Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burbage, Richard

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

BURBAGE, RICHARD (1567?–1619), actor, was the son of James Burbage [q. v.], actor and theatrical manager, by his wife Ellen or Helen, daughter of John Braine or Brayne of London. Cuthbert was another son. The date of Richard's birth is unknown. The registers of St. Leonard's, Shoreditch, the parish in which stood his father's home in Holywell Street, record the birth of his sisters Alice (11 March 1575-6) and Joan (18 Aug. 1582), but are silent respecting himself or his brother. He was, with his father and brother, defendant in a lawsuit brought against the elder Burbage by his wife’s relations in 1590, and both sons must have then been of age. If Richard were the elder, he must have been a year or two more than twenty-one, and 1507 will perhaps prove to be about the correct date.

Burbage was doubtless associated with his father's profession from childhood, and made his début at James Burbage‘s Theatre in Shoreditch as a boy. Before 1588 he had secured some reputation on the stage. The well-known comedian, Richard Tarleton, a neighbour of his father in Holywell Street, was the author of a rude dramatic piece entitled ‘The Seven Deadlie Sinns,’ in which virtues and vices were represented in confusing alliance with historical and mythological personages. In a manuscript (No. xix.) at Dulwich College (‘The Platt of the secound parte of the Seven Deadlie Sinns’) the names of the actors and their parts are given, and two of the chief characters (King Gorboduc and Tereus) are assigned to ‘R. Burbadge.’ It is well ascertained that Burbage played Jeronimo in Kyd’s bombastic tragedy of the name, which was produced about the time of the Spanish Armada. At the close of the succeeding decade Burbage had gained the sobriquet of ‘Roscius,’ and had outstripped in popularity all his contemporaries on the stage. Except for the mention of his name in a document dated 4 Nov. 1590, and connected with the lawsuit respecting the claim of the Braynes to share in the protits of The Theatre [see under Burbage, James], there is little contemporary evidence concerning Burbage’s theatrical career before 1603. Infomation of a later date partly supplies the hiatus, but the student must he warned against the forged documents of 1589, 1596, and the following years in the State Paper Office, and the Ellesmere collection (see infra), which have been too often relied onto give substance to Burbage's biography. We only reach firm gound among the theatrical documents of the day in a warrant (issued under the privy seal on 17 May 1603) authorising the lord chamberlain’s players—the company in highest repute at the time—to act what plays they leased at the Globe and elsewhere. This document gives the names of the actors in the company, and that of Burbage stands third on the list, Lawrence Fletcher and `William Shakespeare preceding it. Burbage’s position justifies the conjecture-otherwise well supported-that he had been connected with the lord chamber1ain's men, subsequently called the king’s men, and originally called Lord Strange’s company, from 1593.

There is evidence to show that the death of Burbage’s father in 1597 left him with his brother Cuthbert and a sister proprietors of the Blackfriars Theatre. In 1635, many years after Ricbard’s death, a dispute arose as to the ownership of the theatre, and Cuthbert, who survived his brother, together with Richard’s living representative, stated to the lord chamberlain (the Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery) that the Blackfriars was the lawful inheritance of the two brothers and sister ; that they leased it out at first to the ‘Queene’s Majesties Children of the Chappell,' but soon afterwards bou ht out the lessees, and installed in it thelord chamberlain’s company, to which Burbage belonged. The chief members of this company, including Shakespeare, acquired shares in theprofits of the playhouse, but throughout his life Richard Burbage apparently reserved a very large share for himself 'ldle Blackfriars Theatre was not the only playhouse which James Burbage owned at his death. The Theatre in Shoreditch was also for a while the property of his heirs, but in 1599 Richard and Cuthbert, harassed by the hostility of Giles Allen, the lessor of the ground on which the theatre stood, demolished the building with the aid of Peter Street, a carpenter, and removed the ‘wood and timber’ to Southwark, where they utilised the material in the erection of the Globe, which was to be a summer playhouse, while the Blackfriars was to become exclusively a winter playhouse. In the subsequent lawsuit brought against Street and the two Burbages by Giles Allen, Richard seems to have left a the management of the business to Cuthbert, and the result is unknown. Richard evidently borrowed money to pay the expenses of building the Globe, and & loan ‘lay heavy on him many years.' He joined with him as sharers in the profits of the undertaking Shakespeare, Hemming, Condell, and others. But the distribution was not sufficiently well defined to prevent serious disputes arising later among the heirs of the original sharers.

