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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Shakespeare and The Birth of Playing Companies

On 3 January 1572, James Burbage wrote a letter, on behalf of the troupe of actors with whom he performed, to Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, requesting his sponsorship and legal protection.


Stage Combat Poses


Leicester had employed players as early as 1559, but a new 1572 law would classify traveling actors as vagabonds and subject them to penalties if they did not have a nobleman to sponsor them.

The letter also noted that they did not expect any financial support from Leicester. Burbage and the others wanted to be an independent acting company, and make money by themselves through their acting.

Burbage's letter worked, with even better results than perhaps Burbage realized.

Queen Elizabeth officially recognized Leicester's Men in 1574, by rewarding them with the very first royal patent. This allowed the actors the freedom to perform anywhere across England for the very first time.

During one very notable event, an elaborate celebration at Leicester's Kenilworth castle in 1575, Leicester's Men performed for the Queen.


Possible depiction of Queen Elizabeth and Leicester dancing the Volta, with entertainers


Kenilworth is not far from Stratford. It is believed that an 11-year-old William Shakespeare might have seen the celebration himself.

I like to imagine a little Will Shakespeare, perched in a tree perhaps, watching the carnival-like events from afar.

He would have seen James Burbage for the very first time in his life. But they would become fast friends later.

With the 1572 letter, Burbage had been just trying to secure the future and safety for himself and his fellow actors. Little did he know that he had in fact helped give birth to Elizabethan Renaissance drama.





Other companies of actors would follow, not long after Leicester had his Leicester's Men, including the Lord Howard's Men, the Lord Strange's Men, the Lord Admiral's Men, and the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

The Queen herself created Queen Elizabeth's Men in 1583 -- and stole some of Leicester's Men away from him in the process!


Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester


Burbage himself had been a joiner by trade, and if he was the one who wrote the letter, then that would indicate that he was the head of the company of actors that would become Leicester's Men.

It wouldn't be a surprise, since he continued to be even more industrious in the coming years. In 1576 he built, probably much with his own hands due to his previous work as a joiner, The Theatre -- the first successful playing house in England's history.

It was in this theatre that William Shakespeare as an actor and a playwright was born, most importantly with his position with the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

It was also this same theatre -- the actual boards and lumber -- which would be re-constituted to become The Globe Theatre in 1599.

James Burbage's son Cuthbert would help run The Theatre, and his son Richard would become an actor, and go on to create the roles of Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, Shylock, King Lear, Othello and others.


Richard Burbage



I love thinking about what kind of man James Burbage was. Leicester, who was arguably the most powerful man in England at the time, being the Queen's Favorite, must have loved Burbage and his fellow actors.

If Burbage had NOT played his cards right, Leicester might never have vouched for him and argued for the creation of his Men.

Burbage played a hugely important and a greatly under-appreciated role in the birth of English theatre, and without him we might never have had Shakespeare.

I hope you join me today in celebrating this remarkable man, and his tremendous achievements, and the gifts he gave us all.

Cheers,

David B. Schajer

Related Articles:

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester

Robert Dudley, the Queen's Favorite

The Birth of The Theatre and The Birth of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare and The Great Theatre Heist


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