Stanley Wells on Great Shakespeare Actors

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 34

For the many of Shakespeare's fans, his works are brought to life by the actors and actresses who speak the lines. What makes a Shakespearean actor truly great? That's one of the questions scholar Sir Stanley Wells asked as he wrote his book Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh. Wells considered the most outstanding Shakespeare performers past and present, combing through firsthand accounts of their performances, and created his own personal Hall of Fame. We talk to him about what the actors featured in his book brought to Shakespeare and why it would have been worth catching one of their shows. Stanley Wells is interviewed by Stephanie Kaye.

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Sir Stanley Wells, CBE, FRSL, is Honorary President at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and professor emeritus at Birmingham University. His many books include Shakespeare: For All Time (2002), Looking for Sex in Shakespeare (2004), Shakespeare & Co. (2006), Shakespeare, Sex, and Love (2010), and All the Sonnets of Shakespeare (2020), edited with Paul Edmondson.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © October 21, 2015. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "O, There Be Players That I Have Seen Play" was written and produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is associate producer. It was edited by Esther Ferington and Gail Kern Paster. We had help from Timothy Olmstead at WAMU-FM in Washington, DC. We’d also like to thank Beverley Hemming, the Corporate Communications Manager at the Stratford-on-Avon District Council for allowing Dr. Wells to speak from their recording unit at Elizabeth House.


Excerpt: All the Sonnets of Shakespeare
Read an excerpt from the introduction to Sir Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson's edited collection of Shakespeare's sonnets. 


MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. This podcast is called, “Oh, There Be Players That I Have Seen Play.”

Each production of Shakespeare starts, of course, with the playwright’s words. It passes through the eyes, mind, and talents of directors, costume designers, set designers, sometimes musical arrangers. But for the majority of audience members, Shakespeare is brought to life by the actors and actresses who speak his lines.

In 2015, the eminent Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells sat down to consider all of the most outstanding Shakespeare performers from past to present, and, essentially, create his own personal Hall of Fame. He’s written about these artists in a book called Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh. He’s interviewed by Stephanie Kaye.


STEPHANIE KAYE: You ask early on in the book about greatness and how to define it. What makes a great actor, as opposed to merely a good one, or really competent?

STANLEY WELLS: Yes, it’s a difficult question to answer. It’s, of course, a very personal matter, whether you’re bowled over by an actor. That’s what I mean by a great actor, one that bowls you over in some way. This is most often familiar with some actors of the past like, above all, Laurence Olivier. You could go to a Laurence Olivier performance. It was a special occasion. You knew before you went, actually, and he had a magnetic quality which transcended mere ability, mere technical ability.

And, of course, you can be a great actor without being a great Shakespeare actor. Shakespeare makes special demands on actors, especially in relation to the language of the plays, though not by any means entirely, because some of Shakespeare’s greatest effects, actually, are produced in some of his silences. In Coriolanus, for example, a moment that Olivier made a great moment out of was a silent moment. There’s a famous stage direction in that play, “holds her by the hand, silent” when he’s having to go through a crisis in response to his mother Volumnia’s pleas that he save Rome, virtually, by not attacking Rome. So, there are all sorts of things that go towards creating a great performance and a great actor.  

KAYE: And you say in the book that there can be, actually, a very intimate connection between great actors and their audiences, a sexual connection.

WELLS: Yes, yes. Well, I think, with any actors that’s likely. I mean, you know, the fact is that one is seeing a human body on the stage, and that body’s communicating with the audience in various ways, through the eyes, and so on. And I quote, actually, our senior dramatic critic, Michael Billington, on this. Yes, I think, some actors visibly flirt with their audiences. And I think, you know, that’s perfectly due..., of course, it’s often sublimated in ways, but inevitably, one body in the audience is responding to another body on the stage.

KAYE: You mentioned a number of the earliest actors in the book achieve star status, as contemporary accounts show. Now when you’re analyzing who the best actors were in, say, Shakespeare’s own time, what source material do you draw on to inform you that this person was better than anybody else? Are you relying on written accounts or reviews?

WELLS: Yes, the reports of people who are present at a performance, whether in one’s own lifetime, or before one’s own lifetime, are the best way of appreciating performance, because to be present at the performance, it is all a holistic experience. If I watch a film of Olivier, or of Peggy Ashcroft, there’s a distancing happened already in it, because it was recorded 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago.

KAYE: And so you might be distracted by the unusual bowl haircut of the times or the strange makeup?

WELLS: Well, that sort of thing happens. Yes, the technicalities of recording have a distancing effect, I think. Whereas, if you’re reading, say, a great critic like William Hazlitt, in the Romantic period, or like Ken Tynan, in the 1960s or ‘70s, you’re reading somebody who is telling you what it was like. So, a lot of my work in writing the book involved my going to biographies, autobiographies, to theater reviews. So I’m relying, to a certain extent, on the opinions of people who saw them.

