Once Shakespeare joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, he wrote exclusively for that company. Doing so afforded him an opportunity to write for particular actors whose abilities as performers he knew personally. Shakespeare wrote the lead roles in his tragedies for Richard Burbage, who was the best actor in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the most famous actor of his day. A poem written in tribute when Burbage died in 1619 suggests that in Shakespeare’s lifetime, when people thought of Hamlet, Lear, or Othello, they thought not of the playwright but of Burbage, who created those characters onstage. Aside from having a powerful stage presence, Burbage boasted an impressive memory. Thirteen of the characters Shakespeare wrote specifically for him have more than 800 lines of dialogue. Burbage was also renowned as a stage-fighter, which is one reason most of the characters he played—including Romeo, Hamlet, Richard III, and Macbeth—fight duels.
Whereas Burbage was the company’s star tragedian, Will Kemp served as the resident comedian. Kemp was briefly a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and he had a successful comic career in his own right. Kemp played Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing and Peter in Romeo and Juliet. He also almost certainly played other slapstick roles, like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Costard in Love’s Labor’s Lost. He was famous for writing and performing jigs, which were semi-improvised comic plays with satirical plots and slapstick dancing. Given Kemp’s talent for improvisation, he may sometimes have gone off-script. Shakespeare may have made a sly reference to Kemp’s shenanigans in Hamlet, when the title character instructs a troupe of players how to perform a play he has written. He cautions: “let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them” (III.ii). In 1599, probably the same year that Shakespeare wrote that warning, Kemp left Shakespeare’s company. He was replaced by Robert Armin, an intelligent comedian and singer who was also a playwright. For Armin, Shakespeare wrote wittier, wordier comic parts with plenty of songs, like Feste in Twelfth Night.
In Shakespeare’s England, only men and boys populated the stage, since women were barred from performing. Lacking women actors, companies like the Lord Chamberlain’s Men relied on boys to play female characters. These boys were taken in as apprentices and taught the craft of acting. Many of Shakespeare’s most challenging roles were written for boy actors, including Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. Several of Shakespeare’s female characters, like Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night, dress up as young men. This required the boy actors to play women who were pretending to be men, which would be a challenge for any actor. Cross-dressing allowed Shakespeare to explore gender and sexuality in ways that could be provocative. The religiously devout group known as the Puritans were outraged by the boy actors dressing up as women, and they were even more outraged when these “women” dressed up as men.
After Shakespeare’s death in 1616, the King’s Men continued to perform his plays. Performances thrived until 1642, when the Puritans closed all public theaters. In 1649, the execution of King Charles I inaugurated the period known as the Interregnum, during which time a republican government ruled England. Theaters remained closed until 1660, when King Charles II assumed the throne and restored the monarchy. At the beginning of the Restoration period, Charles granted only two troupes permission to perform: the King’s Company, which was headed by Thomas Killigrew, and the Duke’s Company, headed by Sir William Davenant. Performance rights for Shakespeare’s plays were divided between these two companies, and this licensing system lasted for nearly two hundred years, until 1843. Many theatrical conventions changed over the course of these two centuries, and as tastes changed, these two theater companies altered Shakespeare’s work to suit audience expectations and desires. A particularly infamous example concerns King Lear. In 1681 the Irish poet Nahum Tate rewrote the play to give it a happy rather than a tragic ending, and this new version of the play remained more popular than the original until the middle of the nineteenth century.