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While it will be impossible to know how Richard Burbage (c. 1568-1619) interpreted the part of Hamlet (or any of the other great Shakespearean roles that he created, like Othello, Lear, Romeo, Henry V, Macbeth, Malvolio, or Richard III), it is equally impossible not to hold in awe his participation in the creation of these monumental roles. For unlike Gielgud, Olivier, Booth, Irving, or Betterton, he had no precursors to recall while he worked on his performance for this monumentally complex character. It is known that Hamlet was considered from its premiere in either 1600 or 1601 as one of the greatest works of the English stage, and it is inconceivable that Burbage as the creator of the role (and shareholder in the Globe Theatre) did not have significant input into the part's creation. Burbage was undeniably the greatest tragedian of his generation (as well as a gifted painter and theatre manager), and his death was lamented by an anonymous poet who composed for him A Funerall Elegye on the Death of the famous Actor Richard Burbedg who died on Saturday in Lent the 13 of March 1618, an excerpt of which reads:

He's gone and with him what a world are dead.
Which he review'd, to be revived so,
No more young Hamlet, old Hieronimo
Kind Lear, the Grieved Moor, and more beside,
That lived in him; have now for ever died.

Shakespeare himself thought highly enough of Burbage to make him one of the beneficiaries in his will (along with John Hemynge and Henry Cundell) to receive a bequest of 26 shillings 8 pence apiece "to buy them rings" as a remembrance of their association with the Bard.

The son of the legendary Edmund Kean, Charles Kean(1904-2000) was considered something of a wooden actor who was notable for the historical accuracy he demanded in his productions. Though not on a par with his father as a performer, he was greatly admired for his 1857 interpretation of Richard II, a play that had not enjoyed a successful London revival since the Jacobean era and would not be popular again until the twentieth century. With no precursors to base his production on, Kean was forced to see the play afresh, with the London Times commenting "In theatrical convention in the contrivance of the groups and tableaux there is not a trace. Every scene, every situation is newly conceived." Walter Pater reminisced in 1889, "Yet it is fair to say that in the painstaking 'revival' of King Richard the Second, by the late Charles Kean ... afforded much more than Shakspere’s [sic] play could ever have been before - the very person of the king based upon that stately old portrait in Westminster Abbey ... the tasteful archaeology confronting vulgar modern London with ... the London of Chaucer." Kean's preparations resulted in a performance that was an equal to anything played by his famous father. Ellen Terry recalled in her memoirs "I am quite certain that Charles Kean's productions of Shakespeare would astonish the modern critic who regards the period of my first appearance as a sort of dark-age in the scenic art of the theater.... His voice was also of a wonderful quality--soft and low, yet distinct and clear as a bell. When he played Richard II. The magical charm of this organ was alone enough to keep the house spellbound."

Shakespeare's Henry VIII is rarely produced today and considered to be something of a bore. It is therefore surprising to learn that it was a very popular play in the nineteenth century, largely because it allowed actor-managers to indulge in the lavish spectacle that Victorian audiences adored. No one was more adept at staging the play than Henry Irving (1838-1905), who played the role of "the butcher's cur" Cardinal Wolsey in an enormously expensive staging that ran an unprecedented six months (but was still a financial failure because of its colossal costs). As was typical with Irving, the most notable aspect of the production was not the spectacle, but his portrayal of Wolsey which managed to maintain a humanity which audiences could sympathize with while still maintaining the villainy that is integral to the role. His great stage partner Ellen Terry (who played Queen Catherine to great acclaim) wrote in her memoirs that "Henry's pride as Cardinal Wolsey seemed to eat him. How wonderful he looked (though not fat and self-indulgent like the pictures of the real Wolsey) in his flame-colored robes! He had the silk dyed specially by the dyers to the Cardinal's College in Rome. Seymour Lucas designed the clothes. It was a magnificent production." She went on to quote a letter she received from the British pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, who wrote "I have written to Mr. Irving just to thank him for his great kindness in making the path of pleasure so easy, for I go tremblingly at present. But I could not say to him what I thought of the Cardinal--a sort of shame keeps one from saying to an artist what one thinks of his work--but to you I can say how nobly he warmed up the story of the old religion to my exacting mind in that impersonation. I shall think always of dying monarchy in his Charles--and always of dying hierarchy in his Wolsey. How Protestant and dull all grew when that noble type had gone!"

