The Passionate Pilgrim 1.14: Richard Burbage

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you overstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so o’redone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.

Hamlet, III.2 17-24

Richard Burbage (1567 – 1619) played Hamlet when the play debuted in (about) 1602. The performance is legendary and it must have amused him to be giving this advice to the actors of his own company on the stage that he and his brother Cuthbert built and owned.

Portrait of Richard Burbage, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
Portrait of Richard Burbage, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Portrait of Richard Burbage, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Burbage more or less grew up on stage. His father, James, a joiner (ie: a building contractor) from Stratford who shortly became a theatrical impresario, and also founded the first successful permanent playhouse, was a famous theatrical entrepreneur. This background gave him gave him a real head start in the constantly changing and growing London theatre world.  Many scholars believe that he worked backstage as well as making his way through the ranks of the younger players, possibly playing female roles.

Burbage got around, possibly working with the Earl of Leicester‘s company in the mid 1580s when he was still a teenager. (Could he have visited Elsinore with Will Kempe in 1586?) He probably was acting with the Admiral’s Men in 1590, with Lord Strange’s Men in 1592, and with the Earl of Pembroke’s Men in 1593; but most famously he was the star of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men which became the King’s Men.

What seems to have made Burbage’s acting style significant was that it was not only a stark departure from the ranting of Alleyn and the antics of Kempe, but that he made the effort to assume  the identity of his character and maintained that identity not only when delivering his lines, but in all his other stage work as well. Which is to say that he stayed in the scene and supported it throughout. Actors in the Alleyn or Kempe mold, who primarily sought center stage and largely ignored the action when they weren’t in the middle of it, were simply not as believable as Burbage.

It is not at all difficult to see how Hamlet would prefer to work with Burbage over other actors because he understood that “The play’s the thing . . . .”

Once he reached an age where he could compete for the major roles, Burbage swiftly became more popular than Alleyn, his closest competitor. He played the leads in Hamlet, Othello, Richard III, and King Lear. In addition, he played the lead in Jonson’s Volpone, and Subtle in The Alchemist. For John Marston he played The Malcontent, for John Webster  he starred in The Duchess of Malfi) and in The Maid’s Tragedy for Beaumont and Fletcher .

For all his success onstage, Burbage did not die a wealthy man. He left his wife an estate of 300 pounds, not an inconsiderable sum, but nothing compared to the fortune that allowed Ned Alleyn to establish his famous college. Also unlike Alleyn, Burbage never quit the stage. On the other hand, when he died in 1619, there was such outpour of grief that it threatened to overshadow the official mourning for the death of Queen Anne ten days prior.

Next: A Little More on Burbage

PeteHeadshotDr. Peter Hodges holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Washington (class of ‘75), an M.A. in Directing and a Ph. D. in Literature from The City Graduate Center of The City University of New York City, New York (1986 and 1992).  Dr. Pete (as he is sometimes known among his friends) is a 30 year veteran of the Wall Street wars, author and producer of more than a dozen plays, a novel, and a critical study of Sadakichi Hartmann’s plays.

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