Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh – by Stanley Wells


“Technical acting skills can be acquired through training and the application of intelligence, but there is an extra dimension to great acting which transcends and can even defy technique. It calls for an exercise of imagination, an ability to see beneath the surface of Shakespeare’s language, to encompass and weld together the diverse elements of a role – what the character says, what other people say about the character, how it changes or behaves, how it interacts with others, how it changes or develops during the course of the play – and it calls for the ability to project this understanding in performance after performance and often in a wide variety of physical circumstances. It calls, in short, for genius, a quality that we may recognize more easily than we may define.”

Stanley Wells. Introduction: Great Shakespeare Actors.

It’s a brave man who is prepared to look back over 450 years’ worth of Shakespearean actors and whittle the list of ‘all time greats’ down to a mere 40 – but Stanley Wells, as one of the leading authorities on Shakespeare and his world, is better qualified than most to do so.

Inevitably some of his choices will be questioned – especially as he moves into the modern era, where many people will have seen and remember the performances of the likes of Laurence Olivier,  Judi Dench and Anthony Sher – but it’s his omissions they’ll be arguing over rather than his inclusions.

In his introduction, he has a brave stab at defining the qualities that distinguish a great Shakespeare actor from a good or even excellent one, but in the end, it boils down to something indefinable and intangible:  the spark of genius or what Steven Berkoff referred to as ‘that glint of the possessed’. You know it when you see it.

When you cast your net as far back as Shakespeare’s own time (and the Man himself may or may not have qualified as a ‘great’ actor of his own work) all you have to go on are contemporary descriptions and the fact that the names of Burbage, Betterton and Garrick still resonate loudly in the 21st century. We don’t need to have seen David Garrick on the stage to know that he became the benchmark for Shakespearean actors for generations afterwards.

As a lifelong lover of Shakespeare on the stage I have read extensively on the subject and was therefore fairly certain what I was going to find when I opened Wells’ erudite and informative book – but I was wrong.

He dedicates a short and eminently readable chapter to each of the ‘greats’, and all the usual suspects are present and correct – Garrick, Siddons, Kemble and Kean through to recent and current Shakespeareans like Richard Pasco and Simon Russell Beale – but also featured are the comic actors, so often excluded from such lists, because brilliant Malvolios and Festes have never attracted the same critical attention and applause over the years as the Hamlets and Lears – and so it is that we read about Will Kemp, Robert Armin and Donald Sinden.

Also included are the awkward actors who don’t fit in a neat pigeonhole – like Charles Laughton –  the wildly unpredictable rogues like George Frederick Cooke, and substantially overlooked actresses like Dora Jordan, Helen Faucit and Charlotte Cushman.

You won’t find Edwin Forrest though – even though Wells originally expected to be including him as the first great American Shakespearean. However, on closer examination of Forrest’s career, he came to the conclusion that he was in fact more of a barn-stormer with a loud voice, considerable presence and little subtlety. It is to the black actor Ira Aldridge that Wells eventually hands the laurels.

I originally wanted this book because I’m a completist nerd. I no sooner see a book with ‘Shakespeare’ and/or ‘Actor’ and/or ‘Stage’ in the title than I’m begging to be parted from my money … but I was both startled and very pleasantly surprised by what I found. Not only was I introduced to a couple of actors that I had never even heard of before, I also found myself looking at the late, wonderful Donald Sinden in an entirely different light – and I can’t think of too many books that have actually slightly reshaped my world.


Oxford University Press. 2015. ISBN:  978-0-19-870329-7. 308pp.

4 comments on “Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh – by Stanley Wells

  1. Hilary
    March 4, 2016

    This sounds like the very book for me – fascinating! I’ll be interested to see if any of my quirky favourites from my youth make it into the book (promising, as Rciard Pasco is one). Thanks for the review.

  2. Nancy
    March 4, 2016

    Thanks for the review. I am adding this one to my wish list!

  3. camilledefleurville
    March 4, 2016

    I, again, will say: this is the perfect book for me! Mother was a theatre goer and a Shakespeare lover. Before she married and when she was still a student, she used to cross the Channel (there was no EUROSTAR then – at least at the beginning) only to see a play. And she bought tapes with the recorded plays. I still have them with Dame Peggy Ashcroft for instance (who was no longer playing Shakespeare), then down a long list of Shakespearean actors, until CDs, tape recorders, DVDs, etc. And Branagh.
    Definitely a book to add to my Shakespeare book shelf! Thank you for the review.

  4. Jackie
    March 6, 2016

    So Ralph(Fiennes) wasn’t included??? Grrrrr!

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This entry was posted on March 4, 2016 by in Entries by Moira, Non-fiction, Theatre and tagged , , , , , .



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