At the Blackfriars house or at its near ally, the Globe, Burhage made his substantial fame, and it is clear that between 1595 and the year of his death (1618) every dramatist desired his services when producing a play for the tirsttime. All the greatest parts of the contemporary stage were filled by him in turn. The exact date at which he first came into contact with Shakespeare is not known. The story of their friendship as boys at Stratford-on-Avon may safely he cast aside, and there is no proof of their connection with the same company of actors until after 1594. In Manningham's ‘Diary’ (p. 39), under date 13 March 1601, is a story which is commonly quoted to attest their intimacy at that date. During a performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III,' in which Burbage took the part of the hero, the actor made an assignation with a woman in the audience, and Shakespeare is stated to have overheard the conversation and to have anticipated his friend in his visit to the woman's house. All the versions of the poetical epitaph on Burbage which wc describe below ooncur in assigning to him the parts of Hamlet, Lear, and Othello. Wright in his ‘Historia Histrionica,' 1699, states that Joseph Taylor was the original Hamlet, but the evidence against this assertion is overwhelming. Burbage would also seem to have taken part in ‘Love’s Labour's lost.’ Sir Walter Cope, writing to Sir Robert Cecil at Hatfield early in 1605, states that Burbage has proposed to play that comedy at court before the queen, and that he has sent the actor to Hatfield to know Cecil’s leasure. Burbage's impersonation of Richard III was highly popular. Of the striking impression made by the actor in the character, Bishop Corbet gives an instance in his ‘Iter Boreale,’ where he tells us that his host at Leicester-

when he would have said King Richard died,
And call'd a horse! a horse! he Burbadge cried.

We have the authority of the first folio of Ben Jonson's ‘Works’ (1616) for stating that Burbage played in ‘Every Man in his Humour (1598), ‘Every Man out of his Humour’ (1599), ‘Seianus’ (1603), ‘Fox’ (1605), ‘Alchemist (1610), and ‘Catiline' (1611). The lists of ‘dramatis personæ’ prefixed to the early editions of the play give Burbage the part of Ferdinand, duke of Calabria, in Webster's ‘Duchess of Malfi’ in 1616, and leading parts in the most popular of Beaumont and Fletcher’s plays produced between 1611 and 1618 are assigned to Burbage in the second folio of Beaumont and Fletcher's ‘Works’ (1679). Incontrovertible proof of the popularity he had gained in the early years of the seventeenth century is given by his occasional introduction into plays in his own person and in no assumed character. Thus, in the ‘Returne from Parnassus' (not printed till 1606, although first acted earlier), Burbage and Kempe, the comedian, speak a dialogue in act iv. sc. 5 in their own persons, and the former instructs students from Cambridge in the parts of Jeronimo and Richard III. Kempe asserts that he and Burbage gain more honour and money than any other person living, and 'there’s not a country wench that can dance Sellenger’s Round but can talks of Dick Burbadge and Will Kemp.’ Similarly in Webster’s ‘Induction’ to Marston’s ‘Malcontent’ (1604), Burbage, with Condell and Lowin, makes his entry on the stage again in his own person, and is pointed out to the audience by the other actors as the person who is about to play Malevole the Malcontent. There is no lack of other evidence to prove the high esteem in which Burbage was held by the playwrights and poets of his day, as well as by his audiences. As early as 1598 Marston seems to allude to him as the ideal Romeo in his ‘Scourge of Villanie’ (Sat. 10). John Davies, in his ‘Microcosmus,’ 1603, places Shakespeare’s and Burbage's initials side by side in the margin of the line ‘Players, I love yee and your qualitie,’ and pays the actor a similar compliment in his ‘Civile Warres of Death and Fortune’ (1609). Ben Jonson, in ‘Bartholomew Fair,’ v. 3, refers to Burbage as ‘your best actor,’ although he clearly associates him with Nathaniel Field, who was regarded by some as a formidable rival.

Although no detailed contemporary account of the characteristic features of Burbage’s acting has reached us, it is clear that he excelled in tragedy, if he did not wholly confine hipiself to it, and that he put his whole soul into his part. That Sir Thomas Overbury's ‘character’ of ‘an excellent actor’ (published in 1616) is drawn from Burbage is proved by the reference to the actor's skill in painting as well as in ‘playing.’ But Overbury merely praises the modulations of his voice, and his ‘full and significant action of body’ ({sc|Overbury}}, Works, ed. 1854, pt. xiv.) The best account of Burbage on the stage is that given by Richard Flecknoe in his ‘Short Discourse of the English Stage’ (c. 1660, appended to the second edition of ‘Love’s Kingdom’). After speaking of the ‘happiness’ of the Elizabethan and Jacobean poets ‘to have such docile and excellent actors to act their playes as Field and Burbidge,’ the author says of the latter ‘he was a delightful Proteus, so wholly transforming himself into his part and putting off himself with his cloathes, 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), his auditors being never more delighted than when he spoke, nor more sorry than when he held his peace; yet even then he was an excellent actor still, never falling in his part when he had done speaking but with his looks and gesture maintaining it still unto the heighth, he Age quod agis verily spoke to him.’ Flecknoe put these ‘praises’ of Burbage into verse in his 'Euterpe restored,’ 1672.

