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Edmund Kean (1789-1833) was the most influential English actor of the first half of the nineteenth century, introducing an intense brand of acting that was unknown prior to his bursting upon the stage in a style which would ultimately come to be known as the romantic age. His greatest creations were Shylock, Othello and Richard III, which he first played in 1810 and would continue to play for the rest of his life. Kean was the greatest attraction at Drury Lane since Garrick, and the role of the hunchbacked king came to be regarded as his personal property for a generation of actors and audiences. Lord Byron said of his performance "Life, nature, truth, without exaggeration or diminution. Richard is a man and Kean is Richard." Kean made his first American tour in 1819, and demand for tickets was so great that they were sold at auction. The great actor didn't disappoint. When he played Richard in New York, the New York Evening Post raved "We were assured that certain imitations of him were exact likenesses, and that certain actors were good copies...But he had not finished his soliloquy before our prejudices gave way and we saw the most complete actor, in our judgment, that ever appeared on the boards. The imitations we had seen were, indeed, likenesses, but it was the semblance of copper to gold; and the copies no more like Kean 'than I to Hercules.'"

But things began to unravel when he made an off-season appearance in Boston and low attendance for two performances caused him to refuse to play a third, forcing such a scandal that when he returned to the city in 1825 he was pelted with cabbages and was forced to flee in disguise. Ultimately, Kean's self-destructive drinking and riotous lifestyle took its toll on his performing and his popularity waned. He would continue to enjoy successes as Shylock, Virginius, and a spectacularly popular return to Richard III in 1830, but these were mixed with disastrous seasons, including an an attempt at Henry V which was a fiasco when Kean could not remember his lines. He made a number of lucrative "farewell appearances," but his lavish lifestyle and generosity to other actors forced him to keep on working. He made his final appearance on March 25, 1833 as Othello (opposite his son Charles as Iago) and collapsed on stage during the third act, passing away less than two months later at the age of 44. But for all his excesses, Kean left a legacy that continues to be honored up to today and he has been the subject of numerous plays (including one by Alexandre Dumas, père) in which he has been portrayed by a distinguished group of actors that has included Alfred Drake, Ben Kingsley and Antony Sher. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that watching Kean act “was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.”

Ian McKellen hadn't played a Shakespearean role in eight years (when he essayed Prospero in The Tempest at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds), focussing his energies on commercial blockbuster films like X-Men, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Da Vinci Code, when he returned to the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2007 to be reunited with his longtime collaborator Trevor Nunn (under whose direction he had given his legendary performances of Macbeth and Iago) on a repertory of King Lear and The Seagull. McKellen had already performed in two productions of both plays (as Konstantin [1962] and Dr. Dorn [1998] in The Seagull and Edgar [1974; Drama Desk Award] and Kent [1990] in Lear), but this time he would be playing roles he had not been seen in before, the aged Sorin (sharing the role with William Gaunt) and King Lear. The productions inaugurated the RSC's new Courtyard Theatre, a transitional space to be used as the compound in Stratford-upon-Avon underwent major revisions, and then go on a world tour.

McKellen received universal acclaim in The Seagull (Paul Taylor wrote in The Independent that "McKellen delivers an exquisitely funny performance as Sorin") but the public was most excited at the prospect of seeing McKellen, at the age of 68, make his assault on his final Shakespearean summit, King Lear. The production was an immediate sellout in Stratford and McKellen's subdued and thoughtful performance of the the role (lacking the histrionic pyrotechnics that Donald Wolfit might have brought to it), was hailed as the greatest depiction of the character since the days of Paul Scofield and Peter Brook. David Benedict in Variety wrote "His portrait of Lear's descent into madness is painfully lit by flashes of hope, doubt and, above all, intelligence" and Ian Shuttleworth of the Financial Times offered the opinion that "Every moment is beautifully pitched, from the initial "division of the kingdom" speech which he reads off cue cards to his final expiration, almost inadvertently, between phrases of grief for the dead Cordelia. This is not a Lear who blows and cracks his cheeks to vie with the storm on the heath; he feels his control slipping little by little, until he is utterly distracted but never raging or raving."

