His World was Her World

Award-winning actress and screen-writer Eileen Atkins will be performing her one woman show, Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins from 13 January.  A fascinating actress in her own right, Eileen will perform as Ellen when performing Ellen’s lectures, but will present her own interpretation of Shakespeare’s women.

In this piece Gail Marshall, looks further into the world of Ellen Terry and her relationship with Shakespeare and  his women.


In later life, Ellen Terry turned from playing Shakespeare’s great female roles to reading lectures about them. It was a departure which reinforced her reputation as a woman who lived and breathed Shakespeare.

In her adult life, Ellen Terry was fond of annotating photographs of herself with Beatrice’s line from Much Ado About Nothing: ‘there was a star danced and under that was I born’. Thus she recognizes the Shakespearean genealogy, which she writes of first in her 1908 autobiography, The Story of My Life: ‘it was a happy chance that made me a native of Warwickshire, Shakespeare’s own county’. And so began a life imbued with Shakespeare: Terry was to become the best-known and best-loved actress of her generation, possibly of the whole Victorian period, and her reputation was based firmly on her Shakespearean roles. From her first appearance on stage, as Mamillius, in Charles Kean’s 1856 production of The Winter’s Tale at the Princess’s Theatre, when Terry was eight, through her twenty years with Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre from where they ruled the world stage, to her  final appearance in 1906 in Beerbohm Tree’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, her affiliation with Shakespeare determined her professional life and her audiences’ appreciation of her.

Following her retirement, the identification between Terry and Shakespeare became if anything even more intense, and was cemented in a series of lectures on Shakespeare that the actress developed. It was very common for retired actresses to continue to appear in some guise following their retirement: Fanny Kemble, for instance, a member of the famous theatrical dynasty that included her uncle John Philip Kemble and aunt Sarah Siddons, made a living giving public readings of Shakespeare ‘splays in Britain and America. Neither was it unusual for actresses to write at length about Shakespeare: Helena Faucit published On Some of Shakespeare’s Female Characters in the 1880s as a series of public letters to friends and celebrities, and their experiences of playing Shakespeare feature in many theatre autobiographies of the period. But the development of a series of lectures is unusual, and speaks to a more critically engaged relationship with Shakespeare than contemporary audiences might have been aware of. Today’s visitors to Ellen Terry’s home at Smallhythe in Kent, now a National Trust property, can see from Terry’s extensive library there, just how committed to the study, as well as the playing, of Shakespeare Terry was, even after she had retired from the stage.

Terry’s lectures propelled her into an exhausting series of public appearances, at home and abroad. In the winter of 1911-12 alone, she appeared in 21towns over a period of 44 days of touring in Britain, but also took the lectures overseas. The lectures work as a kind of footnote to her career, but also make claims for the ways in which actresses might use their unique access to Shakespeare to supplement scholarship with their own privileged insights. Terry writes that the actress’s task: is to learn how to translate this character into herself, how to make its thoughts her thoughts, its words her words. It is because I have applied myself to this task for a great many years that I am able to speak to you about Shakespeare’s women with the knowledge that can be gained only from union with them.

Most interestingly, the lectures reveal Terry as clearly a revisionist writer, who debunks theatrical tradition and explicitly challenges the ways in which some women characters are viewed. Bram Stoker, manager of the Lyceum, as well as author of Dracula noted this practice as an aspect of her work more generally, when he suggests in his Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving (1906) that her example allowed actresses ‘to emerge from the meshes of convention’. The organisation of the lectures into talks on children in the plays, Shakespeare’s use of letters, and the heroines who are pathetic, and those who are triumphant, also resists the conventional categories of tragedy and comedy, and their implications for their heroines, as Nina Auerbach has argued in her 1987 biography of Terry. Fascinatingly, Terry classifies Lady Macbeth – ‘a delicate little creature, with hypersensitive nerves’ – as a pathetic heroine. Terry is particularly determined that aspects of Beatrice, one of her favourite characters, should be read as serious, and not wholly comic, citing specifically Beatrice’s indignation against Claudio in the chapel scene. Terry also famously disputes Henry Irving’s insistence that at the end of this crucial scene, a time-honoured gag be included. As Benedick exits, Beatrice traditionally asks him to kiss her hand again. Clearly this sits ill with Terry’s reading of Beatrice’s sober position in this scene, but Irving insisted on its inclusion, despite her tears. She recalls that she,
went home in a terrible state of mind, strongly tempted to throw up my part! Then I reflected that for one thing I did not like doing at the Lyceum, there would probably be a hundred things I should dislike doing in another theatre. So I agreed to do what Henry wished, under protest. I have played Beatrice hundreds of times, but not once as I know she ought to be played. I was never swift enough, not nearly swift enough at the Lyceum.
In her lectures, she could play Beatrice as she wanted, as well as taking on the role of Rosalind, which Irving never permitted her to play, and male roles that were equally out of the question.

As her professional life dwindled due to old age, and ill health, Terry’s Shakespearean resonances maintain their sway over her own and others ‘accounts of her, thanks in part to the Lectures. The Times’ review of Terry’s Lectures writes that,
In reading them it is difficult to shake off a queer impression that she who is speaking was herself one of Shakespeare’s women, and that in the native country of them all, his creative mind, she had met, and talked with, and lived with them all.
This is in a sense the official line promoted by Edy Craig and her lover, and Terry’s secretary, the feminist and suffragist Christopher St John as they sought to secure Terry in people’s memories and in cultural history. St John’s introduction to the Lectures exalts the relationship between actress and playwright into something almost sacred even transcendent:
 It has often been remarked that Ellen Terry spoke the language of Shakespeare as if it were her native tongue, and in these communings with herself there is revealed something of the process by which she arrived at that state of grace in which his words became her words […] His world too became her world: she was entirely at home in it, as these lectures alone are left to testify now that she is dead. She speaks in one of them of its being ‘more real to some of us than the actual world’, but I have never met anyone as familiar with it and its inhabitants as she. She lived on the most intimate terms with Shakespeare’s men and women.
But as we read and listen to the Lectures today, devoid of memories of actually having seen Terry for ourselves, impervious to her famous ‘charm’, we can begin to appreciate, more fully perhaps than her contemporaries, the close engagement and critical astuteness that underlay her years of work as a Shakespearean heroine.

Gail Marshall is Professor of Victorian Literature and Director of the Victorian Studies Centre at the University of Leicester.

This article first appeared in Around the Globe, Issue 56, Spring 2014.
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