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Monday, January 7, 2013

Shakespeare and Richard Burbage

Who is the greatest actor of all time?

With all due respect to Sir Laurence Olivier, Daniel Day Lewis, Tom Hanks, Robert DeNiro and many others... the only answer is Richard Burbage.

Richard Burbage has a record of accomplishment that will never be surpassed.

He was born 6 January 1567.

Richard Burbage, believed to be a self-portrait

He was the first actor to perform the roles of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Shylock, Richard III and many more.

Who can beat that?

But what I find fascinating to think about is what kind of man was he? What was he like? What was his relationship with Shakespeare like? Were these roles just written for him, and he acted them, or did their creation have something to do with Burbage himself?

I like to think of him as a very funny man, the type who could make anyone laugh. I think he had a great and good spirit, a real understanding of the human condition, and was not interested in judging people, since his business was to play the best of men (Hamlet, Shylock) and some of the worst of men (Macbeth, Richard III).

Burbage's performance of Hamlet would have been the pinnacle of his career

As I wrote my versions of Hamlet, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice I found many cases where simple lines could reveal some humor, and more often than not I tried to emphasize the jokes hidden within the plays.

This has lead me to think that Burbage could take any line, no matter how serious or heavy, and spin it a little, giving it some extra energy -- often comedic.

I also came across many lines that could potentially be acted as asides to the audience, and it was challenging to decide if it should be acted as such or not.

These two discoveries made me conclude that Burbage was not only a consummate actor with his fellow actors on stage -- but he was also a master of playing to the crowd, and involving them in his performance.

Shylock's performance of Shylock would have made audiences roar with laughter

Since he was so often the lead role, it should come as no surprise that he had the responsibility of leading the audience through his story, of Hamlet for example, and letting them see the events through his eyes, and feel what he feels.

When he does have a soliloquy, especially in Hamlet, he is not removed from the audience, he is among them -- he is just like them -- and in their own way, they suffers slings and arrows too.

I loved having to recreate what the moment would have been like when Richard Burbage as Hamlet would have said "To be or not to be" for the very first time in history. It must have really moved the audience.

Burbage must have been quite an actor.

All too often when I read about Shakespeare there is little to no discussion of Burbage and what kind of contribution he made to these plays.

I think that Shakespeare could not have written some of these plays had it not been for Burbage.

To make myself perfectly clear -- Shakespeare could not be Shakespeare without Burbage, and we have Burbage to thank for some of the greatest plays in history.

They were business partners, they must have been the best of friends, and I think that Shakespeare was like a brother to Burbage.

Burbage's performance as Macbeth would have terrified audiences

I like to think that James Burbage, Richard's father, somewhat adopted Shakespeare into the Burbage family. This is no small thing.

It is good to remember that James Burbage was the one who basically created Renaissance theatre -- he was an actor who won patronage from the Queen's favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester which spawned other playing companies including the Lord Chamberlain's Men in which Shakespeare became an actor and playwright and whose plays were often first performed at The Theatre in Shoreditch, a theatre built by James Burbage.

The Burbages as such were something like royalty as far as English theatre was concerned, with James Burbage as king, and Richard Burbage as the heir apparent.

For Shakespeare to ally himself with such a family and work with them, and write for Richard, was a tremendous accomplishment. The Burbages must have had the most discriminating taste when it came to actors and playwrights, and they would not work with just anyone. In this regard, Shakespeare's first major accomplishment in London was winning over the Burbage family.

The position the Burbages had, in owning and operating The Theatre, and their close relationship with Leicester and the Lord Chamberlain gave Shakespeare the licence to write almost whatever he wanted. Yes there was a Master of the Revels who could censor plays, and close them down at his whim, but if Shakespeare wrote something that the Burbages wanted to perform, I think they could almost get away with anything.

The more I studied Hamlet, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice -- the more I was convinced that the plays contain a political message.

I was not surprised since the plays were written during a very tumultuous period in England's history. Shakespeare didn't write his plays in a vacuum, removed from history. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that he was commenting on the history around him.

The plays he was writing were charged with the politics of the time, and the roles he was writing were challenging and risky roles.

When Richard Burbage was playing Richard III, it was a risk.

When he played Shylock, it was a risk.

When he played Hamlet, it was tremendous risk!

He was putting his life in Shakespeare's hands, and vice versa.

If Shakespeare and Burbage crossed the line, if they made use of the stage for political purposes then they could find themselves in jail like Ben Jonson, tortured like Thomas Kyd, or even dead like Christopher Marlowe.

I think Burbage had to make sure the plays worked as plays, that he acted as well as he could first and foremost.

Burbage's performance as King Lear would have shocked and upset audiences

Could Shakespeare have written Hamlet for himself to perform? I don't think so. He needed an actor to perform it for him.

I don't think Shakespeare trusted himself enough to perform these critical roles by himself.

I think he needed Burbage to tell him what to keep and what to eliminate, and where to draw the line between what they wanted to say as far as politics and what they needed to do in order to satisfy the crowds in the theatre.

I seem to remember a famous director saying that he will never make a movie with his own money. If he can't raise the money for a movie, if he can't sell the idea to a studio or investors, then how can he sell the movie to millions of people?

I think if Shakespeare could not sell a Hamlet, or a Shylock to Richard Burbage, then he did not write Hamlet or Merchant of Venice.

The other half of Shakespeare was Richard Burbage

I am sure that even if Burbage shot him down and advised him not to write Richard III for example, Shakespeare would continue to work at it until Burbage would agree that it is ready for the stage.

I think this is the kind of relationship they had, they were a check on each other, and I think that they were constantly working on what to write and how to write it -- how to get it past the censors in the police state that was Elizabethan London, and how to make money.

If you start to think of Burbage as something more than just an actor for hire, someone Shakespeare was stuck with, and had no choice in hiring for Hamlet and the rest -- then you start to come away with an image of a man who was talented, smart, funny, and the courageous in a time when men like that were few and far between.

I hope you celebrate his birthday with me today, and in the future when you watch Hamlet, Othello or any other role he acted, I hope you stop for a moment and think about the incredible man who helped bring them to life!


David B. Schajer

Related Article:

Shakespeare and the Birth of Playing Companies

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