McKellen received an Emmy nomination for the television presentation of the production but he always felt that his performance would be better suited to a smaller theater than the cavernous venues at which he played the part for the RSC. So he was delighted to return to the role in 2018 at the age of 78 at the intimate Duke of York's Theatre in London where he made his West End debut in 1964. Jonathan Munby's production received raves, with Arifa Akbard of The Guardian writing "It allows McKellen to play the part with a naturalism that initially seems risky in its illustrious West End context but pays off for its deep melancholic charge...This is not the declamatory monarch McKellen played in Trevor Nunnís 2007 production, tearing off his trousers in the histrionics of the heath scene. It is a quickly broken Lear. His lines are spoken softly, stumbled upon, croaked out or interrupted by tears and occasional capers to show his ignominious decline." Sir Ian received another Olivier Award nomination for his portrayal.

Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) did not emerge as the theatrical talent we now regard as the greatest of the 20th century until the 1940s, and his first test as a classical actor (following his London success as Romeo) as the leading man for the Old Vic's 1937/38 season was a checkered affair. He scored a triumph as Toby Belch in his only attempt at the role, but his towering performances of the tragic roles he took on that season - Hamlet, Henry V, Macbeth - weren't enacted until his gifts matured (he also played an unsuccessful Iago that season, setting the stage for his legendary Othello in the 1960s). He did score one magnificent personal success in his final tragic role of the season, Coriolanus. While critics were dubious of the outlandish makeup he favored at the time and his reliance on sometimes vulgar stage business, they had only praise for his humor, magnificent speech (James Agate, who had mauled his speaking of poetry in the past, wrote"Vocally, Mr. Olivier's performance is magnificent; his voice is gaining depth and resonance, and his range of tone is now extraordinary") and his physical daring, especially for his spectacular death-fall down a long flight of stairs that has passed into legend. It is Coriolanus, more than any other role, that began the celebrated succession of dazzling masterworks that saw Olivier's career pass into the status of myth.

It was a performance that might have gone done in history as the greatest ever in the role if he had not returned to Stratford in 1959 (where had recently given definitive performances as Macbeth and Titus Andronicus) at the height of his powers to obliterate its memory in a production directed by Peter Hall that continues to be ranked as the greatest in the play's history. Thumbing his nose at his previous triumphant death fall at the age of 30, Olivier (now 52) stunned audiences by falling over a high platform backwards and being caught at the ankles by two soldiers who left him hanging upside-down. "It is a performance which keeps the audience in thrall," wrote Phyllis Hope-Wallace in the Manchester Guardian, "lit with surprise and danger, unpredictable and alluring, and the death is overwhelmingly tragic."

Shakespeare was rarely performed in Italy until Tommaso Salvini (1829-1915) played Othello at Vicenza in 1856. His violent, passionate interpretation of the role was hailed as a masterpiece of acting, and though he would later add widely admired performances of Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, and Coriolanus to his repertory, he would always be identified for his portrayal of the jealous Moor, a role he virtually owned until his retirement. Even language proved to be no barrier, as Salvini would always speak Italian when playing the part. He often played with English-speaking companies when he went on tour and was as great a star in North and South America, Western Europe and Russia as he was in his native Italy, and he shared the stage with notable Iagos as Edwin Booth and Henry Irving. Possessing a muscular physique, a rich and powerful speaking voice, and compelling star presence, English-speaking audiences were enraptured by Salvini's appearances and were so transfixed by his charisma that they were oblivious to the fact that he was speaking his lines in a foreign language. Joseph Knight wrote, "In coming before the public...as Othello, Signor Salvini has to fear little competition, either actual or retrospective. So unlike anything that the present generation has seen is, however, his impersonation of the Moor, that opportunity is scarcely offered for comparison."

