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Ellen Terry: From Shakespearean Actress to Public Speaker


While other actors are remembered because they were Hamlet, Phedre, or Cleopatra, Ellen Terry is remembered because she was Ellen Terry.

So wrote the writer Virginia Woolf of Ellen Terry (1847-1928), who was celebrated as the greatest Shakespearean actress during her life.

My first encounter with Shakespeare was through the iconic Ellen Terry. Or at least my great grandmother’s memory of her famous older cousin – as a child late one night peeking through the banisters in order to glimpse the glamorous actress visiting her home. The family history of this visit or others is rather vague. While eager to meet their famous relation, the adults were wary of allowing young impressionable girls to socialise with a divorced woman with illegitimate children. Terry’s own parents broke off with her for many years when she left her first husband and lived with the architect Edward Godwin, the father of her two children Edith and Edward Craig. It was probably a relief then that the busy touring Terry visited her relations late after her theatre performance and the children’s usual bedtime. Nevertheless her young relations stole a glimpse of Terry and a daring unconventional world where the usual Victorian social norms could be broken. And they therefore encountered Shakespeare too through the spirit of this audacious visitor.

What then was so special about Terry as an actress? Woolf claims that even ‘Shakespeare could not fit her, not Ibsen; nor Shaw’. What Woolf and others found compelling about Terry’s acting is elusive to us. Such is the nature of performance. We do not see Terry the actress, but the idealised Victorian pre-Raphaelite beauty, painted by her first husband George Watts and others. Most famously we have Terry as the magnificent Lady Macbeth painted by John Singer Sargent

But Ellen Terry is making a comeback and opens the first season of the new Sam Wanamaker Theatre at Globe this January. Audiences will have a chance of hearing Terry in her own words with the actress Eileen Atkins performing from her Four Lectures on Shakespeare (Terry, 1932). Terry turned to these public lecture performances in the 1910s after struggling with new theatre roles and her increasingly poor memory for lines. The lecture series allowed the actress to engage the public with her past Shakespearean roles. Her focus was on analysing character – that of the female characters (triumphant and pathetic), the child characters, and the characters revealed through the letters in Shakespeare’s plays.

Terry had been a sensation to Victorian audiences in roles such as Portia and Lady Macbeth working alongside the renowned actor and director Henry Irving. But how much did her celebrated status owe to the growing cult of stardom in the modern arts? A Victorian celebrity status grew around Terry fuelled by the iconic paintings and photographs. For Terry’s beauty both embodied Victorian aesthetic ideals of beauty, and Victorian concepts of the theatre which linked acting to painting and sculpture. And Terry herself was conscious of the importance of her image in her successful career. We see this in the deliberate planning around the famous beetle-wing dress she wore as Lady Macbeth designed by Alice Comyns-Carr, who was part of the Aesthetic movement. A dress out-budgeting the rest of the cast’s costumes. As Oscar Wilde is much quoted as observing ‘Lady Macbeth seems to be an economical housekeeper and evidently patronises local industries for her husband’s clothes and servant’s liveries, but she takes care to do all her own shopping in Byzantium’. And Terry, for all her renowned charm, could be the demanding prima donna, especially in later life.

Cultural critics feared the cult of stars was corroding the arts and public culture more broadly. The descent of Europe into barbaric world war and the fraught peace gave force to such concerns. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt explores in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), the cult of the celebrity tends to reduce the role of the public to mere spectators in public life, and prepares the ground for less democratic politics. Arendt saw its extremes in the cult of political personality in dictatorships and totalitarian regimes.

But there is another dimension to Terry’s relation to the public which goes beyond the Victorian celebrity cult. Namely Terry’s Shakespeare lectures see her carving out a new relationship with the audience as a public speaker. Terry has enjoyed considerable attention in popular biography and theatre history, but has received relatively little attention as a Shakespearean critic. And here Terry could receive more academic attention. Not least, Terry’s lecture on the letters in Shakespeare’s plays broke new ground in Shakespeare criticism – an academic study on the theme did not appear until about two decades after her first lecture on the subject according to her editor Christopher St John. But it’s Terry’s endorsement of public lectures I want to explore and how they develop a democratic engagement with the public.

In essence, Terry’s Shakespeare criticism as performance democratises literary criticism against developments making it an academic preserve. Obviously Terry’s celebrity status secured her the speaking engagements. Nevertheless Terry’s lectures show her to be more than simply a celebrity, but someone engaging with the public in a way which fosters a more engaged public and a more vibrant public sphere. In her lectures, Terry approaches Shakespeare as an experienced actress rather than as a Shakespearean scholar. Consequently she emphasises Shakespeare as drama to be performed rather than simply text to be read. And in Terry’s emphasis on performance we have a sense of active interpretation involving conflicts, judgements and decisions.