There are no reviews in Shakespeare’s time. Newspaper reviewing hadn’t started. Newspapers hadn't really... Well, there were some sorts of newspapers, but not in our sense of the word. The evidence is very slight. But there are some accounts of performances. But, mostly, one has to go simply on the reputation of the actors in their own time. There are one or two accounts. There was a very odd man called Simon Forman, who did leave accounts of seeing some plays at the Globe. They’re not reviews in our current, modern sense of the word, but they’re enough to give us some sense of what it was like.

The great actor of Shakespeare’s company, undoubtedly, was Richard Burbage. He worked with Shakespeare from the very beginning of both of their careers. From 1594, Shakespeare and Burbage were leaders of the Lord Chamberlain’s, which later became the King’s Men. And Burbage lived on beyond Shakespeare, beyond Shakespeare’s death. And we do have, for example, epitaphs about him, memorial verses about him, referring to his performances.

KAYE: Well, let me ask you another question about Richard Burbage. You write about an obituary that mentioned his ability to play the roles of older men when he was young. Do you think it’s harder to go in that direction, or to try to play younger characters when you’re an older actor? And the same for a woman?

WELLS: I think probably it’s harder to play younger characters when you’re an older actor. Of course, Shakespeare’s kind of convenient in this way in that he often doesn’t tell us how old his characters are. Usually, in fact, he doesn’t tell us. Now, some of them have got to be young. Romeo and Juliet have got to be young. We know, in fact, Juliet’s one of the few people who is clearly identified as being under 14.

But a great many of the others are not. I mean, one of the greatest performances I’ve seen was Paul Scofield, as King Lear, when he was only 40. Before long, Derek Jacobi, who’s now 76, is going to be playing Mercutio, in Romeo and Juliet, with Kenneth Branagh’s company, and Mercutio is normally thought of as a young man’s part. So, I think it’s more a matter of ability, than of ressemblance, as the French say, than of verisimilitude. A good actor is making us believe things which are not true, I mean, that’s what actors are doing all the time; it’s their job.

KAYE: Well, let’s turn to Will Kempe. Who was he?

WELLS: Well, Will Kempe was an actor in Shakespeare’s company. He was one of the founding members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1594. He was famous as a comic actor. And he did leave a book, a remarkable book, Kempe’s Nine Days Wonder, which is a story of how he morris danced, over the period of a month, taking nine whole days during that month from London to Norwich, which was a big publicity stunt. When he got to Norwich, he was received by the Lord Mayor, who rewarded him handsomely. So, we have bits of information about him like that.

KAYE: Now, in a podcast we did earlier on comedy in Shakespeare, we talked a lot about Will Kempe. He seems to be someone whose renown was fairly widespread.


KAYE: When we think about what’s written in the First Folio, how much of Will Kempe’s comic business do you think is actually written down, and how much was just hinted it?

WELLS: I don’t think much of it is written down. The First Folio doesn’t give us descriptions of performance. This is partly because Shakespeare was writing for his own company of actors. He didn’t need to write elaborate stage directions, because he knew he would be present during the rehearsals for a performance. And so, we do know that he had Kempe in mind because in the first printing, it wasn’t first printed in the Folio, but in the first printing of Much Ado About Nothing, in a quarto paperback of 1600, the name of Will Kempe appears several times instead of the character, Dogberry, the character who he was playing. But no, I don’t think we have much evidence of precisely what Kempe did on the stage. We just know that he was a great personality. He was famous on the continent, as well as in England.

KAYE: Okay, let’s move next to David Garrick, one of the great actors of the 1700s. And he’s also known, though, as a theater entrepreneur. How does that work into his reputation as an actor?

WELLS: Well, he first made his reputation as an actor when he was in his early 20s. He came to London, walked to London with Samuel Johnson, and he put on a performance as Richard III, which was a sensation. It became, instantly, the thing to do, to go and see David Garrick as Richard III. There were only two major theaters in London, at that time, Drury Lane and Covent Garden. And before long, he became the manager of Covent Garden. So, he was both a theater manager, entrepreneur if you like, and an actor.

His management of the theater was a very important one, because he had very high standards, and he did a lot to clean up the theater, in a way. For example, it had been common in his early career for people to go to the theater mainly to show themselves, and even to sit on the stage, which is also something that had happened in Shakespeare’s own time. And Garrick, eventually, as a manager of the theater, succeeded in banishing spectators from the stage.

He was a very versatile man. He was a businessman; he was a collector of books. He adapted some of Shakespeare’s plays to suit the conditions in which theater operated in his time. But above all, he was a very great actor. And we have some wonderful accounts of him in roles such as Hamlet, for example. We’re lucky, there was a German visitor called Georg Lichtenberg, who came to London and wrote the first really detailed account of performances by any English actors, and they are detailed. I quote them, of course, in my book. And they give us really vivid details of precisely what Garrick did on stage.