When it was announced that Judi Dench would play Lady Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1976, she was anticipated to be the victim of a grievous example of miscasting. The warm and down-to-earth Dench (arguably the most beloved actress since Ellen Terry) - noted for her unforgettable performances of Shakespearean ingenue roles like Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Isabella in Measure for Measure and non-Shakespearean characters like Sally Bowles in Cabaret and Anya in The Cherry Orchard - was thought to be outside her range as Shakespeare's murderous Gorgon. But Dench's staggering versatility managed to supersede audience preconceptions and, aided by Trevor Nunn's remarkable minimalist staging and the unforgettable support of Ian McKellen in the title role, she gave not only what is regarded as the greatest performance of her own blue chip career, but put her personal stamp on perhaps the greatest production of the play in its 400 year history. Nunn and Company did away with the normally unlucky play's history of bagpipes and overwhelming sets and a faux-Scottish setting that fails to support the dramatic action, and reimagined it as a simple and richly theatrical experience that turned the play's mayhem into both an unsettling nightmare of gore and a sublimely human drama of ambition gone horribly out of control. Dench won the first of her record six Laurence Olivier Awards for her portrayal, and a 2004 poll of members of the Royal Shakespeare Company voted Dench's Lady Macbeth as the greatest Shakespearean performance by an actress in the history of the RSC.

Fortunately for posterity, the production was filmed for television in 1979 - certainly the most effective film of the play ever made. "The effect of the production can still be felt, by viewing the television version," wrote McKellen."Trevor said: 'I want to photograph the text'. So again, there were no scenic effects, just groupings and close-ups in shadows and coloured light. The actors' familiarity with the production and with each other, meant we could concentrate on hitting our marks on the studio floor, without worry or waste of time." Dench was nominated for a BAFTA Award for the television production, which is readily available on DVD, only a handful of her masterful Shakespearean roles that have been immortalized on film along with her Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1968), Mistress Quickly in Henry V (1989) and a nonspeaking cameo as Hecuba in the overlong and muddled 1996 film of Hamlet. She continued performing on the the Shakespearean stage, winning another Olivier Award for Antony and Cleopatra in 1996, but it is the unfortunate reality of the Bard's canon that there are no mature female roles for an actress of Dench's caliber and it is unlikely that we will see her give another Shakespearean performance. The loss makes it all the more fortunate that her legendary Lady Macbeth has been preserved on video.

After years of toiling in light comedy, John Barrymore's (1882-1942) star had begun to rise with brilliant performances in modern dramas like The Jest and Justice when he played his first Shakespearean role as Richard III and met with his greatest acclaim to date. His depiction of a spidery villain was considered the finest performance of Richard since the days of Garrick, and when Barrymore scaled the heights of success with his legendary Hamlet, it was thought that he would take his place as the greatest Shakespearean actor of all time. Plans for productions of Peer Gynt and Cyrano de Bergerac were announced, but the call of Hollywood and Barrymore's self-destructive lifestyle put an end to his stage career and limitless potential. Our only records of his Shakespearean ability are a disappointing Mercutio in the misguided 1936 film of Romeo and Juliet and an enticing screen test for a 1934 film version of his Hamlet that came to nothing when it became obvious that his mind and body were no longer up to the task. But he left an impressive rendering of Richard from Henry VI Part III from the 1929 oddity The Show of Shows and a surprisingly touching reading of "To Be or Not to Be" from his otherwise embarrassing final film Playmates that remain as a solid indication of his greatness. Of his Richard III, Alexander Woolcott wrote in the New York Times, "All in all, a magnificent achievement. It ranks with Ada Rehan's Katherine and Forbes Robertson's Hamlet in this playgoer's experience....It is a great performance"

