Actors, Musicians and Theatre Personalities with Scottish Links ~ Edmund Kean 1789 - 1833


Edmund Kean, 1789 - 1833

Edmund Kean as Hamlet. from: B W Proctor, The Life of Edmund Kean, 2 Volumes, 1835.   British Library,, v. 1, p. 97.  [Image in the public domain.]

In 1814 Drury Lane theatre, which was on the verge of bankruptcy, offered Kean a contract to play major Shakespearean roles.  His opening as Shylock roused the audience to almost uncontrollable enthusiasm. Successive appearances in Richard III, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear demonstrated his mastery of the range of tragic emotion.  In November 1820 Kean appeared in New York as Richard III. The success of his visit to America was unequivocal, although he fell into a vexatious dispute with the press. On 4th June 1821 he returned to England.

Kean met Charlotte Cox, the wife of a London city alderman, while in Switzerland. On his return to England, Kean was sued by Cox for adultery and damages of £800 was awarded against him. The Times launched a violent attack on him and the adverse decision in the divorce case of Cox v. Kean in January 1825 caused his wife to leave him. 

In this case, which was Kean's ruin, the woman seems to have been chiefly to blame, and the husband seems to have acted like a fool.  Kean was treated with extraordinary severity by the public, and was practically driven off the stage. He went to America for two seasons, but, on his return, was the wreck of his former self. Some of the pamphlets in connection with this business are extraordinarily nasty, and are very scarce. 'Little Breeches' was a nickname of Kean's for Mrs. Cox.

When Kean next appeared at Drury lane he was booed and pelted with fruit by the hostile audience, inflamed by the press attacks.  During a second visit to America in 1825 he suffered similar persecution. Some cities showed him a spirit of charity but many audiences submitted him to insults and even violence. In Quebec he was much impressed with the kindness of some Huron Indians who attended his performances, and he was purportedly made an honorary chief of the tribe, receiving the name Alanienouidet. Kean’s last appearance in New York was on 5 December 1826 in Richard III.

On his return to England he was received with favour, but by now he was so dependent on the use of stimulants that the gradual deterioration followed.  However, there were occasional triumphs despite the absolute wreck of his physical faculties. An appearance in Paris was a failure owing to a fit of drunkenness.

His last appearance on the stage was at Covent Garden, in March 1833, when he played Othello to the Iago of his son, Charles Kean, who was now an accomplished actor. Kean collapsed into the arms of his son during the third scene of the third act and was carried from the stage.

It was in his realisations of the great creations of Shakespeare’s genius that Kean deployed his acting skills in their highest form.  However, many claimed that his most powerful character was Sir Giles Overreach in Philip Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts. His main disadvantage as an actor was his small stature. Coleridge said, 'Seeing him act was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.'

If the range of character in which Kean attained supreme excellence was narrow, no one except David Garrick was so successful in so many roles. Unlike Garrick, Kean had no true talent for comedy, but in the expression of biting and saturnine wit, of grim and ghostly gaiety he was unsurpassed.

His eccentricities at the height of his fame were numerous. Sometimes he would ride recklessly on his horse, Shylock, throughout the night. He was presented with a tame lion with which he might be found playing in his drawing-room.

Kean leased a property at Loch Fad on the Isle of Bute and was resident there from time to time.

[Text based on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Oxford Companion to American Theatre.]


Edmund Kean, 1789 - 1833

Edmund Kean as Shylock, 1814. From Annals of the American Stage Vol II by Odell. Columbia University Press.

'Mr. Kean (of whom report had spoken highly) last night made his appearance at Drury-Lane Theatre in the character of Shylock.

For voice, eye, action, and expression, no actor has come out for many years at all equal to him. The applause from the first scene to the last, was general, loud, and uninterrupted. Indeed, the very first scene in which he comes on with Bassanio and Antonio, showed the master of his art, and at once decided the opinion of the audience. . . .

Notwithstanding the complete success of Mr. Kean in the part of Shylock, we question whether he will not become a greater favourite in other parts. There was a lightness and vigour in his tread, a buoyancy and elasticity of spirit, a fire and animation, which would accord better with almost any other character than with the morose, sullen, inward, inveterate, inflexible malignity of Shylock. The character of Shylock is that of a man brooding over one idea, that of its wrongs, and bent on one unalterable purpose, that of revenge.

