Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Great Shakespeare Actors

Burbage to Branagh


Stanley Wells


Oxford: University Press, 2015

Hardback. xiv+308 p. ISBN 978-0198703297. £16.99


Reviewed by Sophie Chiari

Université Blaise Pascal (Clermont-Ferrand)




From John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare : An Actor’s Guide (2000) to John H. Astington’s Actors and Acting in Shakespeare’s Time (2010), a significant number of studies devoted to performing Shakespeare have recently been released. Yet, a book on great Shakespeare actors from Shakespeare’s to our times was yet to be written and, thanks to Stanley Wells’s erudite and entertaining pages, the gap has now been bridged.

To start with, it may be worth saying what this book is not about. It is not a list of different technical acting kills illustrated by specific actors. Indeed, the author makes it clear in his introduction that such skills were, and still are, highly dependent on the audience’s expectations and on the dimensions of the playing space used by the companies. It does not either present us with the extensive biographies of the 39 famous actors included in the volume, as Wells almost exclusively concentrates on their respective Shakespearian stints, even though, from time to time, he briefly indulges in allusions to non-Shakespearean performances. Neither does it aim at exhaustiveness—an impossible task if ever there was one. On the contrary, after considering what differentiates great actors from simply good ones, Wells offers snapshots of brilliant Shakespeare players who, thanks to their charisma, hard work, and deep understanding of their lines, have reinvented Shakespeare. Great Shakespeare Actors thus provides us with a series of vivid essays where such great reviewers as Michael Billington and Michael Coveney are duly given pride of place. And the fact is that the book not only sounds like a tribute to players but also to these critics endowed with perceptive insight and a keen sense and experience of stage performances.

Wells logically focuses on the Shakespearean roles (usefully listed at the beginning of each chapter) performed by “his” actors, dwelling on their “points” (i.e. the best moments of their performances), on the physical attributes predisposing them to playing specific parts, as well as on their signature roles, without neglecting their occasional miscasting. And this, to my mind, is what makes Wells’s work invaluable, as the author does not hesitate to acknowledge the faults and limitations of the great performers he has picked up. Charles Laughton (1899-1962) is a case in point. He was notorious for his lack of confidence in speaking verse and the author underlines how paradoxical it was that he was given (and even more so that he accepted) the role of Prospero, “perhaps the most poetical in the canon” [153]. The reader, then, can elaborate on his own cross-references and draw his/her own comparisons. Thinking of Laughton’s Prospero, the name of Michael Redgrave (1908-1985), for example, may easily come to mind as the latter was acclaimed for his interpretation of The Tempest’s charismatic magician while Richard Pasco (1926-2014), who was never given the opportunity to play him, would doubtlessly have superbly interpreted the part, Wells regrets.

While humbly confessing that it is not easy to distinguish between “great Shakespeare actors” and actors of genius who have performed Shakespearean parts, he nonetheless manages to get the essence of the performers’ genius, probably because he himself has been acquainted with talented actors all through his professional career. Wells has indeed always been interested in the stage potential of the playwright’s texts and he has never ceased to promote this view in his own editions of the plays. This book may thus be seen as the most personal outcome of his lifelong experience. This is especially true in the second part of the book devoted to contemporary players, where the chapters are sprinkled with personal anecdotes, sometimes convincingly reporting on Ian McKellen’s vulnerability as Lear [241], sometimes commenting on Anthony Sher’s “dignified and unsentimental reading” of the character of Falstaff [251], or pointing out the dignity of Jacobi’s Prospero [233]. Doing so, Wells attempts to establish inevitably fluctuating boundaries between nice performances and gripping ones.

Starting with the names and dates of the selected actors, the chapters are short, incisive, and are all presented in chronological order, except for the sake of continuity from one essay to another. It is thus possible to read the book either in sequential or in non-sequential way depending on the reader’s needs, purposes and degree of curiosity. It should also be pointed out that each section begins with a black and white illustration allowing us to catch some of the main features of the great man (or woman) portrayed in the volume. What, among other things, contributes to its scholarly interest is that Wells does not limit himself to 20th- and 21st-century actors, but also deals with three of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and with their followers. The first part of Great Shakespeare Actors spans four centuries (from Richard Burbage to Tommaso Salvini, who is incidentally the only non-English speaker recorded in the book) and testifies to a thorough foray into early documentary evidence. Capturing sometimes surprising habits both onstage and offstage, it provides a glimpse at reactions and perceptions that vastly differed from ours.

One might object here that it seems rather difficult to report on performances that, for us, remain unseen as well as unheard. Wells does acknowledge the difficulty of his enterprise: until the Restoration period, first-hand testimonies are scarce. It is in fact thanks to Samuel Pepys’s diary, begun on 1 January 1660, that we have the first detailed reviews of Shakespeare plays, even though Pepys’s observations are necessarily biased by his own tastes. He had, Wells tells us in a tongue-in-cheek remark, a “roving eye for pretty women both onstage and in the auditorium” and he inclined to be particularly lenient towards those he revered, like Thomas Betterton (c. 1635-1710). For a more representative sample of reviews, one has to wait for the advent of David Garrick (1717-1779): from his career onwards, theatre specialists are supplied with ample documentary evidence on performances of Shakespeare plays.

