The son of James Burbage, a joiner who became a theatrical impresario, Burbage was a popular actor by his early 20s. His early acting career is poorly documented. As many young actors of his time, he may have played the part of women in productions before taking any of the roles he is known for. It has been suggested that he spent time working with the Earl of Leicester's company, but there is no good evidence for this. He probably was acting with the Admiral's Men in 1590, with Lord Strange's Men in 1592, and with the Earl of Pembroke's Men in 1593; but most famously he was the star of William Shakespeare's theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men which became the King's Men on the ascension of James I in 1603. He played the title role in the first performances of many of Shakespeare's plays, including Hamlet, Othello, Richard III, and King Lear. But he was in great demand and also appeared in the plays of many of the great contemporary writers, such as Ben Jonson (the title role in Volpone, and Subtle in The Alchemist), John Marston (The Malcontent), John Webster (The Duchess of Malfi) and Beaumont and Fletcher (The Maid's Tragedy).
Burbage's power and scope as an actor is revealed in the sheer size of the roles he played. Of the hundreds of plays and thousands of roles for actors that date from the 1580–1610 era, there are only twenty or so roles that are longer than 800 lines. Edward Alleyn was the first English actor to manage such roles, in Marlowe's Tamburlaine and The Jew of Malta; but the majority of these star roles, thirteen of the twenty, were acted by Burbage.
After the death of their father in February 1597, Richard and his brother Cuthbert stepped in to rescue the family's interests in two London theatres, and ended up tied up in lawsuits. The Blackfriars Theatre they kept but leased to lawyer and impresario Henry Evans, who used it for a troupe of child actors. The other, called simply The Theatre, was dismantled when they could not resolve terms for a new lease with Giles Allen, the landowner. The beams, posts, and other remnants of The Theatre were moved to a new location on the south side of the Thames River and reassembled into a new playhouse called the Globe. Income from the Blackfriars lease helped fund the move to the Globe. In 1608 the brothers ended the Blackfriars lease and moved the company's performances to the theatre.
The brothers maintained a close working and personal relationship throughout their lives; they were neighbors on Halliwell Street in Shoreditch, near the Theatre. Burbage fathered at least eight children; after his death his widow Winifred married another of the King's Men, Richard Robinson. [See also: Nicholas Tooley.]
It has sometimes been argued that the famous Chandos portrait of Shakespeare was painted by Burbage; he had a strong interest in painting. Dulwich College holds a painting of a female head in a roughly similar style that was generally regarded as his work until it was found out in 1987 that it was probably misattributed to him and that it is a work by a North Italian painter.
Unlike Alleyn or his fellow King's Man Shakespeare, Burbage never retired from the stage; he continued acting until his death in 1619. He was not as acute a businessman as either Alleyn or Shakespeare; at his death he was said to have left his widow "better than £300" in land—a respectable estate but far less than Alleyn's substantial wealth, and less than the net worth of Shakespeare at his death in 1616.
Burbage was buried in St Leonard's, Shoreditch, a church close to the Theatre. His gravestone is now lost, but a memorial to him and his brothers was erected in a later century. An anonymous poet composed for him A Funerall Elegye on the Death of the famous Actor Richard Burbage who died on Saturday in Lent the 13 of March 1619, an excerpt 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 Hieronimo
- Kind Lear, the Grieved Moor, and more beside,
- That lived in him have now for ever died.
Of the many elegies that followed his passing, perhaps the most poignant is the brief epitaph:
- Exit Burbage.
- Scott McMillin, The Elizabethan Stage and "The Book of Sir Thomas More," Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1987; pp. 61-3.
- F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p.77.
- Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearan Stage 1574–1642, third edition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992; p. 91.
- "Hieronimo" or "Hieronymo" is the main character from Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy.