Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Richard Burbage and the Burbage family

Painting of Richard Burbage thought to be a self-portrait

No more young Hamlett, ould Hieronymoe,
King Leer, the greued Moore and more beside,
That liued in him, haue now for ever dy'de.
Oft haue I seene him leap into the graue,
Suiting the person which he seem'd to haue
Of a sadd louer with soe true an eye,
That theer I would have sworne, he meant to dye.
[Funeral elogy for Richard Burbage]

Richard Burbage was born in 1568, the son of James Burbage, 'the first builder of playhouses',* whose workmen began the construction of a custom-built open air playhouse, called the Theatre, in the spring of 1576 in the parish of St. Leonard's, Shoreditch, about half a mile outside the Bishopsgate entrance to the city of London in an area known as the Liberty of Halliwell (or Holywell). James had previously been an actor in the Earl of Leicester's troupe, and his two sons, Cuthbert and Richard, followed him into the profession,  although Cuthbert's contribution was as share-holder (or sharer) and administrator, and not as an actor. 

* 'The father of us, Cuthbert and Richard Burbage, was the first builder of playhouses, and was himself in his younger years a player. The Theatre was built with many hundred pounds taken up at interest. The players that lived in those first times had only the profits arising from the doors, but now the players receive all the comings-in at the doors to themselves and half the galleries from the house-keepers. He built the house upon leased ground, by which means the landlord and he had a great suit in law, and by his death, the like troubles fell on us, his sons; we then bethought us of altering from thence, and at great expense built the Globe with more sums of money taken up at interest. [Cuthbert Burbage]

James Burbage died in January 1597, and on 13 April of the same year the lease on the troupe's permanent home at the Theatre expired, and they moved into a theatre nearby called the Curtain. Cuthbert tried to negotiate a new lease with the landlord, Giles Allen, but the negotiations floundered, with Allen intent on pulling down the playhouse 'to convert the wood and timber thereof to some better use'. But the Burbage brothers got wind of his scheme, and on the night of 28 December 1598, with Allen absent from London, they assembled a party of a dozen of so workmen, along with their chief carpenter Peter Street and their financial backer William Smith, and set about dismantling the theatre, as permitted by a covenant of the expired lease. They ferried the timber across the river and created a new playhouse in Southwark and called it the Globe.

View of the city of London from the North towards the South
c1598 showing the Theatre on the left and the flag of the
Curtain on the right.

Richard by this time had also become the leading actor in the company, and from the roll call of parts cited in the funeral elogy, we can see that he performed or was to perform as Hamlet, King Lear and Othello, as well as the major role of Hieronimo in Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, one of the most phenomenally successful plays of the age. And then as now there were compensations in being a star performer, namely the presence of female admirers. There is the oft recounted anecdote of the lady who was very taken with Burbage in the role of Richard III and sent message that she would be glad of his company after the play. But Shakespeare overheard the conversation and went to the lady's house before his renowned colleague and was 'at his game' when Burbage arrived. When the servant brought news that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare sent him back with the message that William the Conqueror was before Richard III.*

* Story related by law student Edward Curle to John Manningham who recorded it in his Diary on 13 March 1602

Richard Burbage died in 1619, and when his elder brother Cuthbert died in 1636 at the ripe old age of 71, the theatrical Burbage family came to an end.

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