Elizabethan actors existed in a contradictory world in which they were regarded as the lowest of the low, but if they achieved success and, most important, a following, they would be regarded as almost godlike, exactly as film stars are today. Modern film stars may spend years in near starvation, playing minor roles and living in circumstances that most of us would find intolerable, before becoming the gods that we see worshiped by hysterical fans. In Elizabethan London it was the same: actors worked hard and slept rough and, like in the modern world, most actors never ‘made’ it. But those who did made it big.
We find today that a president or a monarch or a member of a royal family will invite a movie star to a Whitehouse or Buckingham Palace event. There’s nothing new in that. The immensely popular theatre clown, Richard Tarlton, was taken up by Queen Elizabeth herself, and granted royal favours. She is said to have stood up and applauded one of his performances. Open any tabloid paper today and you will find a close interest in the doings of successful actors reflected there. In Elizabethan London the theatregoers also clamoured for nuggets of information about the doings of the stage stars, particularly if there was anything prurient about them.
Big stars are often in the news for things like charity walks across continents, participation in cycling or running marathons: their presence can steal the headlines of the event. Will Kemp, one of the most famous actors of Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who played jesters and burlesque characters, was also an accomplished dancer and led the jigs that ended each play at the Globe theatre. In 1600 he Morris-danced all the way from London to Norwich.
There was no bigger star of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre than Richard Burbage. One wonders how many of the Hollywood stars of our time will be remembered in 400 years from now. Richard Burbage has lasted that long, though. Four years younger than his friend, business partner and fellow actor, William Shakespeare, Burbage is still lauded as one of the greatest actors of the theatre, amongst all of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. His fame could rest alone on his having been the first actor to play Hamlet, but he was also the first to play all the iconic tragic heroes. Indeed, while Shakespeare was working on his great tragedies he had Burbage’s skills and talents in mind as he wrote, for his friend played all those roles – Macbeth, Othello, Lear, etc.
It is impossible to underestimate the part played by the theatre in the life of Elizabethan Londoners. Whereas today we have thousands of forms of public entertainment Elizabethan London had only the theatre and a few other things like bearbaiting and cock fighting. The Elizabethans had the passion for the theatre that we have in the modern world for our great sports events and the stars of the stage were as big as football and baseball stars are today.