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Shakespeare’s heroines and the women who played them

Hannah Barker introduces us to three remarkable actors who played Shakespeare’s female characters.

Hannah Barker

Shakespeare’s heroines have always fascinated me, along with the actors that have played them. In the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust library, there is a book by Anna Jameson titled Shakespeare’s Heroines. A unique feature of this book are twenty-six portraits of famous actors dressed in character. These beautiful black and white sketches and photographs show some of the most famous female actors from the past. I wish to share with you a few of these. 

Ada Rehan as Rosalind
Ada Rehan as Rosalind

The first photograph is of Ada Rehan dressed as Rosalind (disguised as Ganymede) from As You Like it. Ada is pictured posing in an approximation of male Elizabethan costume. This is accompanied by a feather hat, leather purse attached to her waist and a large spear in her hand all in front of a romantic country backdrop. What struck me was the unusual vision of a female actor in male clothing; which I think is brilliant. This is one of only two photographs in the book that depicts female actors in the cross-dressing roles of Shakespeare’s plays. Ada is looking at the camera in what must have been considered a male stance in line with her character. To me, she seems confident and powerful in this knowledge. Shakespeare created Rosalind unconstrained by her persona as a proper young woman, by allowing her to dress as Ganymede. Through this disguise, she is free to find out about herself and life. It also enables her to teach Orlando the difference between romantic and true lasting love.

Ada Rehan was known for her comic roles. One contemporary, Archibald Henderson writing in The Sewanee Review (1918), described her as “the most brilliant and remarkable interpreter of English comedy of the nineteenth century”. Ada’s performance as Rosalind in 1890 had a mixed reaction. Some complained she was too comic, too unrestrained and lacking refinement. This I think says more about the restrictive expectations of women at the time rather than a reflection on Ada’s ability. Shakespeare wrote Rosalind very much as a free spirit, undefined by any expectations of other characters. I get the impression that Ada was keen to embody this in her career having played Prince Hal in an American production of Henry IV. Ada may not have always conformed to the expectations of a nineteenth century female actor, but critics praised her charm, spirit and beautiful utterance of poetry.

Ada held the leading lady role in Augustin Daly’s New York based theatre company (playing opposite him) for twenty years, enjoying enormous success on the stages of America and Europe. She counted amongst her friends Oscar Wilde, who wanted to cast her in one of his plays. Ada retired from the stage in 1906 and lived in New York City until her death in 1916. The funeral was private, but the family did receive telegrams from renowned actors of the time, including Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson.

Beatrice Patrick-Campbell as Juliet
Beatrice Patrick-Campbell as Juliet

The next photograph is of Beatrice Patrick-Campbell in the role of Juliet. Beatrice is wearing an approximation of medieval dress with an empire line waist, draping sleeves, beautiful embroidery detail on the front of her dress with a detailed medieval belt that drapes to the side. There is no headdress. Instead her long hair flows freely down her back, possible to indicate Juliet’s young age. Beatrice is standing next to an ornately carved desk; on which sit books, a crucifix, and she is putting down what looks like rosary beads. Could this be to show innocence and purity of the character’s spirit?

Beatrice first played Juliet in the famous Lyceum Theatre, opposite a renowned actor/producer of the time Johnston Forbes-Robertson. According to contemporary sources, Beatrice (who had no formal Shakespearian training and went into acting for monetary reasons) leaned into Juliet’s youth to unlock the character for her London debut. Her performance was received well, with critics praising her ability to display all aspects of a child’s heart. Beatrice looking back on her role reflected that she played a simple and unpretentious Juliet, hoping to capture wonder and rapture of a passionate child. That word passion is key. Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s exploration of young passion, including sexual passion between two souls that speak to each other despite the differences their culture and society try to place between them. Shakespeare gives Juliet equality in all things, in particular passion. Tina Packer explains in her book Women of Will (2015), “Shakespeare wrote Juliet with as much insight, nuance and detail as that with which he wrote about Romeo”. This focus on passion is also acknowledged by Beatrice’s contemporary, Anna Jameson, who explains that Juliet is in love but not ‘lovesick’, distinguishing the two. Juliet is not a silly ‘lovesick child’ but a young woman very much in love, with all the intensity and maturity of emotion that brings. 

Beatrice Patrick-Campbell was a superb actor playing many other Shakespearian roles such as Lady Macbeth and was the original Eliza Doolittle in the premier of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. I get the impression that she was quite the character and appeared not to suffer fools lightly. Dining out with famous actor/producer Herbert Beerbohm Tree (a man who enjoyed derogative comments at his actor’s expense) bragged about his triumphs, concluding that no woman could be an actor/producer. He turned to Beatrice and asked her patronisingly if she would like to be a producer someday. She coolly replied, “Yes I would. Would not you, Mr Tree?” I can’t help chuckling at that comeback.

Genevieve Ward as Margaret of Anjou
Geneviève Ward as Margaret of Anjou

The third photograph I would like to share with you is of Geneviève Ward dressed as Margaret of Anjou. This picture stands out from the rest for two reasons. First, it is apparent that this actor is more mature than the others. Second, she is in such a striking and dramatic pose. She is wearing a black or dark medieval gown with minor embellishment. Her long greying hair runs freely down her back and she wears a simple medieval looking crown on her head. She stretches her arms to heaven with her eyes following the line of her arms. She strikes me as fierce and an unrelenting survivor.

