20 True and Likely Facts on this Leading Shakespearean Actor from the Late 16th & Early 17th Centuries
- Richard Burbage is thought to have been born in London in late 1567 or early 1568.
- He was the second son of James Burbage and his wife Ellen (née Brayne).
- Richard would have grown up with a good insight into Elizabethan theatre as his father co-owned one of London’s leading playhouses, The Theatre, with his uncle John Brayne.
- Richard had one brother, Cuthbert, who became a theatre manager, as well as three sisters, Ellen, Joane and Alice.
- Little is known of Richard’s early years, though he would have grown up in London and is said to have worked in the theatre with his father, learning colours and techniques which would have enhanced his artistic skills.
- Although no dates are known, he married Winifred Turner and they are believed to have had eight children.
- Richard had many talents but is best known as one of the most famous actors of his day, playing lead roles in Shakespeare’s plays – among them: Romeo, Hamlet, King Lear & Macbeth, as well as Edward II in the debut of this Marlowe play.
- While Richard concentrated on appearing on the stage, his brother Cuthbert poured his energies into theatre management and the brothers worked together throughout their professional lives.
- Following James Burbage’s death in 1597, the lease of The Theatre was not renewed by the owner. However, Richard, Cuthbert and friends, including William Shakespeare, took advantage of a loophole and dismantled the timbers of The Theatre and on 28th December 1598 began the task of transporting them over to the south side of the Thames where they were used to build the Globe Theatre.
- Richard and Cuthbert retained a 50% share in the Globe, with William Shakespeare, Henry Condell, John Heminges and other members of the acting troupe holding the remaining 50%.
- The Globe burned down in 1613 but was rebuilt, with the new version opening the following year, no doubt with the Burbage brothers foremost in organising this.
- Richard and Cuthbert were also close friends and neighbours, both living in Hellewell Street, Shoreditch.
- In his will, Shakespeare bequeathed a sum of money to Richard, as well as to Henry Condell and John Heminges, for the purpose of buying mourning rings by which he could be remembered.
- Richard never retired from the stage, unlike that other great actor of the era, Edward Alleyn, who was famous for his lead roles in many of Marlowe’s plays, most of which were performed at The Rose Theatre.
- Richard was also an artist and the painting below is believed to be a self-portrait, though there is no definite confirmation of this.
- Richard died on 13th March 1619 and the public grief was enormous for this very popular actor.
- He was buried at St Leonard’s, a Shoreditch church, near the site of The Theatre. His gravestone is lost but is said to have read “Exit Burbage”.
- In a later century a memorial to him and Cuthbert was erected proving that they were not forgotten.
- An anonymous poem was also written in commemoration of him. It is entitled A Funerall Elegye on the Death of the famous Actor Richard Burbage who died on Saturday in Lent the 13 of March 1619 and this excerpt gives an insight into his popularity:
He’s gone and with him what a world are dead.
Which he review’d, to be revived so,
No more young Hamlet, old Hieronimo
Kind Lear, the Grieved Moor, and more beside,
That lived in him have now for ever died.
- Although fairly wealthy, Richard was less astute financially than some of his contemporaries but still left his widow a substantial amount – more than £300 in land.
This painting is believed to be Richard Burbage’s self-portrait.
The above details are correct to the best of my ability but please let me know if you notice any inaccuracies. I am indebted to a variety of online resources for my research into Richard Burbage.