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1814 - The Shakespeare Myths Grow

In 1814, Robert Bell Wheler was recording and discussing rumours about Shakespeare's life, and Edmund Kean was saving Drury Lane Theatre with his performances.

Victoria Joynes
R. B. Wheler's manuscript of his Guide to Stratford, 1814.
R. B. Wheler's manuscript of his Guide to Stratford, 1814.

In 1814, interest in the town of Shakespeare’s birth was growing. Robert Bell Wheler was an important antiquarian at the time who published ‘A Guide to Stratford-upon-Avon’ that year. We hold a collection of documents called the Wheler papers, which include correspondence from 1814 relating to uncertainties about Shakespeare’s life. One document includes correspondence between Wheler and John Britton talking about the removal of paint from Shakespeare’s bust:

A plaster cast bust of Shakespeare, made in 1814. [SBT1868-3/280]
A plaster cast bust of Shakespeare, made in 1814. [SBT1868-3/280]

“I am anxious that the merits of authenticity of this the earliest representation of our Bard that can be proved, should be established as far as every circumstance will allow. I forget whether I ever mentioned to you the old and current tradition of this place, that the face of Shakespeare in the Stratford monument was made from a cast taken from his own features directly after his death. How far we are to rely on such a Tradition is to be considered for I know not to what source it can be traced; yes we should remember how many traditions there are, more wild and improbable than this, upon which great confidence is placed.”

(ER1/34/3 Letter: R. B. Wheler to John Britton)

Original letter, R. B. Wheler to John Britton (ER1/34/3)
Original letter, R. B. Wheler to John Britton (ER1/34/3)

Wheler also mentions the creation of a plaster cast copy of the bust, which was acquired by the Trust in 1868 from the Wheler collection.

Britton's reply talks about the rumour that Shakespeare stole deer from Charlecote Park, and the details on the location of his marriage to Anne Hathaway.

These letters show the building interest in the myths and uncertainties surrounding Shakespeare’s life, as well as a sensible amount of caution regarding the reliability of the sources of the rumours and “traditions”. Wheler correspondence includes references to the gold seal ring bearing the initials W.S. which was found by the river and is part of our collection, and discusses of the mulberry tree in the White Lion garden which was thought to be a slip from Shakespeare’s tree at New Place. The need for a tangible link to Shakespeare was very apparent at this time.

Edmund Kean as Shylock, Richard III (carrying the Drury Lane Theatre) and Hamlet in 1814. From the picture collection.
Edmund Kean as Shylock, Richard III (carrying the Drury Lane Theatre) and Hamlet in 1814. From the picture collection.

Meanwhile, more actors were making Shakespeare’s characters their own. We have a book in our collection from 1814 called Critical Remarks on the Astonishing Performance of Mr. Kean, at Drury Lane Theatre, in the Characters of Shylock, Richard, and Hamlet. This book details the performances of Edmund Kean, a prominent actor of the time.  Kean was born in 1787 and had a difficult childhood, being passed between various relative--including his mother’s widowed sister, Charlotte Tidswell, who became an actor at Drury Lane. This was Kean’s first glimpse of a behind-the-scenes London theatre. He started life on stage as Master Carey before he was eleven, and, as a result, held a great deal contempt for Master Betty, the sensation of the 1804 London season. While Kean worked in theatres in Birmingham, he indulged in drinking sessions which could last from three days to a week, and consequently got into serious debt. He had to walk with his pregnant wife Mary to Swansea for the next theatrical engagement. It was when Edmund Kean began work at Drury Lane Theatre in London that his fortunes improved. He began the year of 1814 unpaid and fearful for the future. In January, he made his legendary debut as Shylock, which rescued himself and the dwindling fortunes of Drury Lane. His personal difficulties made Shylock a perfect part for him and he used his inner fury to propel his performance.

“We will not hesitate to say, that the performance of Shylock by Mr. Kean has impressed us with an idea that he will rise to the very summit of his profession, and that he already belongs to the first class of his art...Though the accession of this new actor was announced with much pomp, and divers hints were thrown out that a second Garrick was to appear, yet our expectations were not at all excited...his small person, which seems considerably under the middle height, and, from its slightness, is almost insignificant, was not adopted to bias our judgement; nor was his voice vastly prepossessing, for it was think and hoarse...there was an animating soul distinguishable in all he said and did, which at once gave a high interest to his performance, and excited those emotions which are always full at the presence of genius.” (Critical Remarks on the Astonishing Performance of Mr. Kean. 1814)


On 12th February, he gave his first London performance of Richard III.

“Mr. Kean’s Richard the Third has set the seal to his fame...He not only feels what he utters, but imparts his feelings to every spectator, and through the magic of sympathy transforms them into the being he is, rather than represents.” (Critical Remarks on the Astonishing Performance of Mr. Kean. 1814)

On 12th March, he first performed Hamlet.

“The Theatrical World were now anxious to see our Hero in the arduous character of Hamlet, which he performed on Saturday, March 11, 1814, to one of the most crowded audiences ever witnessed.

...he is, as it were, wrapped up in the cloud of his reflections, and only thinks aloud...

...Both the closet scene with his mother and his remonstrances to Ophelia were highly impressive. If there had been less vehemence of effort in the latter, it would not have lost any of its effect. – But whatever nice faults might be found in this scene, they were amply redeemed by the manner of his coming back, after he has gone to the extremity of the stage, from a pang of parting tenderness to press his lips to Ophelia’s hand. It had an electrical effect on the house. It was the finest commentary ever made on Shakespeare. It explained the character at once (as he meant it) as one of disappointed hope, of bitter regret, of affection suspended, not obliterated, by the scene around him!” (Critical Remarks on the Astonishing Performance of Mr. Kean. 1814)

That year he also played Othello, Iago, and Macbeth.