KAYE: You mention Garrick was really good at dying on stage. [LAUGH]

WELLS: Well, that’s a necessary accomplishment, if you’re playing tragedy, isn’t it?

KAYE: Sure. A lot of characters in Shakespeare die, so I guess you’ve got to be pretty good at it.

WELLS: Yes, but it is an example of how Shakespeare’s plays are not simply verbal artifacts, of how, you know, the actor is not merely speaking. The actor is portraying people, often in intense emotional and intense physical situations: Hamlet’s death, for example, or King Lear’s death. And in Macbeth... actually, Garrick rewrote Macbeth to give Macbeth a dying speech, which Shakespeare had failed to provide for him.

I remember seeing Richard III, when I saw Olivier play Richard III. I still vividly remember his death throes, in that, he laid on his back like a great, black beetle with his legs and his arms waving in the air, and it was very thrilling. And, of course, it was a nonverbal piece of acting. That’s partly why we can go on seeing Shakespeare’s plays with excitement and pleasure, time after time, because every different actor produces a different sort of fusion with the words, with the role. So what you’re getting is both Shakespeare and the actor, and, of course, the actor as directed by, often, great directors.

KAYE: Well, let’s talk about Sarah Siddons. Tell us about the era she lived in, and you mentioned she has 11 siblings, all of whom worked in the theater. Was that unusual for her time?

WELLS: No, it wasn’t particularly unusual. One of the things that struck me as I was writing my book, in fact, was how many great actors came from theatrical families. It’s true to the present day. I mean, Vanessa Redgrave, for example, is the daughter of a very great actor, Sir Michael Redgrave. Sarah Siddons’s brother was John Philip Kemble, who was the greatest Hamlet and Coriolanus of his time, and her other brothers were actors of varying degrees of ability. One of them, Stephen Kemble, was famous mainly for being so fat that he could play Falstaff without padding.

But Sarah was undoubtedly a very great actress, mainly in tragic roles, but some of the accounts of her, which I quote in my book, of course, by somebody like William Hazlitt, show that, especially as Lady Macbeth. That was her really great part. She could terrify an audience. There’s a wonderful remark by a playwright at the time, actually, who, writing about her as Lady Macbeth, he says, “I smelt blood. I swear it. I smelt blood.” You know, she could clearly hypnotize audiences. And the eyes are so important in acting, aren’t they? So many actors, you can do so much with the eyes. And Sarah Siddons, well, she hypnotized audiences.

KAYE: And you mentioned she got terrible reviews. How did she come back from terrible reviews?

WELLS: Well, in her early career, yes, she didn’t succeed very well. This has happened; this is not uncommon. I mean, a few actors, like David Garrick, are successes from the very start. Others seem to have to make their way upward, to learn their art more slowly. Even Judi Dench, for example, her earliest performances were not particularly well received. But she went on learning. They have imagination. They have the capacity to learn. Siddons developed. Judi Dench developed. At one time, she’d never thought she would play Lady Macbeth or Cleopatra, but yet she was great in both roles.

KAYE: I mean, your chapter on William Charles Macready, you write a wonderful description of him restraining himself, both in terms of gesture and voice. Can you describe that?

WELLS: Yes, Macready, again, it’s a matter, partly, of training. You see, in his early career, he knew he had to learn. And he knew that there was a danger that he would overact, I suppose, that he would use gesture too much, for example. So, he has an interesting account, which I quote, of how he would actually bind his arms to his sides and make himself speak the most passionate speeches, he says, of Macbeth or King Lear, without using gesture, just so that the passion came out of his eyes. And I include in my book a painting of Macready, in which his eyes are clearly the strongest feature. So, it’s a matter of restraint. It’s a fact that actors can often do most by doing little. But, you know, it’s the old adage, “Don’t just do something; stand there.” Some actors achieve their greatest effects through very simple means.

KAYE: Did you get the sense that he did the binding and this restraint to prevent himself from doing something that everyone was doing at that time? Or to prevent himself from doing what bad actors were doing at the time?

WELLS: Yes, well, I think he thought that people were bad actors, if they just did too much, if they flailed their arms around too much. So, yes, I think he was trying to improve on current acting techniques.

KAYE: And what about today? Do they kind of tend toward the more extravagant movement?

WELLS: Yes, I think so. Though acting goes through phases. Sometimes, you get periods when actors are more stylized, more artificial-seeming than others.

KAYE: Let’s turn to Ellen Terry now. She started very young, but she wasn’t very good. There was a negative review about her performance as Puck. But then she kind of came back to the stage. And after she took off for several years, she got married, she had a child. Did her acting benefit from that time off, her experience?