In conveying a profound impression of this feeling, or in embodying the general conception of rigid and uncontrollable self-will, equally proof against every sentiment of humanity or prejudice of opinion, we have seen actors more successful than Mr. Kean; but in giving effect to the conflict of passions arising out of the contrasts of situation, in varied vehemence of declamation, in keenness of sarcasm, in the rapidity of his transitions from one tone and feeling to another, in propriety and novelty of action, presenting a succession of striking pictures, and giving perpetually fresh shocks of delight and surprise, it would be difficult to single out a competitor.

The fault of his acting was (if we may hazard the objection), an over-display of the resources of the art, which gave too much relief to the hard, impenetrable, dark groundwork of the character of Shylock. . . We thought in one or two instances, the pauses in the voice were too long, and too great a reliance placed on the expression of the countenance, which is a language intelligible only to part of the house. . .

[Drury Lane] January 27, 1814.

William Hazlitt, A View of the English Stage. London: George Bell and Sons, 1906. pp. 1-3.



Edmund Kean, 1789 - 1833

Edmund Kean in the role of Sir Giles Overreach, 1816, in A New Way to Pay Old Debts, by Phillip Massinger.  Painted in 1820 George Clint (1770 - 1854), oil on canvas, 28 cm x 22.9 cm. Original in the Dyce bequest at the Victoria and Albert Museum. [Image in the public domain.]

Philip Massinger's comedy of 1633 deals with the deception and ultimate fall of the unscrupulous Sir Giles Overreach; in the last scene, finding he has helped unwittingly to marry his daughter to the wrong man and has lost all his property, he goes insane. Here, the finished painting shows him drawing his sword to kill his daughter: 'This moment and the ensuing fit brought the strongest reaction from audiences and Lord Byron was one of the many, both on and off the stage, who had hysterics on the first night' .

Edmund Kean made the sensational debut at Drury Lane in 1811, and became the leading and most controversial actor of the day. He played Sir Giles at Drury Lane for the first time on 12th January 1816; that role and in April 1920 his King Lear, were among his greatest triumphs. There are several portraits of Kean in various roles, but this brilliant sketch perhaps best captures the mercurial passion of the acting style for which he was famous. William Hazlitt believed that as Sir Giles 'he had no equal' in the 'soul and spirit of the part'; it was Charles Dickens's favourite role as an amateur actor.

The character of Sir Giles Overreach in Philip Massinger’s 'A New Way to Pay Old Debts' provided a bravura role for a great actor like Edmund Kean, who revelled in the variety it required.

American critic Richard Henry Dana admired his restraint in the early scenes: ‘His manner at meeting Lovell and through the conversation with him, the way in which he turns his chair and leans upon it, were as easy and natural as they could have been in real life, had Sir Giles been actually existing, and engaged at that moment in conversation in Lovell’s room’.

But the avaricious cruelty of the character, and his fits of impotent rage as the plot progresses, also fitted Kean’s talents like a glove. According to one account, on the first night the effect of his impersonation was such that the pit rose en masse and even the actors and actresses themselves were overcome by the terrific dramatic illusion.

[Text based on the Georgian Playhouse, contemporary sources and Victoria and Albert Museum catalogue records.]



Edmund Kean, 1789 - 1833

Edmund Kean as Othello
by and published by John William Gear hand-coloured lithograph, early 19th century 200 mm x 173 mm.  [Image in the public domain.]

Keats calls Kean’s acting 'perfection,' and contains so much fulsome praise one wonders if Kean might have been embarrassed. Indeed, the review reads more like a fan letter than a normal theatrical review, even a glowing one. Keats ends with this appeal to Kean to take care of himself:

'Kean! Kean! have a carefulness of thy health, an innursed respect for thy own genius, a pity for us in these cold and enfeebling times! Cheer us a little in the failure of our days! for romance lives but in books. The goblin is driven from the heath, and the rainbow is robbed of its mystery!'

(Cf. Keats’s famous comment that Isaac Newton was guilty of 'unweaving the rainbow by reducing it to a prism.')

As an actor Kean relied on his own forceful and turbulent personality and on sudden transitions of voice and facial expression. There was nothing improvised about his performances, however. Technically they were carefully planned, and it was said of his portrayal of Othello that, with its unvarying tones and semitones, rests and breaks, forte and piano, crescendo and diminuendo, it might have been read from a musical score. His range was limited, however. He excelled at malign roles but usually failed at parts calling for nobility, virtue, tenderness, or comic talent.

[Text based on Madame Pickwick's Blog and Encyclopaedia Britannica,]

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