Even Shakespeare (who collaborated on the play with John Fletcher) seemed to feel that Henry VIII (originally titled All is True and now thought to have acquired its current title with the publication of the first folio to standardize it with the names of the other history plays) required spectacle to be adequately produced, seeing as the original Globe Theatre burned to the ground as the result of real cannon fire during a performance on June 29, 1613. David Garrick's production required 140 actors and Charles Kean's staging in 1855 was among the most elaborate of the nineteenth century. After Irving's definitive production, the play's popularity has waned to the point where it is one of the most rarely produced of Shakespeare's plays, although a few memorable twentieth century productions have been staged, notably Herbert Beerbohm Tree's extravagant adaptation that was mounted in London in 1910 and in New York in 1916, the Old Vic's 1933 staging with Charles Laughton (pictured) in the title role that capitalized on the popularity of his Academy Award-winning performance in the film The Private Life of Henry VIII, Eva Le Gallienne's 1946 production that opened her American Repertory Theatre with Walter Hampden as Wolsey, and the Old Vic's 1959 production that starred John Gielgud as Wolsey (a part he wanted to play because of his great aunt Terry's descriptions of Irving's performance). Its most recent major production was by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2006 that featured Antony Burne in the title role that was staged as part of the RSC's Complete Works project.

Maurice Evans (1901-1989) had been brought to America from England to play Romeo opposite Katharine Cornell in her 1935 revival of Romeo and Juliet and stayed on to have a critically acclaimed box office failure as Napoleon in St. Helena when he decided to take on Richard II (which he had first played at the Old Vic in 1934) on Broadway in a production directed by Margaret Webster in 1937. John Gielgud, the actor most closely associated with the role from his own star-making performance at the Vic in 1929, had just finished his record run on Broadway of Hamlet and suggested to director Guthrie McClintic that they follow it up with a new production of Richard II but McClintic pooh-poohed the idea and convinced Gielgud to take Hamlet on tour instead. Evans wrote to Gielgud for his blessing that Evans produce the play in New York himself, which Gielgud duly did (he went on to produce his own legendary production in a revolutionary season at the Queen's Theater that same year). The play had not been performed in New York since Edwin Booth played the title role in 1878 and the prognosis was dire for the production's success but Evans and Company stunned critics and pundits by being the surprise hit of the season, running for 133 performances before closing for the summer and then reopening for another 38 before taking off for a coast-to-coast tour.

Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times "Taking Shakespeare at his word, Mr. Evans has translated the character of Richard into a devastating tragedy. The whole doleful story of the king is boldly told. Complacent and trivial when his throne is secure, callous and contemptuous in the presence of his betters, he gives way like a sheet of tissue paper at the first opposition. But it is the distinction of Richard that his mind grows keener with destruction before his enemies; although he lacks the power to rule, he has the courage to be his own confessor, and he is most kingly when the crown has been snatched from his head. The characterization is strange and progressive. Mr. Evans has met it point by point with infinite subtlety and burning emotion. There is not an unstudied corner in any part of this glowing portrait."

Evans remained the King of Shakespeare on Broadway through the early 1940s, playing Malvolio (pictured; opposite Helen Hayes' Viola) in 1940, Falstaff in 1941, Macbeth in 1942, and Hamlet for 267 performances in three productions (1938, 1939, 1945) until he found new success in the work of other playwrights (primarily George Bernard Shaw) before achieving true immortality as the untrusting Dr. Zaius in Planet of the Apes. But it was for his landmark Richard II that Evans will chiefly be remembered for in Shakespearean circles, returning to Broadway in the role for 32 performances in 1940 and televising the play for the Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1954.

Idolized as "The First Lady of the American Theatre," Katharine Cornell (1898-1974) was one of the major figures on Broadway in the first half of the twentieth century, adored by audiences in hits like No Time For Comedy, Candida, Alien Corn, Antigone, and her signature role as Elizabeth Barrett Moulton-Barrett in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. She was a highly accomplished Shakespearean actress who won a Tony for playing Cleopatra in Antony in Cleopatra in 1947 and who was considered the greatest American interpreter of Juliet, receiving acclaim for her performance at the Martin Beck Theatre opposite Basil Rathbone (pictured) as Romeo. Brian Aherne as Mercutio and a young tyro named Orson Welles as Tybalt in 1934, and then reviving it the following year with Maurice Evans as Romeo and Ralph Richardson as Mercutio, both making their American debuts.

