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From Hamlet to Lear: How acting genius Richard Burbage inspired Shakespeare with ‘divine fury’

Portrait of Richard Burbage
Portrait of Richard Burbage

Richard Burbage was the go-to leading actor for the greatest playwrights of the 17th century. RSC artistic director Gregory Doran assesses the legacy of the first man to play Hamlet and Lear, four hundred years after his death

All actors love to hear a writer say that a part was written especially for them. It’s a flattering piece of seduction, though often, of course, a palpable lie. But imagine if those parts included Romeo, Richard III, Henry V, Brutus, Hamlet, Shylock, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Othello, Pericles, and King Lear – a lifetime’s career of great roles.

Over two spectacular decades, Shakespeare wrote all those parts for one particular actor. His name was Richard Burbage, and he died 400 years ago, this month.

When the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays was published in 1623, it included in the front “a list of the principal actors in all these plays”. It begins with Burbage, who created leading roles in at least a third of the canon – and those are only the ones we can verify.

Perhaps he also played Prospero and Mark Antony, and surely the great jealous trio: Oberon, Ford and Leontes have Burbage’s name written all over them. And that line-up of juicy parts were not the only roles Burbage originated. Ben Jonson wrote the virtuoso comedic role of Volpone for this great actor; as well as Subtle, one of the duo of conmen in The Alchemist. Thomas Heywood wrote the severe husband Frankford in his devastating play A Woman Killed With Kindness for Burbage, while the actor also triumphed as the murderous Duke Brachiano in The White Devil for John Webster.

Burbage did a good line in grief. Old Hieronimo, the grieving father in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, was one of his early hits; and John Fletcher wrote the epony-mous role of the heartbroken Philaster for “dear Dick”, as well as the part of Amintor in The Maid’s Tragedy.

But the actor’s forte seems to have been roles that could express furious jealousy or characters hell-bent on revenge. Thomas Middleton wrote the vengeful Vindice in The Revenger’s Tragedy for him, as did John Marston when he created the mercurial Malevole in The Malcontent.

Indeed it’s possible that the popularity of the whole genre of revenge tragedy could be ascribed as readily to Burbage as to any writer of the day. Maybe it’s not surprising that the stable of Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights liked writing for the actor. One of the many elegies and poems published at his death says he added “grace to the poets’ labours” and suggests that he was responsible for turning many a playwright’s words into something special: “He made a Poet / And those who yet remain full surely know it / For, having Burbage to give forth each line / It fill’d their brain with fury more divine.”

And perhaps it was the same with his relationship with Shakespeare. Without the talent of an actor such as Burbage, the playwright might not have been able to write in the way he did. Perhaps they inspired each other, and Burbage filled his brain with divine fury.

An anecdote about Burbage and his relationship with Shakespeare, recorded by a law student at Middle Temple in 1602, hints at a rivalry between them in another aspect of their lives. Apparently, Burbage had arranged an assignation with a female fan after a performance of Richard III, only to discover that Shakespeare had got in before him.

In explanation, Shakespeare left a message saying “William the Conqueror was before Richard III”. Though that doesn’t sound much like Shakespeare to me, or at least not the Shakespeare I carry in my head.

Maybe Burbage did like the adoration of his fans, but he seems to have been happily married to his wife Winifred and they had eight children. He was known as “England’s Roscius” after the legendary Roman actor, the greatest performer of his day. But what was it actually like to watch him perform?

A sketch entitled An Excellent Actor, which appears in a series of characters drawn by Thomas Overbury, though it may well in fact have been penned by Webster, is thought to portray Burbage. It pictures him holding the stage in a theatre such as the Globe or the Blackfriars, and it always moves me. “Sit in a full theatre,” it says, “and you will think you see so many lines drawn from the circumference of so many ears, while the actor is the centre”. It’s a wonderful image, an actor in the centre of a circle of ears; an actor commanding an audience with the power of words.

Few actors today have managed to play the whole gamut of Shakespeare’s roles written for Burbage, from Romeo to Macbeth. Ian McKellen, of course, is one, and has probably done more of Burbage’s Shakespeare repertoire than anyone else, though he has not played Shylock, Brutus or Othello.

Alan Howard performed a few, and was a particularly great Coriolanus and Henry V. Mark Rylance and Simon Russell Beale have each scored highly in four or five of Burbage’s great parts, and both might be described as “of stature small”.

As is my other half, Antony Sher, who has clocked up many roles that lie along the Burbage spectrum, from Richard III to Lear as well as the non-Shakespearean Vindice and Malevole. However, he was never a Romeo, and regrets missing out on Hamlet.

Sher is also a painter, like Burbage, whose self-portrait hangs in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It is also sometimes suggested that he painted the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare. The Overbury character sketch notes: “He is much affected to painting, and ’tis a question whether that make him an excellent player, or his playing an exquisite painter.”

Perhaps in truth there is a fragment of Burbage’s genius in all of the above actors, but we can never know. He died at the age of 52, like his friend Shakespeare five years earlier, on March 13, 1619. The outpouring of grief threatened to eclipse the mourning for King James I’s wife, Queen Anne, who had died 10 days before. The words said to have been inscribed on Burbage’s tombstone, now lost, are the best epitaph for an actor I know. They read simply: “Exit Burbage.”

Gregory Doran is artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive

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