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James Burbage

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James Burbage

James Burbage
Born c. 1531
Died 1597 (aged about 66)
Occupation joiner, builder, actor, impresario, theatre owner
Known for Building The Theatre
Spouse(s) Ellen Burbage (nee Brayne)

James Burbage (1530–35 – 2 February 1597) was an English actor, theatre impresario, joiner, and theatre builder in the English Renaissance theatre. He built The Theatre, the first permanent dedicated theatre built in England since Roman times.


  • Life 1
    • Career 1.1
    • Family 1.2
    • Death 1.3
  • James Burbage and The Theatre 2
    • Performance at The Theatre 2.1
  • The Blackfriars 3
  • Notes 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


James Burbage was born about 1531, probably in Bromley in Kent. He was apprenticed in London to the trade of joiner, and must have persevered through his apprenticeship and taken up his freedom, as in 1559 he was referred to as a joiner twice in the St Stephen's register.


Burbage took up acting and was the leader of Leicester's Men by 1572. Burbage had various talents, e.g. an actor, builder, and theatre owner; he was heavily involved in groups concerning theater. He was said to be a theatre professional "who bridged the gap between late-medieval drama in England and the flowering of the great Elizabethan Theatre."[1] Burbage was described as handsome in appearance, charming in manor, honest, tactful, and witty by Sir Robert Dudley, patron of Leicester's Men.[2] Another professional acquaintance depicted James as more motivated by commerce than by art because of his dependency on financial success.


Burbage married Ellen Brayne, the daughter of Thomas Brayne, a London tailor and sister of his later business partner John Brayne, on 23 April 1559. They were settled in St. Leonard's parish in Shoreditch by 1576, with residence in Halliwell Street or Holywell Lane.[3]

Burbage's son Richard Burbage became one of the most celebrated actors of his era. Cuthbert Burbage, Richard's elder brother, followed in his father's footsteps as a theatre manager.


James Burbage was buried in Shoreditch on February 2, 1597. He died intestate. Having previously given his Blackfriars property to his son Richard and his personal property to his grandson Cuthbert, his widow presented an inventory valued at only £37.

James Burbage and The Theatre

Ground plan of The Theatre

In 1576, Burbage and his partner John Brayne decided to create a new, permanent stage for London acting groups. It was one of the first permanent theatres to be built in London since the time of the Romans.[4]

Brayne was Burbage's brother-in-law and was considered a wealthy man.[5] It was his investment (and the mortgage Burbage took out on the lease of the grounds) that allowed The Theatre to be built, with the two sharing the profits equally.[6] Financial difficulties led Burbage and Brayne to stage plays in the building before construction was complete; the proceeds from these plays helping to finance the building's completion.[7]

Despite partnering with John Brayne, the lease of The Theatre's site was signed by Burbage alone on April 13, 1576, to begin on March 25, 1576.[8] Since Burbage owned the lease, he also received rent money for properties on the site. Under this lease, he paid roughly £14 a year. The exact builder of The Theatre is unknown, though a likely candidate is James Burbage's brother Robert, who was a carpenter.

In 1594, a Privy Council order created the Lord Chamberlain's Men and gave it exclusive rights to play in the City of London at The Theatre.[9]

Performance at The Theatre

Burbage was very confident that spectators would come to The Theatre, even if they had to go through open fields to get there. One contemporary of the time referred to people streaming out of the city to see the plays there. The Theatre was considered a grand classical name. It was made mostly of wood, with ironwork scattered throughout. There was a tiring house for the players, and galleries and luxury seats providing better viewing and privacy. These seats would typically cost an extra penny or two pence, as opposed to a penny for the average attendee.[10]

The Theatre was tested by the appearance of another playhouse, the The Rose and The Swan were built.[10]

The Blackfriars

On February 4, 1596, Burbage purchased the Blackfriars Theatre property for £600. The building had once been a Dominican monastery in the south-west corner of London,[4] but Burbage had plans to renovate the building into the English-speaking world's first permanent, purpose-built indoor theatre. However, in November 1596, the residents of the district petitioned and managed to win a ban on play performances at the theatre.[4]


  1. ^ Pogue, Kate. p.48
  2. ^ Stopes, Charlotte C.
  3. ^ Chambers, Vol. 2, p. 306.
  4. ^ a b c Dutton, Richard. The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theatre.
  5. ^ Wallace, Charles William. The First London Theatre
  6. ^ Wallace, Charles William p. 5
  7. ^ Mateer, David. p. 335
  8. ^ Dutton, Richard. p. 173
  9. ^ Gurr, need book and cite
  10. ^ a b Sternlicht, Sanford. "Chapter 5: The Theater."


  • Dutton, Richard. The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theatre. Oxford, New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
  • Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923.
  • Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespeare Company, 1594-1642. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.
  • Halliday, F. E. A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964. Baltimore, Penguin, 1964.
  • Kinney, Arthur F., and David W. Swain. Tudor England: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 2001. Print.
  • Mateer, David. "New Light On The Early History Of The Theatre In Shoreditch [With Texts]." English Literary Renaissance 36.3 (2006): 335-75. Print.
  • Pogue, Kate. Shakespeare's Friends. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006. Print.
  • Sternlicht, Sanford. "Chapter 5: The Theater." William Shakespeare: His Life and Times. Dennis Kay. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995. Twayne's English Authors Series 513. The Twayne Authors Series. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.
  • Stopes, Charlotte C. Burbage and Shakespeare's stage. New York, N.Y.: Haskell House, 1970. Print.
  • Wagner, J. A.. Historical dictionary of the Elizabethan world: Britain, Ireland, Europe, and America. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1999. Print.
  • Wallace, Charles William. The First London Theatre: Materials for a History. New York/London: Benjamin Blom, 1969. Print.

External links

  • "Revealed: 'Wickedness and vice' where Shakespeare became a hit" David Keys, The Independent, 4 August 2010
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