Terry would read up on the character she was playing. But her lectures oppose rigid scholastic theory, if it involves ‘our trying to shrink or stretch everything, scenes, characters and lines to fit it’. She seeks to cultivate interpretation informed by a sense of the whole performance rather than individual lines ripped out of context. Nevertheless her familiarity with Shakespeare illuminates lines and nuances that we might miss. Consider her discussion of Hamlet’s letter to Claudius:

The actual words are harmless enough, yet somehow they convey a threat. ‘What is he driving at?’ Claudius is puzzled; he can make nothing of these studiously civil lines, and reads them to Laertes to find out what impression they make on him: ‘High and mighty, You shall know I am set naked on your kingdom. Tomorrow shall I beg leave to see your kingly eyes…’  

Hers is a living breathing Shakespearean criticism of living breathing individuals trying to make sense of the world before a living breathing audience. ‘To act’, she advised, ‘you must make the thing written your own. You must steal the words, steal the thought, and convey the stolen treasure to others with great art’. Shakespeare belongs to all of us for the taking. What matters is our familiarity and possession of Shakespeare.

Terry’s Shakespeare lectures affirm people’s involvement in public life and matters of public interest. Indeed Terry was not afraid to discuss controversial matters in her public lectures. Terry supported women’s suffrage and was a member of the Actresses Franchise League with her daughter Edith Craig. So while Terry disagreed with the suffragette militancy and the direct action supported by her daughter, she publicly endorsed votes for women. Assuming her audience’s engagement with women’s suffrage, Terry declares:

Have you ever thought how much we all, and women especially, owe to Shakespeare for his vindication of woman in his fearless, high-spirited, resolute and intelligent heroines?…The assumption that ‘the woman’s movement’ is of very recent date – something peculiarly modern – is not warranted by history.

Terry identifies herself with a theatrical tradition of Shakespearean actresses forging their distinct interpretations of Shakespeare’s heroines. And Terry’s analysis of heroines such as Desdemona advances feminist ideas that challenge conventional Victorian views, that she was seen as embodying. Equally Terry was prepared to defy official wartime propaganda and her audiences’ wartime nationalist prejudices against the Germans – praising German passion for Shakespeare:

In Germany, and allow me here to pay my tribute to Germany – yes, I must, although I see you don’t want me to, I can see – for honouring Shakespeare worthily by frequent performance of his plays. 

So why has it taken so long – a century – for Terry’s pioneering lectures on Shakespeare to regain wide attention? Terry’s book languished out of print for many years and didn’t feature much on Shakespeare courses. The Nottingham University library edition which I have beside me has only been taken out a dozen or so times since the 1960s.  Surely Terry’s feminist take on Shakespeare inspired those feminist scholars seeking to break with the prevailing Shakespeare scholarship? But surprisingly many were not familiar with it. Even Virginia Woolf, a fan of Terry, was apparently unaware of Terry’s lectures, when she wrote her essay on the actress. So Woolf’s A Room of her Own with its story of Shakespeare’s sister does not take up Terry’s earlier feminist comments on Shakespeare.

Why is this? A core reason is how Terry’s focus on Shakespeare’s characters was considered old-fashioned among scholars by the time her lectures were published in 1932. After the First World War, much literary scholarship shifted to poetic linguistic analysis against A.C. Bradley’s earlier character analysis, which still prevailed in schools. Hence Terry’s focus on character seemed theoretically naïve and too close to school Shakespeare. L.C. Knights’ 1933 essay sarcastically entitled ‘How many children had Lady Macbeth?’ not only attacks Bradley, but singles out Terry’s Four Lectures on Shakespeare (1932) for derision, adding for good measure that ‘Ellen Terry of course does not represent critical Authority’.

Knights’ authority would hardly have counted among feminist scholars seeking to challenge just such a paternalistic condescending authority, and recent studies have defended Terry against Knights’ condescension. Nevertheless earlier generations of feminist literary critics were slow to seek out Terry’s writings on Shakespeare. Perhaps they were deterred by how Terry was so closely associated with Victorian ideals of femininity. Such assumptions were reinforced by contemporary reviews or selective quoting suggesting Terry endorsed Victorian ideals of womanhood, and skipping over anything she said in favour of feminism. Consider Terry’s assertion that Lady Macbeth was ‘a delicate little creature, with hyper-sensitive nerves’. Terry’s comment seems to make Lady Macbeth into just the Victorian Angel in the House ideal criticised by feminists.

