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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Fiona Ritchie on Sarah Siddons and John Philip Kemble

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 198

You may not have heard of Sarah Siddons, but if you’ve seen a production of Macbeth recently, you may have experienced her influence.

In the late 18th century, Siddons became one of the first celebrity actors, for her performances in roles including Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, Constance in King John, Volumnia in Coriolanus, and, of course, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. Her brother and frequent co-star John Philip Kemble became the first stage “director” in our sense of the word, even though there was no such title in the 18th-century theater. Both of their careers benefited from Shakespeare’s rising critical and popular reputation in the 18th century.

We talk to scholar Fiona Ritchie, whose new book, Shakespeare in the Theatre: Sarah Siddons and John Philip Kemble, details their rise to fame. Ritchie is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, or wherever you find your podcasts.

Fiona Ritchie is an Associate Professor of English at McGill University. Shakespeare in the Theatre: Sarah Siddons and John Philip Kemble is out now from Arden Shakespeare.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published December 6, 2022. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Ellen Payne Smith in Montreal, Quebec, and Jenna McClellan at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

Previous: Billy Collins on Writing Short Poems and Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets



CLIP: Frances McDormand from Macbeth (2021)

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it.

MICHAEL WITMORE: What if, when you hear an actor like Frances McDormand playing Lady Macbeth, you’re actually hearing the echoes of an actor who played the part over 200 years ago?

Michael Witmore: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

If you were going to see Macbeth in late 18th-century London, Sarah Siddons was the actor you wanted on the bill. Siddons transformed the way audiences saw Lady Macbeth—from irredeemably evil to at least partially sympathetic. And Siddon’s revolutionary portrayal still lingers in today’s productions of Macbeth.

Siddons and her brother John Philip Kemble grew up in a traveling theater troupe, and rose to become two of the most famous names in the London theater of their day… Siddons for her larger-than-life emotional performances, and Kemble for his mastery of stagecraft. And their careers benefited from Shakespeare’s rising critical and popular reputation in the 18th century.

As scholar Fiona Ritchie of McGill University writes in a new book about the siblings, Kemble was the first stage “director” in our sense of the word, even though there was no such title in the 18th-century theater. Likewise, Siddons became one of the first celebrity actors, for her performances in roles like Queen Catherine in Henry VIII, Constance in King John, and Volumnia in Coriolanus.

Here’s Fiona Ritchie, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: You write that you can still see the influence of Sarah Siddons in many performances today, for instance, when actors like Frances McDormand or Ruth Negga play Macbeth, even though those actors might not even know who she was. What are you picking up on in modern performances that harkens back to her?

FIONA RITCHIE: I think it’s about this attempt to make the character sympathetic, which until Siddons was not really the done thing. 18th-century audiences had a fairly large moral problem with Lady Macbeth for inciting her husband to ambition and to regicide. Siddons was really one of the first actresses to think very carefully about the character and to want to try and create some sympathy for the character.

Actors like Frances McDormand and Ruth Negga have talked a lot in discussing their interpretations of the role, about wanting to make her less than a fiend-like queen or to make her something different from that, so that the audience is really sympathizing with her, as well as seeing the evil of her deeds. I think that more complex interpretation traces back to Siddons.

BOGAEV: Hmm. So, exploring shades of gray in every character.


BOGAEV: Well, she was the reigning queen of the London stage for 20 years, which is kind of amazing because you talk to people now and even big Shakespeare fans might not recognize her name. She was often called the first real female star, I imagine, like, the first Liz Taylor or Meryl Streep or something. So, why her? What was it about Siddons that enabled her to transcend just being a great actress and enter into that lofty realm of celebrity?

RITCHIE: A number of things. I mean, she was a very talented actor. She performed quite a wide range of roles. She linked herself to Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s growing reputation. Siddons certainly knew that Shakespeare was a growing star, and that by acting in Shakespeare’s plays, she would increase her own fame as well.

She controlled her public image in terms of thinking about the ways in which her visual image circulated in portraiture. She took control to some degree over what was reported about her in the press and tried to influence press reports about her performances.

BOGAEV: That’s really interesting about her ability to shape her image. Yeah. I mean, it sounds like she was controlling her brand in a new kind of way for an actress.

RITCHIE: Yeah, she’s definitely trying to do that, I think. One way that comes across is with her status as a mother, with her maternity. She had seven children across the course of her career, and she would often, sort of, use them in her performances or in the public discourse around her performances.

Very early on in her career, when she left the Bath stage to move to London, and the Bath audience were upset about her leaving them, she advertised on the play bill for her final performance that she would be bringing onto the stage her three reasons for leaving the Bath theater. She didn’t tell any of the actors in the company what she was planning to do. But she brought her three children onto the stage and said, “These children are the reasons that I need to leave you. I need to go to London to make some more money so I can support my growing family.”

She sort of used her maternal status as a way to gain sympathy from the audience. But, also, as a way to offset the critiques of avarice that she was often subjected to: that a woman should not be ambitious in terms of wanting a career that was financially successful.

BOGAEV: Wow. It makes me think she would’ve slayed on Instagram.

RITCHIE: She totally would. I think she would really have had some good things going on there and, sort of, ways to deal with the public coming after her.

BOGAEV: Okay, turning to John Kemble, her brother who played opposite her as Macbeth. Was his acting method and his stature equally transformative of these theatrical conventions of the day?

RITCHIE: I think she was by and large regarded as the better actor. The commentary at the time often will compare the two and say, “Well, you know, she was the better performer, but there was something really special that happened when they performed together.” It was, I think, partly about the fact that they were related and knew each other really well, and so could respond to each other very well in performance.

Their acting styles were quite complimentary. In addition to Siddons’ grandiose style, Kemble was possibly even more grandiose. He was very tall, very striking, very dignified. Also quite sort of statuesque and sometimes a little bit immobile in terms of his physique.

BOGAEV: How did this brother/sister team start acting?

RITCHIE: They were part of a theatrical family. Siddons was the oldest child and Kemble was the next sibling. They had several other brothers and sisters, all of whom also went into the theater profession. They were the children of acting parents.

Their father, Roger Kemble and his wife, Sarah Kemble, nee Ward, were managers of a provincial theater company in the West Midlands in the mid-18th century. In fact, Sarah Ward, their mother was descended from a theatrical family as well. Roger Kemble married the daughter of his theater manager when he was starting out in his early days.

BOGAEV: So we’re talking about three generations of actors.

RITCHIE: Exactly. Exactly.

BOGAEV: So, they were born in a trunk.

RITCHIE: Yes, basically. They were—all the siblings were born in different places in England or in England and Wales, and all of those places were places that Roger Kemble’s company toured to. You can trace the theatrical circuit from where all the children were born as they were traveling on the road.

BOGAEV: Was the whole family known for their Shakespeare productions? I mean how did Siddons and Kemble become so known for Shakespeare?

RITCHIE: Shakespeare would’ve been a key part of the repertoire, really for any theater company traveling in the provinces at that time. They sort of had to know Shakespeare by default, really growing up in that environment.

BOGAEV: I thought it went back to the grandparents as well.

RITCHIE: Yes, it is: the grandparents. Their company was the first to do a performance, or first recorded performance, of Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was, I think, to raise funds for a statue in the church. It was a very early example of Shakespeare performance in Stratford, and Siddons and Kemble directly descended from that line.

BOGAEV: Wow. Well, let’s track Siddons’ rise first because she hit it big before her brother. She had these years in regional theater and then she had her London debut on Drury Lane, but apparently it didn’t go so well.

She didn’t set the theater world on fire right away. Why not?

RITCHIE: That’s right. Yeah. She appeared as Portia in the Merchant of Venice in 1775. A lot of different reasons have been posited for why she didn’t succeed. I think possibly the theater was much larger than the ones that she had been used to performing in, so she didn’t have the right kind of acting style to reach all of the spectators in this 3000-seat auditorium compared to the much smaller places that she would’ve been acting before. Notably in Chatham, where the theater, I think, was a converted barn and was described by some people, very sniffily, as being very unsophisticated. So, it’s a change of environment.

Other critics have said that the role that was chosen for her debut wasn’t the best choice for her. So as Portia, she was very good as in the declamatory aspects of that part, especially in the famous speeches, “The quality of mercy,” and so on. But what Siddons also became famous for later was the emotional dimension of her roles, and Portia was seen as a part that didn’t really give her much opportunity to move the audience and to really make them feel with her. When she made her second debut, she chose a different part which was much more emotional.

I’ll add another reason that that’s been suggested by Chelsea Phillips, who’s recently been working on actresses in pregnancy in the 18th century, is that Siddons had recently given birth, and so, you know, may not have been quite ready to return to work at that point, or may still have been struggling, you know, physically from the aftereffect of having her child at that time.

BOGAEV: Hmm. So, for a number of reasons, she wasn’t really ready and she went back to regional theater and got in her—it sounds like—her 10,000 hours

RITCHIE: Exactly. Yeah. She went to slightly more… maybe a slightly more sophisticated theater. She went to Bath, which was really one of the theater scenes in the country that was growing and had a very respectable audience. She acted there for quite some time, and then was ready to go back to London afterwards. The management had changed at Drury Lane, so they were willing to give her another try in 1782.

BOGAEV: That’s where she really hit it. It looks like she paved the way for her brother then, after that, because he debuted a year after her in the starring role in Hamlet, and then he became known for it. So what kind of Hamlet was he?

RITCHIE: His Hamlet was famous for his—what were called “new readings.” He was a very intellectual performer. He was a scholar, really, and he liked to base his interpretations on the text, and on reading as many different versions of the text as he possibly could, and on reading Shakespeare criticism.

At this time there was really this idea that you followed the interpretation of the previous generation of actors, so to offer a new reading, could be seen as a little bit audacious. When he did make changes, they were often not taken very well by the audience who were used to seeing Hamlet performed in a particular way.

It took a little while for him to convince people that what he was doing was a legitimate interpretation of Shakespeare. But slowly introducing these kind of new scholarly readings allowed him to change the way that Hamlet was seen.

BOGAEV: Okay. Now, this is really interesting, because it’s so different from today. What I understood, what you’re describing, is that there was a theatrical convention of actors owning specific roles. The people who came before Kemble, you know, owned Hamlet, or the last one who came before it, which would’ve been who?

RITCHIE: It would have been [David] Garrick, would be most memorable predecessor as Hamlet. I think other people would’ve performed it in the interim, but Garrick retired in 1775, so he’s really the most memorable recent performer.

BOGAEV: Did that mean if Garrick was still alive, even very elderly, you couldn’t perform Hamlet yet?

RITCHIE: I think… Garrick had left the stage, so somebody needed to act Hamlet if you wanted to have Hamlet on the stage. But even if Kemble or others were allowed to perform Hamlet, there was a sense that the audience wanted Hamlet as Garrick had performed it.

BOGAEV: So, if you imitated Garrick, you might get by, but…

RITCHIE: Yes, exactly. Or you’d have to take some time to convince the audience that, if you were doing something different, that it was valid.

BOGAEV: Hmm. So did that shape then the development of Kemble and Siddons’ careers, this convention, as Shakespeare stars?

RITCHIE: It did. From very early on, there seems to have been a desire to see them act together in Shakespeare plays. The first Shakespeare play they acted in was King John. But the play that they became most famous in acting together was Macbeth.

But it took quite a while before they were able to perform in that together on a regular basis. That was because William Smith, another actor at the time, was the owner of the part of Macbeth.

So, Siddons and Kemble first acted Macbeth in a benefit performance for Siddons quite early in her career. But it took a few more years before William Smith retired, before Kemble could then properly acquire that role, and then could perform regularly in Macbeth with his sister.

BOGAEV: Tricky business. But such a big part of their success was that they were this brother-sister team. Was it common at the time for siblings to perform together? Was that a common gimmick?

RITCHIE: Not to my knowledge, actually. I mean, I think that the Kemble family were known for being related, and there’s often commentary about Siddons and Kemble performing together or performing with their brothers, Charles and Steven, and how the family likeness, if they were performing together as family members, added an extra dimension to the play.

But there weren’t that many other examples that I found of brothers and sisters performing together. There were fathers and daughters, and mothers and daughters and sons, and so on. But the sibling angle seems to have been unique for them.

BOGAEV: Their first big high-profile Shakespeare play together was King John as you said, which was really popular in this period. It’s not often produced now. But it’s very emotional. They’re very emotive roles that they were playing in King John. Tell us about it and how was it received? What was the key to their success?

RITCHIE: When I first started researching this, I found a lot of commentary that said that there was a desire for the audience to see Siddons and Kemble acting in the same Shakespeare play together. Apparently it may have been King George III that actually requested the specific play of King John. It was definitely done as a command performance for royalty.

But, when I started researching this particular play, I found actually that they don’t really have a lot of stage time together. They don’t really appear together. It’s more, in this case, a vehicle; a play that’s a vehicle for them both to be in the same play but not necessarily interacting. That wasn’t true for all of the plays that they appeared in, but in this case it was.

Siddons’ role, as Constance, was very emotional. She was a wronged mother who was protecting her son, and that really allowed her to show the way that she excelled in performing pathos and in performing maternity. Kemble, as King John, was quite villainous, quite aloof. And again, that sort of suited his more statuesque style.

BOGAEV: Oh, so it sounds like the roles were so perfect for each of them, that it was more the roles fitting as opposed to them being together in this whole brother-sister act.

RITCHIE: Yeah, I think so.

BOGAEV: Siddons sounds unusual for her acting style. It sounds like she was almost like a Method actor. And you describe how she… when she was offstage during a performance, that she insisted that her dressing room door stay open so that she could still hear the play and still be connected to the emotional current of it. That seems so modern to me.

RITCHIE: Yes, and I think she was quite unusual for that. She wrote about this in her memoirs and the example… well, the example she gives is King John, where she said, she went offstage as Constance and then made sure that her dressing room door was left open so she could hear all of the events that were taking place on stage, which were things that would affect Constance later in the play, so she could build up her the right tone of emotion for when she eventually had to reappear on stage.

BOGAEV: How did she come up with that idea, do you think?

RITCHIE: I don’t know. I wonder if it was maybe from acting in these smaller theaters where the dressing rooms would’ve been really close to the stage or maybe there weren’t really any dedicated dressing rooms. And so, actors were sort of always watching what was going on around them on the stage, even when they weren’t on stage.

Or, from being a child and being backstage at so many performances that her parents might have starred in while not actually acting herself. I think she sort of got this sense that to really get into the character you needed to think about the play as a whole and not just the bits in which you were speaking. Which again, was somewhat unusual because it was only fairly recently that actors had started to be given the full text of the play, and not just their parts and cues to learn from.

BOGAEV: Well, she played Desdemona and Ophelia and Volumnia. But her other big success was Queen Katherine in Henry VIII. And you write that she told Samuel Johnson it was her favorite role. Why was that a standout?

RITCHIE: I think again, possibly because it’s a role that doesn’t involve any sort of romance, I guess. That she’s a very moral character who’s been wronged. The character of the wronged woman was really something that Siddons excelled at, and expressing this dignity in the face of having been wronged by those around her.

I think that that’s why Queen Katherine allowed her to achieve a particular success.

BOGAEV: Well, Siddons also played Hamlet, the role her brother was famous for. So, who is the better Hamlet?