In personal appearance Burbage is stated to have been short and stout. The elegy (noted below) speaks of his ‘stature small,’ and the frequent references of Jeronimo to his own ‘short body’ are believed by Mr. J. P. Collier to have been introduced with special application to the actor who first took the part. The queen’s remark in the last scene of ‘Hamlet’ about her son—that he is ‘fat and scant o’ breath’—is also explained as an allusion to Burbage. The proposed emendation of ‘faint’ for ‘fat’ in this line seems, however, well worthy of adoption.

Burhage's domestic history is briefly told. He apparently married about 1601, and his wife, Winifred, bore him a daughter, Julia, early in 1603, who was baptised at St. Leonard's, Shoreditch, 5 Jan. 1602-3, and was buried there 12 Sept. 1608. A son Richard was buried at the same place 16 Aug. 1607. A daughter Frances was baptised on 16 Sept. 1603, and died three days later, and a third daughter, Anne, on 8 Aug. 1607. In 1613 a fourth daughter, Winifred, was born, who died 14 Oct. 1616. On 26 Dec. 1614 a fifth daughter, named Julia, was baptised, and 6 Nov. 1616 a son William. In 1605 Burbage was made by his fellow-actor Augustine Phillipps an overseer of his will. On 29 June 1613 he met with a serious misfortune. The Globe Theatre was burnt down during the performance of ‘All is True,’ assumed to be identical with Shakespeare's ‘Henry VIII.’ Burbage was fortunate in escaping with his life. In a ‘Sonnet on the Pitiful Burning of the Globe Playhouse in London’ occur the lines:—

Some lost their hattes and some their swordes,
Then out runne Burbidge too.

The theatre was rebuilt the next year. (The sonnet is printed by Mr. Halliwell-Phillipps, from a manuscript of the seventeenth century, in the library of Sir Matthew Wilson, bart., of Eshton Hall, Yorkshire.) Burbage died, according to the registers of St. Leonard's, Shoreditch, on 13 March 1618–1619. Camden gives the date as 9 March, and calls Burbage ‘alter Roscius.’ He was buried at St. Leonard's on 16 March. After his death his wife gave birth to another daughter, Sara, who died in April 1625. A warrant was issued (according to a quite authentic statement of Mr. J. P. Collier), under date 27 March 1618–19, authorising him to play at the Blackfriars and the Globe at all times when the deaths in London by ‘the infection of the plague’ did not exceed forty a week. His name stands second on the list of the players; John Hemming's stands first. Up to the time of his death Burbage resided at his father's house in Holywell Street, Shoreditch. A nuncupative will left Burbage's widow his sole executrix, but no details are given as to his property. Chamberlain, the letter writer, states that Burbage ‘left, they say, better than 300l. land.’ In a petition addressed by his wife and son William to the lord chamberlain in 1635, relative to their share in the Blackfriars and Globe playhouses, they speak of Richard Burbage as ‘one who for thirty-five yeeres' paines, cost, and labour, made meanes to leave his wife and children some estate,’ which implies that he died a rich man.

