As some may know, I am writing my PhD thesis about the actor Richard Burbage. The focus of my thesis is summed up in the title – Richard Burbage: Shakespeare’s Actor and the Art of ‘Personation’. My contention is that Richard Burbage is perhaps the greatest actor the world has ever known. No other actor has left such a legacy of roles, written especially for him, and many of which are still performed today. This includes Shakespeare’s Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear; and it wasn’t just Shakespeare but virtually every other major (and minor) playwright of the Elizabethan-Jacobean theatre wrote characters and plays with Burbage in mind, including Ben Jonson, John Marston and John Webster. Furthermore, Richard Burbage marks the beginning of a particular process in ‘Western’ acting that is still present in today’s modern world. Burbage’s acting process of ‘Personation’ was one that essentially involved a complete transformation, a complete immersion into the character, something that Burbage was noted for maintaining on and off stage until the performance was done. This process has resonance with some modern actors noted for their transformational skills, such as Daniel Day Lewis and Meryl Streep.
My research has led me to many wonderful discoveries, some of which I now wish to share.
As well as a close analysis of the respective characters for which their is evidence of Burbage playing, I have also been searching through other sources, namely theatrical allusions and anecdotes in order to articulate and illuminate Burbage’s acting and his particular expressive choices in the original performances of these characters, so many of which have gone on and enjoyed a plethora of ‘after-lives’.
But what did Burbage actually do? Initially, I was confronted with a blank wall, and the assumption that virtually nothing was known. This, however, is not quite true. There isn’t a lot, but what there is is rather fascinating as well as influential. Certain seemingly spontaneous physical actions, recorded by contemporary observations, such as Macbeth dropping a cup when he first sees Banquo’s ghost, or Hamlet beating the arras with his arms before killing Polonius who is hiding behind the arras, are the type of key-holes I have found that give a glimpse of what Burbage was like in performance.
Sitting up late tonight, not being able to sleep due to a fierce wind howling outside, making the large trees near my home creek and groan with alarming volume and closeness, I was going through a Shakespeare Allusion Book and discovered this little gem that reflects what Burbage, the original Hamlet, did in the scene where Hamlet reflects on his relationship with the old court jester, Yorrick, whilst holding the skull of the dead Yorrick in his hand (H.5.1). The allusion comes from a poem, Delarnys Primerose, Or the first part of the passionate Hermit by John Raynolds. This poem was published in 1604, three years after the first performance of Hamlet (c. 1601). I have up-dated the spelling from Elizabethan English to modern-day in order to make it easier to read. (The ‘passionate Hermit’ is holding a skull in his hand:)
He held it still, in his sinister hand,
And turn’d it soft, and stroke it with the other,
He smil’d on it, and oft demurely fawned,
As if it had been the head of his own brother:
Oft would h’have spoke, but something bred delay;
At length half-weeping, these words he did say. (John Raynolds, The Shakespeare Allusion Book, 160)
What the Hermit then says does not follow what happens in Hamlet, nonetheless, the physical image of Hamlet holding a skull has become almost emblematic of the play and the character as a whole. Whilst there is an element of uncertainty, if this is a genuine allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which it is considered to be, then what we see is a glimpse of the imaginative physical choices that Burbage made when performing – the first Hamlet. Subsequently, this physical action of holding Yorrick’s skull and caressing it was emulated by other noted Shakespearean actors, namely David Garrick and Edmund Kean (amongst others), becoming a theatrical heritage and legacy, adding to the notion that this is what Burbage actually did in the first performance of Hamlet.
I needed to find this as most of the other Shakespeare/Burbage allusions are quite violent, such as the beating of the arras. I get excited when I find such things, and thank heavens I do as this is a long process; no more so than for my patient and wonderful supervisors at Sydney University. It is very true that when one embarks on a PhD you need to be enthusiastic and excited about your chosen subject. I am – thank you Richard Burbage – I just scored another glimpse of you – a softer, dare I say ‘Gliding’ side of you (Light/Direct/Sustained), and very ‘Adream’ (Feeling/Sensing) – keep ’em coming!