may have blown it on anything that took their fancy.)

There can be no question both that Shakespeare wrote many of his greatest roles with Burbage in mind, and, no less importantly, that the actor’s special talents did a lot to influence Shakespeare’s choice of material for plays and his characterization of many leading roles.

Burbage’s versatility is illustrated by the roles mentioned in obituary verses that circulated after he died:

He’s gone, and with him what a world are dead,
Which he revived, to be revivèd so
No more. Young Hamlet, old Hieronimo,
Kind Lear, the grievèd Moor, and more beside
That lived in him have now for ever died.

(An even pithier epitaph was ‘Exit Burbage.’)

The contrast between ‘young’ Hamlet and ‘old’ Hieronimo – in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy – emphasizes the actor’s ability to portray widely differing characters; and he was still under forty when he first played the octogenarian Lear.

The nearest we get to an eye-witness account of Burbage’s acting is in notes written by the physician and astrologer Simon Forman when he saw Macbeth at the Globe in 1611. He wrote that Macbeth ‘fell into a great passion of fear and fury’ on seeing Banquo’s ghost, which sounds like a subliminal recollection of the character’s description of life as ‘a walking shadow’ – the word was used for an actor – ‘a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more’, a tale ‘Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.’ (5.5.23-7) Forman’s description seems to suggest that far from acting in a stylized manner, as is often supposed, Burbage actually seemed to be experiencing the fluctuating emotions of the characters he portrayed.

Burbage died suddenly, on 12 March 1619, at a time when the theatres were closed because Queen Anne, too, had died a few days earlier. Two months later the Earl of Pembroke, who with his brother was to be a dedicatee of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, was still so distressed that he could not bring himself to join in the after-dinner festivities at a great banquet which was to be followed by a performance of Pericles, in which Burbage had probably created the leading role; the Earl wrote that ‘I being tender-hearted, could not endure to see [the play] so soon after the loss of my old acquaintance Burbage.’

And his reputation endured: long he died Sir Richard Baker wrote, in his Chronicles of the Kings of England of 1643, that Burbage and Edward Alleyn, the leader of the rival company, the Lord Admiral’s Men, were ‘two such actors that no age must look to see the like.’

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • Stanley Wells

    It’s a big subject which has provoked much argument. Different styles of writing require different styles of acting. Shakespeare seems to me to require a more naturlistic approch than say Marlowe.  

  • Stanley Wells

    Well, I prefer not to assume anything without evidence! Just as for example I don’t assume that Kemp was the first Falstaff, whereas we do have evidence from  speech prefixes in the quarto at least that Shakespeare had him in mind for the role of Dogberry. Of course he could have changed his mind!

  • Anonymous

    Stanley, thanks for this; solid as always. May I ask, what evidence is there that actors of Shakespeare’s day did perform in a stylised manner? I can’t immediately see why we should expect audiences of his day to expect ‘truth to emotion’ any less than today, especially since Burbage was identified not just with one role, but played such a broad range. He would not have been typecast, as say an Arnold Schwarzenegger might be identifed only with action roles, but with a broad range, relying less on his own persona or on a style than on convincingly inhabiting his role, even within the conventions of his day. We should not assume that Lee Strasberg, or Stanislavski, have discovered, but rather re-dicovered for their own day, the importance of being ‘true’.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this post about the brilliant Richard Burbage. The evidence all links him to the major tragic roles, but do you think we can assume he also was the first Henry V, Richard II, Leontes and Wolsey? Would he have taken roles in the comedies like Orsino in Twelfth Night? I’d be very interested in your opinion.

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