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RICHARD BURBAGE (1567-1619)

The following article is reprinted from A Dictionary of the Drama. W. Davenport Adams. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1904.

Actor and painter Richard Burbage was born (probably) about 1567, and died in March, 1619. The son of James Burbage, he was co-heir to his property in the Blackfriars and Shoreditch Theatres. In 1599, Richard and his brother Cuthbert, tired of controversy with the ground landlord, pulled down the playhouse in Shoreditch, and utilized the materials in the erection of the building in Southward which they called the Globe. It is likely that Richard took the stage as a child, making his début at the Shoreditch Theatre. Little, however, is definitely known about his youth and early manhood, except that he grew steadily in powers and popularity; during the last two or three decades of his life he was recognized as the foremost actor of his time. He was a prominent member of the Lord Chamberlain's company of players, in which Shakespeare also was included. There is a record of his playing before Queen Elizabeth at Greenwich Palace in 1594; also, that between 1598 and 1618 he appeared in many dramas by Ben Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher, as well as in Webster's Duchess of Malfi. But his greatest fame, it is clear, was achieved by his representation of Shakespeare's most notable characters. From A Funeral Elegy, of which several versions exist, it seems certain that he was the original Hamlet, Othello, and Lear, and that he may have been the first performer of Shakespeare rôles scarcely less notable. Says the elegiast--

"He's gone, and with him what a world is dead....
No more young Hamlet, old Hieronimo,
Kind Lear, the grievèd Moor, and more beside
That lived in him have now for ever died."

Richard III was "a part in which he was particularly celebrated." "His supremacy in the character lingered for many years in the recollection of the public" (Halliwell-Phillips). In his Short Discourse of the English Stage, Richard Flecknoe says of Burbage that "he was a delightful Proteus, so wholly transforming himself into his part and putting off himself with his clothes, as he never (not so much as in the 'Tyring House') assum'd himself again until the Play was done.... He had all the parts of an excellent actor (animating his words with speaking and speech with action ... never falling in his part when he had done speaking, but with his looks and gesture maintaining it still unto the heighth." To the actor's powers as a painter several references are extant. In Sir Thomas Overbury's "character" of "an excellent actor," which is held to have had Burbage for its subject, we read that "he is much affected to painting, and it is a question whether that makes him an excellent player or his playing an excellent painter." In the title of Middleton's epitaph on the actor he is described as "that great master in his art and quality, painting and playing." There is a picture by Burbage in the Dulwich College Gallery. Burbage figures in his own person both in The Return from Parnassus, printed in 1606 (act iv. sc. 5), and in Webster's induction to Marston's Malcontent (1604). Austin Dobson has a rondeau in which we are reminded that--

"When Burbage played, the stage was bare
Of fount and temple, tower and stair;
Two backswords 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!"

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