Many poems were written to Burbage's memory. The briefest epitaph written on him, or on any other man, was ‘Exit Burbadge,’ which found its way into Camden's ‘Remains’ (1674, p. 541), and is entered in a contemporary manuscript in Ashmol. MS. No. 38, fol. 190. Another tribute in verse, quoted by Malone and J. P. Collier from Sloane MS. 1786, developes the idea, and entitles Burbage ‘the best tragedian ever play'd.’ But the most interesting of the poems to his memory is ‘A Funeral Elegy on the Death of the famous Actor, Richard Burbadge,’ which extends in authentic versions to about eighty-six rhymed lines. Here reference is made to his success as an actor in the plays of Shakespeare named above. The lament grows somewhat bombastic towards the close, but the writer was evidently a sincere admirer of ‘England's great Roscius.’ The line, ‘[Death] first made seizure on thy wondrous tongue,’ has been assumed to imply that Burbage died of paralysis; Chalmers suggested on ill-supported grounds that he died of the plague. (Five transcripts of this elegy of the seventeenth century are extant: one at Warwick Castle, two at Thirlestane House, and two, formerly in the possession of Haslewood, and printed by him in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for 1824, in Mr. Huth's library.) Mr. J. P. Collier has printed a version above 120 lines long, but no early manuscript containing the added lines has been found. In this form the elegy assigns the following additional parts to Burbage: Edward (whether in ‘Edward III’ or Marlowe's ‘Edward II’ is doubtful), of Vendice in Tourneur's ‘Revenger's Tragedy,’ of Antonio in Marston's ‘Antonio and Mellida,’ of Brachiano in Webster's ‘White Devil,’ of Frankford in Heywood's ‘Woman killed with Kindness,’ and of Philaster in Beaumont and Fletcher's tragedy. Mr. F. G. Fleay points out that all these plays belonged to the inferior companies of the time. Thomas Middleton is the only dramatist who is known to have honoured the actor with an epitaph. His two couplets were first printed from a manuscript in the Heber collection in Collier's ‘New Facts,’ p. 26 (see Middleton's Works, ed. A. H. Bullen, vii. 413). Mr. J. P. Collier has also printed from a manuscript two stanzas, ‘De Burbagio et Regina,’ in which the fact that Queen Anne died on the same day as the actor is turned to account. Sir Richard Baker [q. v.], writing thirty years after Burbage's death, says that Burbage and Alleyn were ‘two such actors that no age must ever look to see the like’ (Chronicle), and in his ‘Theatrum Redivivum,’ published posthumously in 1662, Baker commends Burbage's freedom from ‘scurrility.’

Burbage, besides being an eminent actor, was a successful painter in oil-colours. Overbury says in the ‘character’ referred to above: ‘He is much affected to painting, and 'tis a question whether that makes him an excellent player or his playing an excellent painter.’ Middleton's epitaph bears the heading, ‘On the Death of that great master in his art and quality, painting and playing, R. Burbage.’ The Warwick Castle manuscript of the elegy is entitled, ‘On Mr. Richard Bur bidg, an excellent both player and painter.’ The author of the elegy says that Burbage ‘could the best both limne and act my grief.’ On 31 March 1613 Burbage received 44s. in gold ‘for paynting and making’ an heraldic device for the Earl of Rutland; Shakespeare received the same sum for some assistance he rendered the actor in the matter. On 25 March 1616 Burbage was paid 4l. 18s. for painting the earl of Rutland's ‘shelde and for the embleance’ (Rutland MSS. iv. 494, 508). At Dulwich College is an undoubted painting by Burbage. It was presented by William Cartwright, the actor, in the 17th century, and is described in Cartwright's own catalogue (still preserved among the college manuscripts) as ‘a woman's head on a boord done by Mr. Burbige, ye actor.’ Another of Cartwright's pictures at Dulwich College is a portrait of Burbage himself, which has been doubtfully ascribed to his own brush. It has been engraved in Harding's ‘Shakespeare illustrated,’ 1793. The painting resembles the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare, which has been unjustifiably regarded as another work of the actor.

[Burbage's biography has been written by Mr. J. P. Collier, in his Lives of the Actors in Shakespeare's Plays (1846), pp. 1–58, and in his Hist. of English Dramatic Poetry (1879). Collier, however, relied on some forged documents, e.g. (1) a certificate of the shares of the Blackfriars Theatre, dated November 1589, from the Ellesmere Collection; (2) verses on Alleyn, Kemp, Burbage, and others, first printed in Collier's Memoirs of Alleyn, p. 13; (3) a petition of the players to the Privy Council in 1596, from the State Paper Office; and (4) an undated record of the shares in the Blackfriars and Globe Theatres held by various actors, from the State Paper Office. All authentic documents have been printed from the original manuscripts by Mr. Halliwell-Phillipps, in his Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare (1885). See also Mr. F. G. Fleay's Hist. of the Stage (1890) and Actor Lists, 1578–1642, in the Royal Historical Society's Transactions (1881), ix. 44–81; Warner's Cat. Dulwich College MSS., pp. 202, 205, 341; the Variorum Shakespeare (1821); Collections of Documents relating to the Stage (Roxb. Club); Ingleby's Shakespeare's Centurie of Prayse (ed. Miss L. Toulmin Smith), for New Shakspere Soc.]

S. L. L.