"There have been excellent Juliets within the last twelve years," wrote Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times, "one by Jane Cowl and another by Eva Le Galliene. But Miss Cornell's is a complete re-creation - with the suppleness of an artist who plays from within. Shakespeare has a vital servant in Miss Cornell."

Judith Anderson (1898-1992) is more closely associated with the role of of Lady Macbeth than any actress since Sarah Siddons. Anderson played her first Shakespearean role in 1936, playing Gertrude to John Gielgud's Hamlet on Broadway, and was invited to play Lady Macbeth in London at the Old Vic in 1937 opposite Laurence Olivier. The superstition of the "Macbeth Curse" seemed to be fully grounded in reality on that production, as the opening night was postponed from a Tuesday to a Friday because it physically wasn't ready to open and Old Vic director Lilian Baylis died on the Thursday. To add to the predicament, Olivier (who would go on to give what is arguably the greatest performance of Macbeth in history when he played it at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955) aroused controversy by applying an outrageous, Kabuki-like makeup that set him apart from the other actors in the play. While Anderson was considered to be superior to Olivier, she received mixed reviews and was generally thought to be largely ineffectual in the role.

The critical consensus was decidedly different after Anderson returned to Lady Macbeth in 1941, when she played it on Broadway opposite Maurice Evans under the direction of Margaret Webster. Evans and Webster had developed a successful partnership doing Shakespeare on the Great White Way, putting on record-setting productions of Richard II, Hamlet, Henry IV, Part I, and Twelfth Night. Macbeth continued the streak, as the staging ran for 131 performances - still the record for the longest run of the play in Broadway history - and Anderson's was hailed as the definitive depiction of the role in the 20th century. Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times "Miss Anderson's Lady Macbeth is her most distinguished work in our theatre. It has a sculptured beauty in the early scenes, and a resolution that seems to be fiercer than the body that contains it. It is strong without being inhuman. And she has translated the sleep-walking scene into something memorable; the nervous washing of the hands is almost too frightful to be watched. Strange images of death haunt the magnificent acting of Mr. Evans and Miss Anderson in these macabre scenes."

But Anderson still wasn't finished with Macbeth. She and Evans immortalized their Broadway performances in a Spartan production for television's Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1954 (pictured), with Anderson winning an Emmy Award for her performance of Lady Macbeth. Hallmark was so pleased with the results that they returned to the material in 1962, televising a lavishly-produced version that was shot in color on film (as opposed to the standard videotape), which television historians often cite as the first true Made-for-TV film. Though the Hallmark extravaganza guts the text of the play and Evans' flowery performance in the title role now seems self-indulgent and ineffective, it was so well-received in its own time that it was released theatrically in Europe and won five Emmy Awards, including Anderson's second for her chilling performance as Lady Macbeth.

Prior to World War II, John Gielgud (1904-2000) had strongly resisted playing what he regarded as unsympathetic parts. But his success as Angelo in Peter Brook's 1950 production of Measure for Measure took his career in a new direction, and when Brook suggested that Gielgud play the jealous and embittered Leontes in The Winter's Tale, the actor leapt at the opportunity. The critics were unanimous in their praise for both Gielgud and Brook's production of the play, rarely produced because of such structural difficulties as a sixteen year time lapse between scenes and the demise of the character Antigonus from a bear attack (resulting in the Bard's most famous stage direction, "Exit, pursued by a bear."). Much of the credit for Brook's success at overcoming the play's shortcomings were laid at Gielgud's feet. The Spectator wrote "Most of this stems from Mr. Gielgud's very fine performance as Leontes, whose jealousy is so unquestionably real and terrible that we are not worried by the fact that its causes are flimsy and its consequences far-fetched." The production ran for 166 performances in London, breaking the record set by Johnston Forbes-Robertson at the Lyceum in 1887. "It is a virtuoso performance," wrote Richard Findlater, "theatrically expert in conception and execution and the verse is spoken with subtle lucidity and delicate balance. But this is something more than a technical feat: it has the profundity of common experience, lit by the incandescent fire of maturing genius."

