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Romantic Shakespeare

J.P. Kemble and Edmund Kean

Keating. Mr. Kemble in the character of Richard III. Mezzotint, 1788

Sheldrick. Mr. Kean as Othello. Lithograph, mid-19th century

Covent Garden. Othello. Promptbook, 1804

The Romantic movement influenced theater in the early nineteenth century just as it influenced other art forms during that time. The careers of John Philip Kemble (1757-1823) and Edmund Kean (1787-1833) perfectly reflect the changing attitudes that specifically affected Shakespearean productions. Kemble was the consummate patrician hero whose productions were stately examples of spectacle and monarchial grandeur. Kean, in contrast, was the passionate rebel, both on and off the stage, who emphasized the social and political prejudices that oppressed his characters. Kemble retired from the theater as Kean gained prominence in parts such as Othello, which contemporary critics considered Kean's greatest role.


Actor John Philip Kemble is shown in the portrait above as Richard III which he played as a darkly handsome royal figure rather than a deformed villain. In fact, Sir Walter Scott said Kemble was too “eminently fine” a man to play Richard; that he could never “seem constitutionally villainous” and “could never look the part.” Kemble believed that, as a prince, Richard should not be presented as calculating, cruel, or vulgar, which must have made many of his lines difficult to deliver.


Edmund Kean’s performances of Othello were unusual in that he consistently overshadowed any co-star’s portrayal of Iago. It was a perfect role for him as it reflected his inner passion and fury, qualities that made his finest roles seem both dangerous and exciting. Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, “To see him act is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.” Unfortunately, heavy drinking and the effects of venereal disease often made him unfit for performance during the last ten years of his life. His last role was at Covent Garden Theatre where he played Othello opposite his son Charles as Iago in 1833.  The playbill (above) from rival theater Drury Lane notes the spot in the play where Edmund Kean "sank on the neck of his son and was carried off the stage."


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