Henry Irving had already established himself as the Hamlet of his generation when he invited Ellen Terry (1849-1928) to be his leading lady at the Lyceum Theatre and play Ophelia in a London revival of the staging, which Irving was then trying out in Birmingham."When he engaged me to play Ophelia in 1878," wrote Terry with characteristic modesty in her memoirs, "he asked me to go down to Birmingham to see the play, and that night I saw what I shall always consider the perfection of acting. It had been wonderful in 1874. In 1878 it was far more wonderful. It has been said that when he had the 'advantage' of my Ophelia, his Hamlet 'improved.' I don't think so. He was always quite independent of the people with whom he acted." Audiences disagreed, for though Irving's 1874 Hamlet ran an unprecedented 200 nights, critics were unanimous in the opinion that the addition of Terry to the cast transformed the production into the definitive staging of the play. John Knight wrote that she was "picturesque, tender, and womanly throughout." She continued playing Ophelia for ten years, beginning a love affair with London audiences that has never been approached by any other actress. George Bernard Shaw wrote "Ellen Terry is the most beautiful name in the world; it rings like a chime through the last quarter of the nineteenth century,"
In preparation for Ophelia, Terry "went to the madhouse to study wits astray. I was disheartened at first. There was no beauty, no nature, no pity in most of the lunatics. Strange as it may sound, they were too theatrical to teach me anything. Then, just as I was going away, I noticed a young girl gazing at the wall. I went between her and the wall to see her face. It was quite vacant, but the body expressed that she was waiting, waiting. Suddenly she threw up her hands and sped across the room like a swallow. I never forgot it. She was very thin, very pathetic, very young, and the movement was as poignant as it was beautiful." Terry was able to bring that poignancy to her historic Ophelia and virtually every other role she played.