RITCHIE: Well, she played it first, as far as we know.

Siddons started performing Hamlet in 1775 when she was beginning her career in the regions. And we know that she performed it in Worcester, in Manchester, in Liverpool, in Bath. She never performed it on the London stage.

Then, Kemble made his debut as Hamlet at Drury Lane in 1782. It may be that once Kemble had claimed that role in London, Siddons didn’t want to attempt it because it would be seen as a direct challenge to her brother.

It may be that she was developing her reputation as a respectable woman and that dressing as a man to act Hamlet might have been seen as less than respectable at the time.

She did actually go back to the part later in her career in 1802 in Dublin. Again, not on the London stage, but it was a part that she returned to. There are several—from the 1802 performance—there are several commentators who saw Siddons’ perform and also speculated about her Hamlet versus that of her brother and why they thought that she was the better of the two performers.

BOGAEV: Okay. You anticipated my question about how common or uncommon a female Hamlet was in this period, or how audiences thought about a woman crossing gender in drama.

RITCHIE: Siddons was not the first female Hamlet. The first female Hamlet that we know of is an actress called Fanny Furnival, who performed it in Dublin in the 1740s. Interestingly enough, Fanny Furnival trained Siddons’s father, Roger Kemble, when he was acting in a regional company as a young man, so there may be some traces of Fanny Furnival’s Hamlet in Siddon’s Hamlet through her father.

Charlotte Charke also acted or claims to have acted Hamlet in the 18th century. And then Jane Powell was the most famous Hamlet—female Hamlet—on the London stage. So it wasn’t necessarily unusual.

Siddons had a very vexed relationship with cross-dressing roles. She really didn’t like performing them. The role that made her name in Chatham and that got her invited to Drury Lane was Rosalind in As You Like It. Henry Bait, who was the observer sent by Garrick to go and watch her perform and to report back, said that she was good in breeches and she’d be even better once she delivered her child, because she was heavily pregnant at the time. He said he had to use his imagination to kind of imagine her figure because she was too heavily pregnant.

BOGAEV: But I mean, that’s the thing. She had so many kids. I mean, she gave, what, birth to seven? And I imagine, I’m guessing there were maybe some miscarriages, so maybe more pregnancies even than that, so she was often performing while she was pregnant. How did 18th-century audiences think about that?

RITCHIE: I think they didn’t really care. They just sort of went along with it. They didn’t really need this kind of verisimilitude. I think the dress of the time, the sort of empire waist, probably concealed a lot of the pregnancy too. It doesn’t seem to be, have been an issue really. And it doesn’t really come up all that much in the commentary.

I think there’s some very interesting resonance to be traced, like how an audience would think about seeing a pregnant Lady Macbeth, for example, doing the speech “I have given suck.” But, yeah, the audience seemed to have sort of rolled with it really and not been too worried about seeing pregnancy on the stage

BOGAEV: Well, that’s good for her because she was really curvaceous. I mean, she was a buxom actress, right? Even when she wasn’t pregnant.

RITCHIE: Towards the end of her career, there’s a lot of criticism of her being too fat or too round. Yeah.

BOGAEV: They could overlook pregnancy, but not overweight.

RITCHIE: Yeah, no, not overweight. Definitely not. There’s an anecdote towards the end of her career about performing Queen Katherine and having to be pulled up out of the chair because she tried to stand up and the chair was stuck to her. But I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s pretty harsh.

BOGAEV: Some things never change.

RITCHIE: Exactly. Yeah.

BOGAEV: Was Kemble—did he go for this immersive stuff or any of the early method acting like his sister?

RITCHIE: No, he seems to have been much more about the scholarly approach, reading the text and thinking about textual variance and kind of researching the history of obscure words and their meanings. That was really his way into it, was through the text and through historical study.

