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Faculty Publication Spotlight - "Shakespeare in the Theatre" by Fiona Ritchie

Dr. Fiona Ritchie talks to us about her latest book, "Shakespeare in the Theatre: Sarah Siddons and John Philip Kemble", published by Bloomsbury Press in 2022.

Sarah Siddons and her brother, John Philip Kemble, were the most famous British actors of the late-18th and early-19th centuries. In creating iconic interpretations of Shakespeare's major characters, such as Lady Macbeth and Hamlet, Siddons and Kemble's legacies live on today. Associate Professor in the Department of English, Fiona Ritchie, explores the lives and careers of Siddons and Kemble in her latest book, Shakespeare in the Theatre: Sarah Siddons and John Philip Kemble published by Bloomsbury Press in December 2022.

We spoke to Dr. Ritchie about the legacies she explores in her book, the scandal of a fake Shakespearean play and the cult of celebrity that defined Sarah Siddons' career. 

Q: Who were Sarah Siddons and John Philip Kemble and what significant contributions or impacts did they have on English theatre and on Shakespearean theatre in particular? How can their influence be felt or experienced today?

Siddons and Kemble were important Shakespearean actors of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. They were sister and brother and were born into a large theatrical family who acted in the provinces. Both actors subsequently had long careers on the London stage and created iconic interpretations of major roles in Shakespeare and in eighteenth-century drama. They also frequently acted together (for example as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Coriolanus and Volumnia, and Constance and King John) and my book explores how this collaboration helped them achieve their status as great Shakespeareans. As well as being an actor, Kemble was also a theatre manager. Through meticulous research, he developed a clear and cohesive vision for each of the plays he directed, something that we now take for granted. Siddons was the star of the partnership and her name became synonymous with great acting, even inspiring the creation of a Sarah Siddons Award for outstanding performance which is still presented today. More recently, actors like Frances McDormand and Ruth Negga have, consciously or not, echoed Siddons’s attempts to create sympathy for Lady Macbeth in their performances.


Q:Your previous book, Women and Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2014), looks at the role women played in the construction of Shakespeare’s reputation in the 18th century; how significant was Sarah Siddons’s influence compared to other women actors during this time?

My previous book looked at how several groups of eighteenth-century women, including actresses, critics, and audience members, made Shakespeare the important cultural icon that we know today. Siddons is what we might call the first Shakespearean actress. Her predecessors (including the actress Hannah Pritchard) also acted widely in Shakespeare’s plays but Siddons became primarily identified with her Shakespearean roles (though she did act in many contemporary plays as well).


Q:What kind of archival research did you rely on to complete this book? How does this research help us understand how the performances were received during their time?

The kind of work I do usually involves a lot of detailed archival research but COVID made it hard to travel and to access the archives I needed. Nevertheless, I was able to incorporate sources like playbills (performance advertisements that show us which roles actors performed), personal correspondence (for example letters in which Siddons outlined her response to various theatrical events), and newspapers (which printed performance reviews and gossip about the actors). Portraits and graphic satires also offer a glimpse into how actors were perceived by the public. Because Siddons and Kemble subsequently became such iconic figures, a great deal of mythology has built up around them which is often repeated as fact. Going back to the primary sources gives us a better understanding of their eighteenth-century reception, rather than the stories nineteenth-century writers developed about the actors.

Q: Your book addresses how Siddons and Kemble had to navigate two major Shakespeare scandals, the staging of a fake Shakespearean play, Vortigern, and the Old Price Riots of 1809. What is the significance of these events, and what impacts did they have on English theatre at the time, and afterwards?