John Gielgud (1904-2000) was as adept at Shakespearean comedy as tragedy, having major successes as Malvolio in Twelfth Night (1931) and Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1929 and 1945). His greatest comic performance was Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, a play that had strong familial affection for him as his great aunt, Ellen Terry, was considered to be the greatest Beatrice of all time for her performances with Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre. Gielgud first played Benedick opposite the Beatrice of Dorothy Green at the Old Vic in 1931 in a nonstop string of successes that made his name as a classical actor. "Nobody who had seen him as Hamlet would have recognized him as the hearty young soldier and wit who wooed Beatrice last night," wrote W.A. Darlington in The Daily Telegraph. "His Benedick is the personification of virility and spontaneous gaiety."

Gielgud returned to the play in 1949, when he directed Anthony Quayle as Benedick at the Memorial Theatre in Straftford-upon-Avon and, when the production was revived the following year, Gielgud took over as Benedick in a performance that would be the one he would be most identified with in the 1950s. He played the role until 1959, taking it to London (where it played for 225 performances, breaking the record set by Terry and Irving), on a European tour, and finally to Broadway. Gielgud had to adjust his portrayal to different casts, playing opposite the Beatrices of Peggy Ashcroft, Diana Wynard, and Margaret Leighton, and at varying times included Paul Scofield as Don Pedro and George Rose in a memorable performance as Dogberry. "John's style and wit were superlative," recalled Scofield. "He would seem to have spoken a witticism before he realized what he meant by it; his understanding of what he had said was simultaneous with the impact of the line."

Henry Irving (1838-1905) was a moderately successful provincial actor when his fortunes changed in 1871 after an American named Bateman took a lease on the Lyceum Theatre in order to produce plays for his daughter Isabel to star in. Irving was engaged to act opposite her, and when he persuaded Bateman to stage an English adaptation of the French play Le Juif Polonais, retitled The Bells, he was not only rocketed to stardom with his portrayal of the guilt-ridden burgomaster Mathias, but he became the preeminent English actor of the nineteenth century. The Bells would always be his signature piece and hold a central place in his repertory for the remainder of his career, but he defined the art of Shakespearean acting for generations afterward. He was not an intellectual, caring nothing for the literary aspects of theatre and only being interested in plays that provided him with roles with which he could startle audiences, and his performances of Shylock, Wolsey, Benedick, Iachimo and Lear were renowned across the world. He first played Hamlet in 1874 with Isabel Bateman as Ophelia and the production was a phenomenon, running for an unprecedented 200 nights with Irving's performance being the touchstone for the role for English audiences in the years between Samuel Phelps and Johnston Forbes-Robertson (only the American Edwin Booth, who lacked Irving's startling versatility in other Shakespearean roles, was a more highly acclaimed Hamlet during the period).

In 1878 Irving bought out Bateman and his daughter's lease on the Lyceum, and for the next twenty years the theatre stood as a shrine for great acting. Irving's first production as lessee of the Lyceum was a revival of Hamlet, for which Irving engaged Ellen Terry as Ophelia, beginning the greatest acting partnership of the theatrical era. The initial Irving/Terry Hamlet prompted John Knight of the Manchester Guardian to write "The representation of Hamlet supplied on Monday night is the best the stage during the last quarter century has seen, and it is the best also that is likely to be seen for some time to come." Hamlet was included in Irving's repertory until 1897 when his performance of the part was supplanted in the public mind by Forbes-Robertson, who was until then best known for acting in support of Irving. When Irving first saw Forbes-Robertson play the Melancholy Dane, he graciously announced that he would never play the role again and that Forbes-Robertson should show his performance to the world. But Irving continued to be regarded as the preeminent English actor to the end of his life, and was duly accorded the honor of being the first actor to be knighted in 1895.

