Richard Burbage was the pre-eminent stage actor of the late Elizabethan era. He was also a successful theatre impresario and a long-time friend of William Shakespeare. The two men were founding shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men theatre company, which would become the King’s Men following James I’s ascension to the English throne in 1603. Burbage was the first person to play a number of Shakespeare’s now-iconic roles, including Lear, Hamlet, Othello and Richard III.
Born 6 January 1567, Richard Burbage was the son of James Burbage, an actor and theatre manager, and his wife, Ellen Brayne. He was the younger of two surviving children, his older brother being Cuthbert Burbage, who also became an actor of some renown.
It is thought that Richard began his acting career in 1584, just as London’s theatre scene began to flourish. Initially, he worked mainly for The Theatre, one of London’s first purpose-built playhouses, which had been built and was managed by his father. Such was the power of his performances, he had gained widespread popularity by the age of 20.
When Burbage Senior died in 1597, a dispute arose between his sons and the owner of the land on which The Theatre was built. When no resolution was forthcoming, Richard and Cuthbert dismantled the playhouse in 1598 and, having transported any salvageable materials across the Thames, they set about building The Globe theatre on a site known today as Bankside. Construction was completed in 1599.
It was around this time Richard Burbage married Winifred Turner. Winifred bore eight children, including one born after her husband’s death in 1619, only one of whom would live to see adulthood.
The Bard’s Will
Richard Burbage was mentioned in William Shakespeare’s will – the playwright left a small sum with the instruction that his friend buy a memorial ring in his honour.
Burbage would not long outlive Shakespeare, however – he died 13 March 1619, and is buried in St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch. He was memorialized in an anonymous poem, part of which reads:
He’s gone and with him what a world are dead.
Which he review’d, to be revived so,
No more young Hamlet, old Hieronymus
Kind Lear, the Grieved Moor, and more beside,
That lived in him have now for ever died.
See also article on John Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father.