It’s 400 years since the death of Richard Burbage, the first person to play the roles of Hamlet, Lear, Othello and Macbeth in the original version of the Globe in London. As far as Shakespeare was concerned, Burbage was both a blessing and a curse. He was a good actor, and he seems to have been a particular draw for female audience members – an anecdote by the contemporary diarist John Manningham tells of a citizen’s wife who was so smitten after seeing Burbage play Richard III that she sent a note backstage to make an assignation, only for it to be intercepted by Shakespeare, who went off to the rendezvous himself with the remark that “William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third”.
This story may or may not be true, but the story would never have been told if Burbage had not had sex appeal.
But Burbage seems not to have aged well. In the mid-1590s he was playing Romeo and climbing up to Juliet’s balcony, but by the time of Hamlet, which was first performed in about 1600, Gertrude’s remark “he’s fat, and scant of breath” probably got an appreciative laugh from the audience. Hamlet’s trip to England in Act Four of Hamlet looks a lot like Shakespeare engineering a rest for Burbage before the exertions of the fight scene in Act Five.
Five years after playing Hamlet, Burbage was playing King Lear, who – we are told – is over 80 years old. That was overstating the case a bit – Burbage would have been about 40 at the time – but a year or so later he is the male lead in Antony and Cleopatra – a grizzled old warrior who is repeatedly said to be past his best. By 1611, Prospero in The Tempest, perhaps the last role that Shakespeare intended to write for Burbage, is announcing that every third thought will be of his grave.
And eight years later Burbage was indeed dead, leading the Earl of Pembroke – to whom Shakespeare’s First Folio would be dedicated four years later – to decide that he could not face going to see a play because it was “so soon after the loss of my old acquaintance, Burbage”.
Burbage was Shakespeare’s most famous actor – but he was not the only one, and the things that the other actors could or couldn’t do had an impact on what was needed from him. Shakespeare wrote for a company of ten men and four boys – and the four boys had to act all the female roles. So if you have ever wondered why Romeo’s mother dies so suddenly and doesn’t have her own death scene, the answer is simple – the boy actor who had played her is already on stage as the page.
Early in his career, Shakespeare enjoyed the services of two really exceptional boy actors – they played Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, and could learn long and complicated speeches. But just after Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night, his best boy actor suffered the misfortune of having his voice break. We can see this from the way Shakespeare designed the play – Viola, the female lead, says at the beginning that her plan on entering Orsino’s household is to sing, but in the event she never does. Instead Feste the clown is improbably presented as the resident singer in Orsino’s household as well as the Countess Olivia’s. Shakespeare revised the play, but the joins still show.
For a few years after that the parts Shakespeare writes for women are much less ambitious and demanding: Cordelia in King Lear speaks fewer than 100 lines – though that might be partly because it is easier to create an impression of virtue if you do not shine too bright a light on it, and Cordelia is the one good daughter who must be strongly contrasted with the two bad ones.
By the time of Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare had a new performer at his disposal whose Cleopatra could give Burbage’s Antony a run for his money. The boy who played the Egyptian queen had to go through some mercurial mood changes – and Cleopatra dominates the stage in the fifth act after Antony has very unusually died in the fourth.
Even this mark of weakness, though, helps us remember that throughout his writing career, when Shakespeare thought “hero” he thought of Richard Burbage.