BOGAEV: He was such a different animal from his sister. He went on to become a manager of Drury Lane and later of Covent Garden. What’s his legacy as a theater producer and theater director?

RITCHIE: I think, it’s really that he was maybe the first modern director in the sense that he thought about the entirety of the play, the overall picture of the play, and the overall interpretation of it. When he wanted to produce Coriolanus, for example, he did a lot of research into Ancient Rome, into costuming, into the kind of props that would’ve been used, and he brought all of that to the play. He’s really trying to, sort of, build the world of ancient Rome on the stage, even if that ancient Rome was very anachronistic.

It was different to what had been done before and it was trying to create this stage picture, this overall interpretation of the entirety of the play. Which seems sort of obvious to us now, but I think at the time was not necessarily the way that people proceeded when they were putting Shakespeare on the stage.

BOGAEV: Kemble was getting into stage design and props and music, processions, costuming, all of that. So that traverses a lot of ground there.

RITCHIE: Yeah. Part of that, again, is the size of the theaters that he’s dealing with, that he has to add all these extra elements because the stages of Drury Lane and Covent Garden are so large, they need a lot of stuff to fill them. The spectators are often so far away that they need, sort of, visuals to capture their attention if they can’t hear the lines of the play.

So it’s partly about the realities of the theater that he’s working in. But he also, I think, enjoyed the opportunity to have this very lavish—to create these very lavish spectacles.

BOGAEV: Well, on a darker note, he also exemplified modern director stereotypes in that he apparently tried to rape an actress.

RITCHIE: He did. Yes, apparently backstage, he sexually assaulted Maria Theresa De Camp, who was a member of the Drury Lane company at that time, in 1795. She seems to have created enough fuss and noise that other members of the company came to help her, but it created quite a scandal. He had to apologize profusely in the press.

But the nature of that apology reads to us, I think, as very problematic. That he talked about how she didn’t deserve the conduct that he’d displayed to her—as if anyone did.

A lot of the other commentary around this at the time, and even very recently, you know, as recently as the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s, has talked about how Kemble was drunk and that was why he assaulted this beautiful young actress. All of these accounts, even in the biographical dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, talk about how De Camp was an enticing, attractive young woman, and Kemble was drunk and therefore he couldn’t resist and that’s why he assaulted her.

BOGAEV: Wow. I’m not sure I like Kemble at all. You write he also got caught up in a literary hoax, a phony Shakespeare play. What was that all about?

RITCHIE: This was the play Vortigern, which was “discovered,” in inverted commas, by a young man named William Henry Ireland. He claimed to have discovered a whole cache of Shakespearean manuscripts. The centerpiece of this discovery was this play Vortigern, which he said was a new historical tragedy written by Shakespeare. And he brought it to Drury Lane. Of course, it later transpired that Ireland had written the entire thing himself. It was a complete fabrication.

At that point, Kemble was the manager of Drury Lane, the stage manager, so he was sort of directing the players and involved in the staging. But the theater’s proprietor and main manager was Richard Brinsley Sheridan. He was the money behind the operation and he had the overall say over the repertoire on what was being produced.

So, Sheridan basically made Kemble stage Vortigern. Again, Kemble didn’t really like it, didn’t really believe it was Shakespearean, but felt like he had to perform it. Sheridan probably didn’t believe it was Shakespearean either, but he realized that whether it was by Shakespeare or not, it was going to bring in a lot of people to watch it and would make him a lot of money.

BOGAEV: All publicity is good publicity.

RITCHIE: Exactly.

BOGAEV: Oh, so Kemble was kind of backed into a corner in that way.

RITCHIE: He was, but he behaved quite disingenuously about it. He initially pushed for the play’s debut to happen on April Fool’s Day, on the 1st of April, which was very snide.

He’s also accused of pronouncing some lines in the play with particular emphasis to draw laughter from the audience. There’s a line in the play, “When this solemn mockery is over.” Apparently, he repeated that several times in a sort of knowing way to the audience until they realized that he was trying to apply that to the situation of Vortigern and the play itself, and burst into laughter.

