This one’s a bit more specific than the previous entries in my ongoing campaign against commonly held misconceptions concerning Shakespeare and his world. Some theatre historians (and more frequently, people who have read those theatre historians and are oversimplifying their views) will tell you that there were two great actors in Shakespeare’s time, one associated with each of the two leading playing companies: Edward Alleyn, who was with the Admiral’s Men, and Richard Burbage, the leading member of the Chamberlain’s (after 1603, the King’s) Men. Especially after the latter company was founded in 1594, according to that narrative, all of Shakespeare’s major characters were written with Burbage in mind.
Much of this narrative is a blend of distortion and fiction. You can read my critique of the notion that the theatrical scene of Shakespeare’s early career was utterly dominated by only two leading companies here. But even the claim that the Chamberlain’s Men after 1594 had a clearly identifiable leading actor is almost entirely without foundation.
It’s conventional to think of Burbage as the “first great Shakespearean actor,” but we don’t actually know if there’s any truth to that characterization. When he died in 1619, an anonymous elegy recalled his portrayals of Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and Hieronimo — three Shakespearean characters and one by Kyd. And by the mid-17th century Alleyn and Burbage had been enshrined as the two unsurpassed actors of their age.
However, these hindsight perspectives likely skew the day-to-day realities of theatrical performances in the 1590s and beyond. I’ll focus here on the early days of Shakespeare’s company, but there is a broader, more general reason to doubt that every leading character, in plays by Shakespeare or others writing for the Chamberlain’s or King’s Men, was necessarily played by Burbage. Both as a physical and as a mental feat, taking the parts of, say, Hal (twice), Benedick, Henry V, and Mark Antony in the same week in 1599 (a totally conjectural but not implausible repertory) would be more than impressive. It’s unclear why any acting company would ask the same player over and over again, on a daily basis, to manage such a stunning number of lines — especially if there were plenty of other talented actors available to take those roles. Overemphasizing Burbage’s exceptional status necessarily downplays the quality of the company as a whole.
More specifically, there’s good reason to question just how central Burbage was in the company’s early days. And there’s good reason to engage in a bit of alternative speculation, or myth-making: there are far more interesting stories to be told than the conventional account. (The following is adapted from an article forthcoming in Shakespeare Survey next year, “Three’s Company: Alternative Histories of London’s Theatres in the 1590s.”)
Burbage, it turns out, cannot be linked to any Shakespearean characters before the turn of the century, nor to any other major roles at all before around 1597/98 (the first connection between his name and a significant role occurs in the backstage “plot” for the second part of “Seven Deadly Sins” — a document that was long dated to the early 1590s, largely on the basis of tradition and wishful thinking, and that David Kathman has recently re-dated to the latter half of the decade in a rigorously argued essay).
Despite this evidentiary void, scholars have routinely assumed that the largest part in every one of Shakespeare’s early plays was written for his company’s leading man, and that that leading man was Richard Burbage. Hence also the frequently stated belief that they both must previously have been members of Pembroke’s Men — especially since a complicated connection can be constructed between Pembroke and the Burbage family via the latter’s links to the Earl of Leicester. Theatre historians have proposed that witnessing Burbage as Marlowe’s Edward II with Pembroke’s Men might have given Shakespeare the confidence to write Richard III for him, which makes for an intuitively credible narrative — but largely, I would suggest, because it is difficult for us to imagine the great actor in smaller parts, and because the direct connection between the player’s skills and the playwright’s ever more challenging and complex dramaturgical experiments has been such a staple of Shakespeare criticism for so long.
As far as I can see, however, there is no reason to assume that Burbage was a member — let alone a leading member — of Pembroke’s Men at all. Nor do I see much basis for surmising that he was the undisputed lead actor of the early Chamberlain’s Men. The thought may be strange and unfamiliar, but other actors, including John Heminges and George Bryan, had more experience and seniority, and could well have eclipsed him in the troupe’s early days. Shakespeare may initially have been writing with them in mind. Titus, Petruchio, Gloucester, Richard III: whoever these parts were first composed for, whoever first played them, it is entirely possible that it was someone other than the future star. Nor do we know for whom mid-1590s parts such as Richard II or even Romeo were conceived. And which part would be the star vehicle (if such a thing existed) in Merchant of Venice: Shylock or Antonio? Bassanio or Portia?
Rethinking Burbage’s importance to Shakespeare’s development as a writer means contemplating a rupture in the traditional narrative. It also means indulging, self-consciously, in the same kind of speculative storytelling that tacitly underpins that traditional account. But to my mind, figuring Burbage as on the verge of greatness rather than always already famous opens up alternative scenarios at least as intriguing as the familiar story. Can we perhaps read the conflict between characters such as Richard II and Bollingbrook, or the contrast between the old-fashioned Petrarchan Romeo and the cynically modern Mercutio as representative of the relationship between the rising star and his somewhat older colleagues? Would it make sense to understand the Hal of both parts of Henry IV as the character that marks Burbage’s arrival as the new leading man, the moment of Harry’s self-coronation in part two mirrored in the ascendancy of the player? That a developmental narrative offers more interesting perspectives than one in which nothing happens (Burbage is and remains great from beginning to end) does not make it any more true or likely – but if we can choose between two equally probable interpretations of the available evidence, why not opt for the richer version?
Things are further complicated if we question the usual assumption that all the plays Shakespeare had written by 1594 came with him to the new company (questioning that tenet is my central project in the article from which these observations are drawn). It’s at least as possible that texts such as Richard III did not come into the Chamberlain’s Men’s possession until around 1597, when they were brought into the company by former members of Pembroke’s Men. And if that is the case, the major characters of those plays were certainly performed by other leading actors, actors who would presumably have expected to continue in the roles they already knew. It may matter that although Burbage came to be associated with the role of Richard III in the early 1600s, as is evident from John Manningham’s well-known anecdote about Shakespeare as a sexually victorious William the Conqueror, no such association can be documented in the 1590s.
If one wanted to speculate about alternative leading men, it might be worth considering one important member of the Chamberlain’s Men who cannot be documented as an actor in the company before 1597, although he rose to prominence shortly thereafter and became one of the original sharers in the Globe in 1599: Augustine Phillips. The proposition that he was with Pembroke’s Men until 1597 is guesswork (most of their members are unknown), but so is the idea that he was a Chamberlain’s Man from 1594. However, indulging this speculation allows for an alternative theatre-historical narrative, one in which the Chamberlain’s Men slowly take on the shape they would retain for years over the course of the late 1590s and in which they don’t emerge surprisingly full-fledged in 1594. A Phillips that had been used to playing Gloucester in 3 Henry VI and the same character in Richard III would have had to defend his roles against the demands of his new company’s established leading men, but he may also have found a fascinatingly overdetermined Richmond in Burbage.
In other words, from a number of perspectives, the biography of Richard Burbage, the history of the Chamberlain’s Men, and our understanding of Shakespeare’s development as a playwright can all be enriched if we allow the surviving evidence to reflect events and developments that unfolded over time, and if we are willing to think of Shakespeare’s company (and his professional environment as a whole) as subject to both gradual evolution and radical breaks and changes. Unlike the previous two “myths” I’ve challenged here (that of Shakespeare’s enormous vocabulary and that of his astonishing erudition), the myth of Burbage’s instant and unwavering stardom can’t be “busted,” properly speaking: there is no evidence for or against it. But I think it can be exposed as much duller and predictable than the alternative narratives supported by the same evidence.
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