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Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh
Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh
Stanley Wells
Oxford University Press, 2015
288 pp., $29.95

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Brett Foster and Mark Lewis


“Inheritors of the Text”

An eminent scholar’s tribute to the great Shakespeare actors.

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Brett: I noticed that, too, Mark—that Wells clearly privileges British actors. He says he has seen in person performances by about half of the nearly forty actors included. That is a pretty impressive run of theatergoing. But it does feel a bit Brit-centric. As antidote, you offer some fine candidates from among American actors. (And as I recall, you were surprised as well to find the Welshman Richard Burton not making Wells’ list.)

Heck, a really contemporary list might include Rylance’s step-daughter, Juliet Rylance, who has played Cressida and Desdemona and Perdita, and was Rosalind and Miranda in Sam Mendes’ acclaimed Bridge Project a few years ago. Or Lily Rabe (born in 1982), who received rapturous responses as Portia in New York’s “Shakespeare in the Park” production of The Merchant of Venice. More recently she’s appeared in As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing in the same summer setting, at Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre. Admittedly, these actors may still be too early in their careers to be seriously considered for a “greatest” list. And did you notice Wells’ dedication? “To all great Shakespeare actors not included in this book.” That’s classy, and rather humble for a scholarly dedication. So let’s give him that!

Mark: Even with these quibbles, though, I greatly enjoyed Wells’ book. If he had called it “My Favorite Shakespearean Actors,” I might have enjoyed it even more!

Brett: I couldn’t agree with you more, although I’d say this book will be of most interest to readers who are already quite familiar with Shakespeare’s plays, whether as audience member or reader. For those who aren’t, Wells already has other more helpful books for them to seek out. Wells is a doyen among Shakespeare scholars, serving as Honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-on-Avon, and an active player (but not in the acting sense) at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has co-edited some essential reference volumes (The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide), and is among the editors of The Oxford Shakespeare.

Even so, there is a critical consistency maintained with this new study of great Shakespearean actors. Wells has shown himself in his many books to be one of those refreshing scholars whose academic attention never drifts far from the performative origins of Shakespeare’s plays, of the man who wrote them, and of the centuries of actors who continuously reinterpret them, those “inheritors of the text” that you spoke of earlier, Mark. His biography of Shakespeare is styled as “A Life in Drama,” and thematic works such as Shakespeare, Sex, and Love frequently draw upon the performance tradition for examples. Co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage, Wells has also written Shakespeare & Co., which focuses on the playwriting network during Shakespeare’s working days, while Shakespeare for All Time belongs on a shelf with the great studies of the influence and reception of Shakespeare and his works. In this present book, he has drawn upon eyewitness accounts by William Hazlitt, George Bernard Shaw, and others previously collected in his anthology Shakespeare In the Theatre.

Let me end more fittingly, with some final impressions of this new book. Mark, you’re so right—many readers will find much to enjoy here. I’m a sucker for short biographies of actors, since their lives are often so much more interesting than ours. (I know, my friend, that will sound like flattery!) His first entry, on William Shakespeare himself, helpfully reminds us that the Bard was almost certainly an actor first, playwright second, and theater owner third. I was particularly taken with Shakespeare’s name appearing on a list of actors for his rival Ben Jonson’s Roman tragedy Sejanus, which Wells tells us “bombed” in 1603. Can you imagine the smirking Jonson must have endured from that one particular actor, who had recently written a little play called Hamlet and who would have then been writing Othello? It’s like an early version of Mozart and Salieri! It must have made the ambitious Ben Jonson feel so dismal.

The 18th-century actor Charles Macklin’s remark that he was “well listened to” one night reminds us that audiences have not always been so sport-coated and proper as they typically are at Shakespearean occasions today. Sarah Siddons, roughly contemporary with Macklin, deserves our interest as the first female actor to play Hamlet, though she was most famous for her Lady Macbeth. She went against tradition, and her manager’s wishes, in choosing to put down her candle so as to more obsessively rub the “damn’d spot” from her hands; her manager immediately approved. One of her brothers, too, was known for being able to play Falstaff “without padding.” I guess you take whatever reputation you can get.

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