He was also accused of mis-castings in the play, of not rehearsing it properly, of not providing the proper cuts to make it fit for the stage. A lot of this criticism came from William Henry Ireland and his father Samuel. But a lot of it, at least some of it, was justified, I think. Kemble was really trying to weasel out of having this play performed and having to star in it himself, which he really did not want to do.

BOGAEV: And Siddons, did she have any part in this?

RITCHIE: Well, William Henry Ireland wrote the lead female role, Edmunda, for Siddons. But Siddons basically refused to perform in it. She wasn’t under the same kind of pressure from Sheridan, so she pleaded ill health. There are a lot of letters between Samuel and William Henry Ireland and the theater asking, you know, “Is she well again, yet? Is she going to perform in it?” She weaseled out of it basically and left Kemble to deal with this fake play.

BOGAEV: Well, we’re running out of time, but I do want to ask about this complicated relationship of these siblings. Because at the end of their careers, it seems as if Kemble got a lot of public attention when he retired, but Siddons’ retirement just seemed to cause a trickle.

RITCHIE: Siddons’ retirement at the time was quite significant. I think that… there’s an anecdote about how the curtain came down at the end of the sleepwalking scene in Macbeth when she was playing Lady Macbeth for the final time because the audience didn’t want to see any more of the play once she left the stage. That was the way that her career finished.

But the difference with Kemble was that he was manager as well, and so he had this greater sphere of influence and he was celebrated not just for his acting, but for his management. So, there were various things that happened to celebrate Kemble’s retirement. There was a commemorative medal that was struck. There was a celebratory farewell dinner with tickets that were issued, only to gentlemen, and so on. There was a pamphlet that gave an authentic narrative of his retirement from the stage and described his final performance in detail.

These were things that didn’t happen for Siddons, and that did happen for Kemble. And that, Siddons herself recognized, was a double standard that was being applied to her brother as a male actor compared to herself.

BOGAEV: Right. She said something about it and she got flack for her reaction.

RITCHIE: Yeah. She said, “Maybe in the next world, women will be more recognized than they are in this.” Even very recent biographers have described that as jealousy on Siddons’s part. When I think… hopefully now we could agree that it’s probably just realism in calling out a double standard on how male and female stars are treated.

BOGAEV: Yeah. It’s poignant. She’s very good at poignancy.

RITCHIE: Yes, she is. She had a good way with words. She was even excluded from the dinner, the celebratory dinner, that was organized for her brother when he retired because only gentlemen were invited. I mean, I think if she had been there, she would’ve been a little bit salty about it, understandably. But, yeah, she was, I think also annoyed at being shut out of that occasion.

BOGAEV: But she did seem to be extremely beloved or valued judging by her funeral. It seems like there was a massive crowd. Thousands of people.

RITCHIE: Yeah, there were thousands of people. It was a real procession and outpourings of grief at the funeral procession and so on. So she really was very beloved by the public. Definitely.

BOGAEV: Well, who’s better known now? I mean, whose fame has stood the test of time

RITCHIE: Siddons. I think Siddons is certainly the better-known name compared to Kemble. And there’s, I think, more traces of Siddons in popular culture.

There’s the Hollywood film All About Eve, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, that has the—what was then fictitious—Sarah Siddons Society, presenting the Sarah Siddons Award to the best actress. That inspired a creation of the real Sarah Siddons Society, that does now award that prize annually. So, she’s sort of become synonymous with excellence in acting.

BOGAEV: Endlessly fascinating. And talking with you is too. Thank you so much for the conversation and for the book.

RITCHIE: It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much.


WITMORE: Fiona Ritchie’s book Shakespeare in the Theatre: Sarah Siddons and John Philip Kemble is out now from Arden Shakespeare.

This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Ellen Payne Smith in Montreal, Quebec, and Jenna McClellan at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website,

Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.