WELLS: Well, I suppose so. She was a child actress, at first, playing small roles like… well, Puck is not a small role, of course, with Charles Kean, the son of the great Edmund Kean. Then she had an affair with an architect and designer, Godwin, as a result of which she gave birth to Gordon Craig, who became a great theater designer. And during that period she was living with him, she went off the stage. But she came back, as you say, but not particularly old. I mean, she’s in her quite early years, in her 20s. And she then became the greatest and the best-loved English actress for many years, right until the early 20th century.

She was as famous, especially in comic roles. She wasn’t primarily a tragic actress. Her greatest role, the one I would most like to have seen her in, was Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.

KAYE: So, she started so young, six years old. And sometimes when I see children on stage, on almost any performance, I sort of cringe.


KAYE: Because, you know, I mean, you’re not exactly sure what you’re going to get out of them.

WELLS: No, that’s true. Nowadays, especially, I think, because it’s less easy to train them nowadays. On the other hand, children can perform well. But there are some important children’s roles in Shakespeare, like Prince Arthur in King John, for example. It’s quite a long role.

KAYE: Mm-hmm.

WELLS: And it’s very difficult to find a boy young enough to look the part, who has enough technique to speak the part. He has some quite difficult verse to speak. So, it is quite difficult to cast the children’s parts in Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s own time, however, I think they would have had more training than is usual for young people to get nowadays. It is difficult now to find really good juveniles.

KAYE: Well, with Ellen Terry, tell us about her correspondence with George Bernard Shaw.

WELLS: Yes, Ellen Terry was a very intelligent woman. She wasn’t a highly educated woman, but she had a natural intelligence. And Shaw fell in love with her. Shaw was writing plays, of course, and also in her early career, he was writing a lot of theater criticism. He wrote wonderful theater criticism. And so he had to write about the actors of the time in public, in his reviews, but he also corresponded with some of them, especially with Ellen Terry, then later with another actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell. And Bernard Shaw wrote very, very lively letters to Ellen Terry, and she wrote back in a very characterful way, especially when she was rehearsing the role of Imogen in Cymbeline. And Shaw gave her lots of advice about how to play that role. You see, he had then to review Ellen Terry, even though he’d had a great influence on the performance that she gave.

But Shaw’s correspondence with Ellen Terry is one of the great theater books. And Terry’s own memoir, also, is a very delightful piece of reading, because she had a natural skill in writing, even though, as I said, she wasn’t a highly educated woman. I say in my book, in fact, that to read her letters is almost like hearing Rosalind, Shakespeare’s hero in As You Like It, speak. She has that sort of liveliness and spontaneity in the way that she writes, really delightful.

KAYE: Well, if we saw some of the great actors, say from the 18th or 19th century today, do you think we’d see them as great?

WELLS: That’s a very difficult question: whether, if we saw Garrick now, would we think of him as great? Possibly not, because he was acting within the conventions, the theatrical conventions, the staging conventions, of his own time. And we can’t transform ourselves back into 18th century people. The actor’s art is bound up with the period in which the acting is given. And so, I think, possibly not. I think it’s possible if we saw them now, we would have to acknowledge they were great for their own audiences. But after all, that’s what they’re there for. They’re great, to be great, in their time, not to be great in the eyes of posterity.

KAYE: Well, in these days, with social media, the curatorial role seems to be very diminished. Anyone with access to Facebook or Twitter can weigh in, usually does weigh in, on whether they think someone is great or terrible. What do you see as the role of a book like yours?

WELLS: Yes, everybody has opinions about actors. You don’t need to be a trained theater critic to have an opinion about performance. My book is intended for readers who enjoy Shakespeare on the stage. It’s intended for readers who want to know what actors of the past were like. And I hope that readers going to my book will get a sense of what it was like to see Garrick, or Edmund Kean, or John Gielgud, actors you can no longer see, and will get a sense of why it was worth going to the theater to see them, and what they brought to Shakespeare. So I hope that my book will enable people, help people to read Shakespeare’s plays, and see the plays with more understanding of the greatness of the mind and imagination that created these roles for great actors.

KAYE: Dr. Stanley Wells, thanks so much for joining us.

WELLS: It’s been a great pleasure to talk to you.


WITMORE: Stanley Wells is honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, a professor emeritus at the University of Birmingham, and the author of numerous books on Shakespeare, including his latest, Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh. He was interviewed by Stephanie Kaye.

“Oh, There Be Players That I Have Seen Play” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Timothy Olmstead at WAMU in Washington, DC. We’d also like to thank Beverley Hemming, the corporate communications manager at the Stratford on Avon District Council, for allowing Dr. Wells to speak from their recording unit at Elizabeth House.

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