Ira Aldridge (1807-1867), billed as "The African Roscius," was the first black actor to play major Shakespearean roles. He was born in New York, but received such abuse from audiences in his earliest appearances that he emigrated to England in 1824. He began appearing in Shakespearean plays the following year, and after his performance in Othello in Scarborough he was described as"an actor of genius." He was still subjected to racism, with one London critic protesting "in the name of propriety and decency" about the decision to pair Aldridge with the actress Ellen Tree, adding that he disliked Tree being "pawed about on the stage by a black man." Ultimately, Aldridge was blacklisted in London but he persevered, enjoying great success in the provinces and universally hailed when he mounted a tour of Brussels, Cologne, Basle, Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Danzig, St. Petersburg, Moscow and Munich. While in Russia he became one of the highest paid actors in the world when he received £60 for every performance, introducing a style of psychological realism that had never been seen before. One Russian critic wrote that the evenings on which he saw Aldridge's Othello, Lear, Shylock and Macbeth "were undoubtedly the best that I have ever spent in the theatre". '"After Aldridge," wrote another, "'it is impossible to see Othello performed by a white actor, even Garrick himself." Aldridge was loaded with honors for his European tours and was created a Knight of Saxony, so he was finally able to perform in London unmolested, but he continued to tour in the farthest reaches of Europe and at his death he was mourned as one of the most respected actors who ever lived.

John Gielgud (1904-2000) said that Prospero in The Tempest was his favorite role. He played it in four stage productions and the film Prospero's Books, all with wildly different production concepts and interpretations of the character, but with the same brilliant musicality that marked him as the greatest speaker of Shakespearean verse in the twentieth century. He first played Prospero in 1931 during his star-making first appearances at the Old Vic. He played the role as an Indian magician in a turban with Ralph Richardson playing Caliban as a Mongolian monster. Gielgud was acclaimed in the role. "Prospero," said the production's director, Harcourt Williams, "who is usually made into a dull old boy by most actors, in John's sensitive hands became a being of great beauty."

Gielgud returned to the role in 1940, playing the part against its usual conception as a youthful man of forty. Some critics found him too young for the part, but Ivor Broen called him "a clear arresting picture of a virile Renaissance noble." Better received was his 1957 appearance at Stratford directed by Peter Brook (who had previously directed Gielgud in Measure for Measure and A Winter's Tale) which saw Gielgud's Prospero as a bitter El Greco hermit. Kenneth Tynan's review of the performance contained his famously bitter snipe that "Gielgud is the greatest actor in the world from the neck up," but it was a huge success with the public and a sell out when it was transferred to Drury Lane in London later that year. J.C. Trewin wrote that Gielgud's performance "captures the heart and mind."

Laurence Olivier was offered Prospero in Peter Hall's production at the National Theatre in 1974, but he declined, asking "what am I going to do with a boring old conjurer?" This opened the door for Gielgud to make his Shakespearean debut at the National in the role. And though he wasn't in agreement with Hall's production concept (which imagined the play as an Elizabethan masque with Prospero based upon 16th century alchemist Dr. John Dee), his performance was praised by critics as one of Gielgud's greatest creations. "The part is peculiarly his own property in the sense that the character of Prospero resides in its verse rhythms;" wrote Irving Waddle in the London Times," and no other actor is so well equipped to handle those huge metrical paragraphs with their abrupt contradictions, and extensions of imagery almost beyond the bounds of syntax."

Gielgud wasn't finished with Prospero yet. Always resistant to leaving his greatest Shakespearean stage characterizations on film (with the exception of his magnificent Cassius in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1953 version of Julius Caesar), it was his lifelong ambition to make a film of The Tempest. He approached Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurasawa, and Orson Welles about directing, but had no success until Peter Greenaway agreed to make the film as Prospero's Books in 1991. It was an unfortunate choice, as Greenaway's self-indulgent visual style completely overwhelmed Shakespeare's text, but Gielgud (playing not only Prospero, but voicing all of the characters in the play) gave a sensitive, magical performance at the age of 87 that managed to rise above Greenaway's vulgarities. It was Gielgud's final speaking performance in a Shakespearean production.

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