Ian McKellen had played Tullus Aufidius in a production directed Tyrone Guthrie in 1963/64 prior to being invited to play Coriolanus by Peter Hall at the Royal National Theatre in 1984. McKellen was at odds with some of Hall's concepts, notably the device of having about thirty audience members sit on the stage and respond to the action. "This they either totally failed to do," wrote McKellen, "blocking my first entrance, for example, too nervous to interfere by shifting their ground so the arrogant Caius Martius had to walk ignominiously round them – or they jolined in too enthusiastically, waving or chatting amongst themselves at inappropriate moments." Despite this disagreement, McKellen and Hall worked harmoniously together and McKellen won the Evening Standard Award for his dynamic performance, later taking the production to the Acropolis at the Herodus Atticus Theatre in Athens. Jack Kroll wrote in Newsweek "McKellen’s Coriolanus is a hero who poisons his heroism with his lack of human contact. Such heroes leave a vacuum into which the final inhuman disaster may rush.”

The greatest English classical actor, John Philip Kemble (1757-1823) made his London debut as Hamlet at Drury Lane in 1783 and was highly praised for his gentleness and aristocratic grace. He revived the role in 1803, inspiring the Gazeteer and Daily News to report "His tones are beautifully modulated, his emphasis critical and instructive, and he so accurately possesses and conveys the meaning of the poet that it is a feast to hear him." Kemble's style relied entirely on classical technique and its limitations were apparent when he attempted roles that required unbridled passion (like Othello) or roles that needed a lighter touch (like Joseph Surface in School for Scandal, in which he suffered a notable failure). As he grew older, he became more mannered in his acting and he was frequently threatened by rising stars, going into a brief retirement during the fad of child actor Master Betty and being forced to give up acting entirely with the ascent of Edmund Kean. But in the period between Garrick's retirement and Kean's debut, Kemble was the most prominent actor in England (although always overshadowed by his sister Sarah Siddons), famous for his performances as Coriolanus, Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII, Henry V, Iago in Othello, Vincentio in Measure for Measure, and the title role of the popular 18th century star vehicle Cato, a Tragedy.

In 1809, Kemble unwittingly instigated one of the most famous theatrical riots of the nineteenth century during his tenure as manager of the Covent Garden theatre. After the theatre burned down and was newly rebuilt, he decided to raise the prices from six to seven shillings for the boxes and three and six to four shillings for the pit and the third tier. The change resulted in the Old Price Riots, when the audience began shouting "Old Prices! Old Prices!" during a performance of Macbeth and ultimately became so unruly that soldiers were sent up to the gallery to restore order. The protests continued for three months, with audience members wearing badges reading "OP," holding up placards during the performances, and releasing pigs, rattles, trumpets, bells and whistles into the theatre. The riots finally stopped when Kemble publicly apologized from the stage and announced that he would reinstate the old prices.

Antony Sher (1949-2021) won a Laurence Olivier Award and the Evening Standard Award for his breakthrough performance as Shakespeare's "bottled spider" dashing about the stage on crutches. For Richard III, he went to the lengths of talking with with doctors, patients, and physical therapists about the physical realities of playing a hunchback, watching interviews with psychopaths, and reading about mass murderers. His research resulted in a landmark interpretation about which Stanley Wells wrote that Sher's Richard was "a performance which aims at, and achieves, brilliance. The opening lines are spoken quietly, almost didactically; but with 'But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks', Sher advances menacingly on the audience, his body swinging like a missileon the adeptly manipulated calipers that support it, his hump displayed with a kind of inverted pride." Michael Billington wrote in Sher's obituary in The Guardian that "it was his performance as Richard III in 1984 that showed his talents working in perfect harmony. With a writerís zeal, he explored with orthopaedic surgeons the exact nature of Richardís disability. As an artist, he was able to find a precise visual image for Richard. And, as an actor, he broke away totally from the Olivier template: fleet and demonic, Sher was the fastest mover in the kingdom, making wickedly inventive use of twin crutches that variously became phallic symbols or a cross to betoken Richardís seeming saintliness."

Sher confirmed his reputation with powerful portrayals of King Lear, Tamburlaine, Cyrano de Bergerac, Shylock, Lear's Fool, Macbeth, and Stanley Spencer in Stanley (winning his second Olivier Award) but his Richard was a masterpiece which represented his finest work. He spent a year playing the hunchbacked king, an experience that made such a mark on him that he wrote a memoir chronicling it called Year of the King and later voiced a cartoon version of the play for Shakespeare: The Animated Tales. It was an incalcuable loss to the classical stage when Sher died of cancer at the age of 72 in Shakespeare's birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon.

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