If the general public is already familiar with the names of the famous Shakespearian actors of our day like Simon Russel Beale (b. 1961) or Kenneth Branagh (b. 1960), that may not be the case with those of early modern performers. So, the non-specialist reader eager to discover the ‘stars’ of the time will become acquainted with the double career of Richard Burbage (1568-1619), both painter and actor, and he/she will no doubt be interested in the itineraries of Will Kemp (d. 1603) and Robert Armin (c. 1563-1615), two great comic actors who interpreted very different types of roles. The former was a physical performer who may have been prone to improvisation (does Hamlet’s demand that “those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them” in act 3, scene 2, reflect the playwright’s irritation at Kemp’s habits, Wells wonders), while the latter was more musical than physical and played introverted clowns such as Touchstone in As You Like It, a challenging role now regarded by many reviewers as one of the less comic fools in the canon. These two sections (chapters 2 and 3) on great Shakespearean clowns hint at the complexities of Elizabethan acting, and they actually pave the way for further reading. David Wiles’s excellent Shakespeare’s Clown : Actor and Text in the Elizabethan Playhouse (1987) can be safely advised here to students wishing to acquire an in-depth knowledge of the subject.

Female players also have their share in this volume. In a small section entitled “Who was the first Shakespeare actress?”, the author quotes several comediennes, from Mary Saunderson (the first female Juliet in 1662) to Hannah Pritchard, who was apparently a fine and fierce Lady Macbeth in Garrick’s time. Wells, however, thinks she is disqualified by the fact that she “read only the scenes in which she appeared” [50], as she herself admitted. He could have added that, while she played an manly, uncompassionate, and larger-than-life woman promoting violence at all cost, she probably lacked the frailty and complexity of later ladies Macbeth, such as the ones successively embodied by Helen Faucit (1814-1898) and Ellen Terry (1847-1928), who both played the part “for pathos” [124]. As to Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876), whose Lady Macbeth probably was the role of her life, she seems to have had an odd theory according to which, the American actor Lawrence Barrett reported, “both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were under the influence of wine” [106]. Most readers—including myself—would give much to see or hear recordings of Cushman’s spectacular performances, all the more so as she had at first envisaged a career as an opera singer. Did that leave traces in her various incarnations of Desdemona, Emilia, Portia, Rosalind, Gertrude or Queen Katherine, apart from Lady Macbeth? The author skilfully eludes any definitive answers, giving us instead just the right amount of clues to make us feel like reading more about this unconventional American actress.

As has already been pointed out, this carefully edited volume offers a subjective selection of great Shakespeare actors. No wonder thus if some actors are more enhanced than others (one thinks here of Dame Judi Dench, visibly much admired by Wells who praises her economy in acting, her sense of fun, her technicality and apt use of legato (1)) and if a few expected names are missing. Admittedly, it would have been no easy task to devote a whole chapter to the anonymous woman who is believed to have played Desdemona for the first time ever on 8 December 1660, on the stage of the Vere Street Theatre. Other key personalities, however, would have been more obvious choices. Great Latin American actors include for instance the actor-manager João Caetano (1808-1863), a celebrated interpreter of Macbeth and Othello in the mid-19th century (the actor is duly quoted in The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare edited by Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells). He might, one day, be included in a follow-up volume, just like Mark Rylance (b. 1960), the former artistic director of the Globe Theatre. Somewhat embarrassingly, if Rylance has contributed to popularise Shakespeare onstage, he has also been involved in the authorship controversy (he is a staunch supporter of the earl of Oxford) firmly combatted by Wells himself. But Derek Jacobi (b. 1938), another standard-bearer of the Oxfordian cause, nonetheless prominently figures in the volume. Indeed, as graciously underlined by the author, Jacobi’s lyrical aptitudes have worked wonders in such roles as Richard II, Benedick, Lear and Prospero, and the actor has even contributed a perceptive analysis on the role of Macbeth in Players of Shakespeare 4 (1998) edited by Robert Smallwood.

All in all, this is a highly enjoyable book, clearly and pungently written. Those who are just discovering Shakespeare will appreciate its synthetic qualities and its well-informed perspectives, while Shakespearean scholars will learn more about interpretation not just in relation to the history of the plays but also in connection with the historical background of their players. One realises, for example, that in order to dignify tragic heroes, 18th-century actors almost systematically relied on a plumed helmet which must have been responsible for a somewhat rigid body language—a practice happily discarded by David Garrick who seems to have preferred more “naturalistic performances” [36]. As to those mainly interested in performance studies, they will surely want to elaborate on the notably tricky distinction between the French terms acteur and comédien. Along with Michael Redgrave, Wells quotes the French actor, director and manager Louis Jouvet who explained that while an acteur could be defined as a “personality actor” with a commanding presence onstage, the comédien seeks to repress his personality and to put to the fore remarkably “protean” features [199]. This is of course open to debate, as Wells teasingly remarks that “One could make quite a party game of trying to fit the other actors of this book into one or other of these categories” (ibid.). Granted, it is certainly worthless trying, all the more so as several other factors complicate these two labels, such as the differences between physical and intellectual players, or between the lyrical, comical and heroic ones. Besides, the author sometimes tries to separate those at ease with verse from those commanding prose more successfully. So, in the end, it is up to the reader to redefine his or her “great” Shakespeare actors. What is sure is that, while this book refuses to provide any ready-made answers, it will be of great help to the general reader, to Shakespeare students and to theatre historians alike as it allows us to reflect on the very essence of theatre, i.e. on the words made flesh by a small group of exceptionally creative interpreters.


(1) i.e. the ability to utter lines in a smooth and flowing way.


Cercles © 2015

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.