Another reason is that feminist literary criticism developed under the influence of postmodern theories which also rejected the character analysis followed by Terry and disdained by Knights. In summary, while Knights rejected character analysis as amateurishly treating fictional figures as real, postmodern approaches reject beliefs that real individuals have coherent characters as fictions. They see belief in character as supporting cultural conformity, and opposition to character as supporting cultural diversity. Such ideas, however, ironically legitimised new forms of cultural conformity, as I have explored elsewhere. Leaving aside these debates, of relevance here is how Terry’s book remained out of print for many years.

After long neglect, Terry’s Shakespeare’s lectures are gaining academic attention with the growing sub-field of Shakespeare in performance. Much twentieth century literary criticism focused on reading Shakespeare’s plays, and tended to overlook them as theatre drama performed before an audience. Knights, so scathing of Terry’s amateurism, was particularly guilty of forgetting that Shakespeare’s plays were not just to be read on a page, but acted and watched. Consequently Knights’ discussion of Shakespeare’s poetic language and emotion often has a rather abstract disembodied character for all its nuanced insights. Conversely Terry’s approach shows us Shakespeare writing plays for people to act, and an actor giving Shakespeare’s words meaning and emotional weight. At the same time, Terry makes speech have public significance and demonstrates the civic importance of speaking out.

Consider how Terry singles out Emilia’s moral courage defending Desdemona to Othello, quoting Emilia’s declaration:

I will speak as liberal as the north;

Let heaven, and men, and devils, let them all,

All, all, cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak.

Terry clearly revels in Emilia’s defiance:

How she shames the fearful, those who fear the opinion of the world, or fear to make themselves ridiculous, or fear the consequences, and so are silent in the defence of truth.

Terry sees Emilia’s defiant stance as vital for realising a just society, and one where women have a particular role to play. ‘Shakespeare is one of the very few dramatists’ Terry claims ‘who seem to have observed that women have more moral courage than men’. And Terry, through such claims, evidently wants to embolden her (female) audience to exercise their own moral courage, and speak out and act against injustice.

Terry staunchly defends speaking out in public here. But our culture has become very ambivalent towards freedom of speech, as the current controversies, confusions and contradictions over the exercise of free speech on campuses show. Moreover influential strands of feminism are at the forefront of demands for tighter regulation of public debate and who may engage the public on sensitive subjects. Such approaches would seek to empower the Desdemonas and Emilias of this world against the Iagos. Yet they tend to assume we know who the villains and the victims are, and the expert policy framework which should be applied. Surely, though, the lesson of Shakespeare’s Othello is the importance of the public trial of sensitive matters, rather than the private consultation of experts, if we are to achieve justice. Consider how Othello’s reliance on the confidential expertise of ‘Honest Iago’ behind closed doors fostered the tragic murder of Desdemona.

In too many areas of life we have public engagement reducing the public to spectators or vessels to be filled with the current expert wisdom. Instead we should follow Terry’s confidence in the public’s capacity to engage rationally with controversial ideas – in her context, the charged subject of women’s suffrage or the extremely unpopular defence of German culture against wartime propaganda. A democracy needs public speakers like Terry seeking democratic public engagement.

Terry tells her audience that in preparing her lectures she ‘despaired’ of finding anything new to say. Nevertheless she found courage from Shakespeare’s own ‘labouring for invention’ and doubts about his originality expressed in his sonnets. Terry’s Shakespeare lectures also invite us to take courage in our endeavours, and not assume that matters have been exhausted by others. Her final message is ‘faults forgiven’. We need a public culture less easily offended, but more willing to confront and contest ideas we dislike, rather than one seeking the censor or self-censor. And we need more public speakers like Terry who believe in the capacity of the public for such a culture.


Vanessa Pupavac is currently writing a book on Shakespeare and international politics. Her previous book Language Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance was published by Palgrave.

Eileen Atkins is Ellen Terry at the new Sam Wanamaker Play House, London from 12 January to 23 February 2014






Terry, Ellen (1932) Four Lectures on Shakespeare. Edited by Christopher St John. London: Martin Hopkinson.


Published inArt, Fiction & PoliticsBallots & Books


  1. Brava. Her two admirable points–skepticism about critical Authority, i.e., expertise in place of shared human reflection; and faith in the ability of that human group soul to actively think and participate–deserves broad acceptance in our increasingly conformist and therefore soulless culture.

  2. Hi there! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this article reminds me of my previous roommate! He continually kept preaching about this. I will forward this article to him. Fairly certain he will have a very good read. Many thanks for sharing!|

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