The one and only performance of Vortigern was widely seen as a public trial of the play’s authenticity. Both Kemble and Siddons were (rightly!) sceptical that the drama was written by Shakespeare. Kemble contrived to sabotage the play by mocking it in his performance and Siddons refused to appear in it. The public had a great interest in and respect for the two actors’ responses to Vortigern. Given their status as great Shakespearean performers, Siddons and Kemble had the power to authenticate the play but their hostility towards it contributed to its dismissal as a fake. Then as now, playgoers did not rely on scholars for their understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare but on the actors who interpreted his works on stage. The Old Price Riots came about when Kemble, as theatre manager, attempted to raise ticket prices. This led to an audience rebellion that lasted for three months. Kemble had threatened the idea of the theatre as a democratic institution in which everyone had the right to see Shakespeare in performance by attempting to exclude less well-off members of society, who could no longer afford admission at the new prices. The manager was eventually forced to capitulate and to apologise. Although Shakespeare is often considered elitist today, many companies and institutions continue to emphasise access for all, whether it’s Repercussion Theatre’s summer tour of Montreal parks or the Globe’s groundling tickets in London.

Q: In what ways were the “celebrity” status of Shakespearean actors in the 18th century similar or dissimilar to the cult of “celebrity” we see today with actors?

Eighteenth-century celebrities had fewer media channels open to them by which they could disseminate and shape their image but they certainly used what they had! Both Siddons and Kemble worked hard to shape the public perception of them through portraiture and these images were engraved and sold as souvenirs (and even printed on material objects such as ceramics). Siddons made sure she was painted in maternal roles, often alongside her children, and Kemble favoured depictions of himself as grand Shakespearean heroes. Siddons was famed for her emotional performances and the way in which they inspired outpourings of feeling, including fainting fits and bouts of hysterical weeping, in her audience. This was in part due to the power of her acting but people were also awed by her celebrity status. When she died, thousands of mourners lined the streets for her funeral. So we can see parallels with celebrity culture today, both in the actors’ interest in image shaping and in the public’s frenzied response to their idols.

Q: What role do academics such as yourself play in keeping the spirit of Shakespeare and his works alive for current and future generations of students?

I’m very interested in Shakespeare’s afterlife and in the forces that created his pre-eminent cultural status. Part of my work involves uncovering the people that shaped his posthumous reputation, including women like Siddons (without whom Kemble would not have achieved such great success as a theatre manager). I’m also very interested in the uses to which Shakespeare has been put in the centuries since his death, particularly the ways in which his works have been adapted to respond to the concerns of particular historical periods or geographical locations. This I hope reminds us that Shakespeare has always been malleable and should remain so. It’s not sacrilege to change aspects of the works, it’s a continuation of what has always been done.

Q: On a more personal note, what are some of your favourite Shakespeare plays to see performed? Any particular actors or theatre companies whose performances/productions have had a lasting impression?

Macbeth is a big favourite of mine. I’ve been lucky enough to see a wide range of productions, including Harriet Walter and Antony Sher at a replica Globe theatre in Tokyo and a staging of William Davenant’s 1664 adaptation at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Shakespeare productions (also starring Harriet Walter) showed that gender swapping the cast of male-dominated plays like Julius Caesar is not a gimmick but can really open up possibilities in the text. And I’ve always enjoyed the work of Japanese Shakespeare director Yukio Ninagawa.

Q: What’s next for you in 2023?

I’ll be spending part of my sabbatical as a Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford, where I’ll be continuing research on my next project which is about women and regional theatre in Britain in the long eighteenth century. Star actresses like Siddons toured the regions, increasing their celebrity status and augmenting their finances. There were also many women who acted in small towns in relative obscurity but who had fascinating careers. The London stage was dominated by men but I’m finding that in the regions there were many more opportunities for women to work in non-acting positions in the theatre such as managers and prompters. This work is very much based on archival resources and I’m looking forward to getting back into the library after COVID!


Fiona Ritchie is Associate Professor of Drama and Theatre in the Department of English. She is the author of Women and Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and the co-editor (with McGill colleague Peter Sabor) of Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2012). She founded the Theatre and Performance Studies Caucus of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies and currently serves on the editorial board of the journal Shakespeare Quarterly and on the advisory board for the London Stage Database. She has held research fellowships at the Huntington Library; the Lewis Walpole Library; Chawton House Library; the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions; the Institute for Comparative Studies of Culture, Tokyo Woman’s Christian University; the University of Bristol, and Jesus College, University of Oxford.

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