Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh

ISBN : 9780198703297

Stanley Wells
314 Pages
148 x 223 mm
Pub date
Apr 2015
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  • A new book by the pre-eminent Shakespearean critic Stanley Wells
  • Provides a lively and accessible actor-centric history of Shakespeare and the stage
  • Examines the life and work of 40 of the greatest Shakespeare actors from Shakespeare himself to the present day greats
  • Written with authority and flair
  • Generously illustrated

Great Shakespeare Actors offers a series of essays on great Shakespeare actors from his time to ours, starting by asking whether Shakespeare himself was the first—the answer is No—and continuing with essays on the men and women who have given great stage performances in his plays from Elizabethan times to our own. They include both English and American performers such as David Garrick, Sarah Siddons, Charlotte Cushman, Ira Aldridge, Edwin Booth, Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Edith Evans, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft, Janet Suzman, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and Kenneth Branagh. Individual chapters tell the story of their subjects' careers, but together these overlapping tales combine to offer a succinct, actor-centred history of Shakespearian theatrical performance.
Stanley Wells examines what it takes to be a great Shakespeare actor and then offers a concise sketch of each actor's career in Shakespeare, an assessment of their specific talents and claims to greatness, and an account, drawing on contemporary reviews, biographies, anecdotes, and, for some of the more recent actors, the author's personal memories of their most notable performances in Shakespeare roles.


Prelude: William Shakespeare
1: Richard Burbage
2: Will Kemp
3: Robert Armin
4: Thomas Betterton
5: Charles Macklin
6: David Garrick
Who Was the First Great Shakespeare Actress?
7: Sarah Siddons
8: George Frederick Cooke
9: John Philip Kemble
10: Dora Jordan
11: Edmund Kean
12: William Charles Macready
13: Helen Faucit
Who Was the First Great American Shakespeare Actor?
14: Ira Aldridge
15: Charlotte Cushman
16: Edwin Booth
17: Henry Irving
18: Ellen Terry
19: Tommaso Salvini
Times of Change
20: Edith Evans
21: Sybil Thorndike
22: Charles Laughton
23: Donald Wolfit
24: Ralph Richardson
25: John Gielgud
26: Laurence Olivier
27: Peggy Ashcroft
28: Michael Redgrave
29: Paul Scofield
30: Donald Sinden
31: Richard Pasco
32: Ian Richardson
33: Judi Dench
34: Derek Jacobi
35: Ian McKellen
36: Janet Suzman
37: Antony Sher
38: Simon Russell Beale
39: Kenneth Branagh

About the author: 

Stanley Wells, Honorary President, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
Stanley Wells, described by Roy Hattersley as 'Our greatest authority on Shakespeare's life and work', is honorary President of The Shakespeare Birthplace, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, and Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. He was for nearly twenty years the editor of the annual Shakespeare Survey, and writes for the TLS and many other publications. He has edited The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies and is General Editor (with Gary Taylor) of The Complete Oxford Shakespeare and co-author of William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion. His most recent books are Shakespeare For All TimeLooking for Sex in Shakespeare, and Shakespeare, Sex, and Love.

"Aimed at a broad readership, the book offers short biographies of "great Shakespeare actors" from Shakespeare's time to our own ... the book will very likely prove a helpful and entertaining resource for many." - Kevin Curran, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900

"Great Shakespeare Actors is most impressive when quarrying the more remote past, and, although it is suitable for dipping into, reading it straight through conveys a sense of how acting styles and actors' careers have changed." - Henry Hitchings, Spectator

"[A] fascinating book." - Benedict Nightingale, New Statesman

"Stanley Wells has his work cut out in Great Shakespeare Actors as he assesses around forty performers over the past four centuries, from Richard Burbage to Simon Russell Beale, offering brisk career summaries with a dash of scholarship and plenty of anecdote ... There's no shortage of excellent stories." - David Collard, The Times Literary Supplement

"... Wells' passion is infectious." - New Republic, Charles Shafaieh

"This collection is not only a useful source in itself, but opens up many other routes into theatre commentary, both historical and contemporary." - Heather Neill, Around the Globe

"What could easily have been a repetitive book, as a series of actors is connected to a limited number of distinguished roles, is so well written that this never becomes the case. The writing is assured and never flags in an unexpected volume that is well worth dipping into." - British Theatre Guide, Philip Fisher

"There's so much more in this fascinating book that I haven't been able to cover, so I can only urge you, if this kind of thing interests you, to go out and get a copy soon. You won't regret it." - Shiny New Books, Harriet Devine

"Stanley Wells has written a book which is a total delight... unputdownable." - The Journal (Newcastle), Richard Edmonds

"There is deep research here, lightly worn but nevertheless offering clear pointers for those who wish to study individual performers more closely, and for the great majority of the book there is also an engaging tone" - Lisa Hopkins, Sheffield Hallam University, Times Higher Education

"a brisk, fascinating theatrical voyage through more than four centuries" - The Independent, Nicholas De Jongh

"There is deep research here, lightly worn Wells is judicious and restrained and has a dry, crisp style." - Times Higher Education, Lisa Hopkins

"Stanley Wells - Shakespeare's brightest and best champion for decades - has produced an absolutely wonderful and wildly readable survey of Shakespearean acting. With tremendous flashes of insight, Wells illuminates not just the staging and the modes of acting that predominated over the centuries, but also the true nature of Shakespeare as a provider of play scripts for actors and audiences. Superbly researched, this is a book that I shall revisit time and time again." - Stephen Fry

"This astonishing book fills a vital gap on the shelves. Stanley Wells combines the detailed knowledge of a Shakespeare scholar with the sharp eye of a dramatic critic in a book that makes great performances come resonantly alive. If future generations want to know what Olivier or Dench really were like in Shakespeare, it is to this book that they will turn." - Michael Billington

"In his own day, and ever since, Shakespeare's plays have been staged by some of the worlds most extraordinary actors. Stanley Wells, who knows these plays and their fascinating histories as well as anyone, offers here incisive portraits of exceptional actors who have performed Shakespeare over the past 400 years, from Burbage and Kemp up through Olivier, Dench, McKellen, and Beale. It's a thrilling and captivating account." - James Shapiro, author of 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

"Stanley Wells's Great Shakespeare Actors is a companionable tour through the encyclopaedic knowledge of our greatest Shakespeare scholar, full of anecdote, erudition, and intimate firsthand observation. It's a tribute to a life of devotion to the theatre, on the page and on stage, informed by a living sense of what actors do, and who they are, and how they work. There are many classic lives here, but also, to me, some enjoyable surprises." - Margaret Drabble

"a highly enjoyable book, clearly and pungently written. ... it will be of great help to the general reader, to Shakespeare students and to theatre historians alike as it allows us to reflect on the very essence of theatre" - Sophie Chiari, Cercles

"As well as drawing effectively on significant written accounts by actors and critics, Wells is particularly persuasive in analyses of visual and aural evidence" - Russell Jackson, The Year's Contribution to Shakespeare Studies

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