You may have noticed that my middle name is Burbage. That is because I and my family are steeped in theartrical history. My great great great great great great great great great great gardfather was Richard Burbage himself.
The Bard of Avon’s pal who played all the great Shakespearian roles before anyone else.
He was the originator, the benchmark for all performances of the period. Indeed people tried to ape and copy his performances.
‘For few can mimic the sheer superbity of Burbage in thee great Shispeer (Shakespeare) roles’
said Wilberforsse in his preface to the plays in 1643.
Burbage played Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, the Bastard, Macwotsit (to write his name would bring me dreadful luck) Shielock, Philaster, Malevolo, Brachianao, Pericles, Dimodo, Sneak, Henry 4, Henry 5 Henry 6 Henry Seven and eight and (no doubt nine had there been one!) and Richard III amongst many others. He would always have thirty ‘parts’ up his sleeves and down his hose. (plays were naded out in ‘parts’. You would only receive your lines and no one elses, hence ‘part’)
He was the son of James Burbage, the actor and fishmonger and owner of ‘The Theatre’ which was the name of the theatre which he frequently performed at amongst other theatres. Though frequently there would be performances in barns or on carts or in Duke’s dining areas. In fact anywhere they could make any money.
Making a living when you are considered ‘scum of the earth’ as actors were, was hard. (actors were buried in unmarked graves because it was considered a sin to dress up in women’s clothes)
Richard was born on January 7, 1568 and by the age of 20, he was one of the great actors gaining plaudits and praise for his ease of interpretation of the great roles wherever he went.
‘I saw an actor today in Eastcheepe at the theetre and founded him vairy fine and lacking in sweat in his show. He suited much the words to the action and the action to the word and I felt as if I was holding up the mirror to naiture’’
said Fornesse in his diary. About him.
Burbage and the Bard of Avon were together in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the Queen’s Men, the Duke’s Men, the Tailor’s Troupe, the Butcher’s Boys, the Troller Team and subsequently The King’s Men. He was also in plays by Furnivall, Taupe, Widglet, Jonson, Marston, and Webster. His acting relied on great truth. John Snitnose wrote that he was
‘truthfull beyond mesure. I sawe all of us in every performance.’
There is a possibly apocryphal story relating to how ‘chummy’ Burbage and Will S were which suggests that some ‘groupie’ agreed to meet Richard for an ‘assignation’ after he had played the Crookback (Richard 111)
but Willy Shake got wind of this and impersonated Burbage (one can only imagine how dark it must have been without electricity) and sent a message back to Richard saying ‘William the Conqueror was before Richard the third!’ lol.
He had a great trick..this story has been passed down to me from my grandmother and to her from every descendent, of running on from the tower at the back (the (re)-Tiring House) and sliding forward to make more of his entrances. On many occasions he would deliberately end up amidst the groundlings who would hold him up and return him to the stage much like ‘stagediving’ goes on when rock artists hurl themselves into the audience today.
William S remembered his fellow actor in his will and left 6 shillings 8d for Richard‘to buy him a wig’ in his will which when you think about it is pretty cheap so Richard must have been offended by the ‘William the Conqueror’ gag.
Burbage was obviously a gambling man as were most actors of the period (as well as being drunkards..nothing much has changed there then lol) and frittered his fortune away and was forced to perform even when exhausted.
He was a small man only four foot nine and a fall from his high boots did not help his failing health so he kept performing until his death at the age of 50, on March 13, 1619.
His widow Winifred with whom he had a difficult relationship..it was rumoured that in fact she was actually a boy actor called Kevin…after his death married Matilda Robinson, thus confusing the issue even more. He is buried in St. Leonard’s in Shoreditch.