Geneviève played Margaret of Anjou at least twice, in fact, they became books ends to her acting career. She first played the Queen in 1897 opposite famous actor/producer Henry Irving in Richard III. Geneviève looking back at her first role recounts that Henry Irving bucked the trend of cutting most of Margaret of Anjou’s lines and instead restored the full text for her, which says a lot about the confidence he had in her ability. Margaret’s character is not the powerful, strong-willed warrior that we see in Henry IV series. In Richard III, she is more of a one-dimensional character representing rage and pain. Here she is older, confined to the edges of the palace but her passion and strength are still present.

Geneviève’s career as an actor was her second. She’d been an opera singer. After six years in this career she fell ill with diphtheria and as a result damaged her singing voice. Geneviève’s other Shakespearian roles, including Portia in The Merchant of Venice and Lady Macbeth. She toured with performances in America, England and Australia, but her preference was always the English stage. She was known for her ability to convey depth of feeling through her expression and voice in as little as two words. As far as I could find, Geneviève never played Margaret in any other Shakespearian play, which is a shame. I feel she would have been a force to be reckoned with playing the younger, powerful, passionate Queen. Geneviève taught acting in her later years and the odd performance on stage. In 1921, she became the first female actor to be made a Dame, aged 84, for her accomplishments as a tragic actor. Geneviève appeared on stage for the last time as Margaret of Anjou in Richard III in 1922 at St. James’s Theatre. Geneviève had the strength and determination to have two careers at a time when most women couldn’t have one. This is one dynamic woman I would’ve loved to have met.

Lily Langtree as Cleopatra
Lily Langtree as Cleopatra

The last photograph I wish to share is of Lilly Langtree as Cleopatra. Lily sits on what looks like an Egyptian backless chair staring straight down the camera lens. She is wearing a beautiful and ornate Egyptian costume complete with headdress, bracelets, rings and what looks like a fan in her hand. The backdrop is ‘exotic looking’ with hieroglyphs.

Lilly played the mighty role of Cleopatra at the Princess Theatre in 1890. Contemporaries at the time noted that she looked the part, but her undisciplined and petulant manner fell short of expectations.  Cleopatra is a complex character which, according to Packer, has only in the last ten or twenty years been able to break away from the branding of a prostitute that academics and theatre directors had imposed on her. It is no wonder then that they perceived Lilly not to have ‘stepped up to the bar’.  They considered Lilly a great beauty of her time and before she became an actor, she was a famous English socialite who attended the best parties. John Everett Millais painted her and she had a close relationship with Prince Albert (later Edward VII). The transition from socialite to actor was bumpy, with many in the acting world and press snubbing her. Oscar Wilde once used Lily as the perfect example “of an actress valued for her background qualities-her appearance-over her acting”. However, Ellen Terry, who was a respected actor of the time, saw there was more to Lilly than her looks, “That girl is no one’s fool. She has a rare intelligence, and some day she will surprise a great many people.” I feel that Lilly, like Cleopatra, was aware of how she was perceived physically and given the social restrictions she lived in, used it to do what she pleased.

Lilly played many other theatre roles and created her own company, which she took on tour. Lilly continued to go against social expectations when she became the first ever woman to endorse a commercial product, Pears Soap. In February 1929 Lilly died of influenza at seventy-nine. She lived an amazing and varied life and despite financial difficulties, left a year’s salary to her servants, with the rest of her wealth going to her four grandchildren. Lilly was buried on the island of Jersey where she had been born. 

I wrote about Ada, Beatrice, Geneviève and Lilly because, for me, they are the most striking photographs that captured my imagination and were fascinating to research. Hopefully, I’ve been able to give you a snapshot of four women who were just as complicated, powerful, gifted and vibrant as the Shakespearian roles they played.

Binding Shakespeare's heroines (1897)
Shakespeare's heroines (1897)


Shakespeare’s heroines by Anna Jameson; with twenty-six portraits of famous players in character by Anna Jameson. (1897)

Women of Will: The Remarkable Evolution of Shakespeare’s Female Characters by Tina Packer. (2015)

JOURNAL ARTICLE: The Utterance of Poetry by Harriet Monroe. Poetry Vol. 19, No. 5 (Feb., 1922), pp. 266-272, Published by: Poetry Foundation.

The American Drama: A Survey by Archibald Henderson in The Sewanee Review Vol. 26, No. 2 (Apr, 1918), pp. 228-240 (13 pages) Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Celebrities of the Stage, by Lawrence Boyle. (1899)

Mrs Pat: The Life of Mrs Patrick Campbell by Margot Peters: London, Bodley Head. (1984)

The Story of my Life, by Ellen Terry. (1909)

Shakespeare's Heroines on the Stage, by Charles E. L. Wingate. (1895)

Because I loved him; the life and loves of Lillie Langtry, by Noel Bertram Gerson. (1971)

Dramatic Technique, by George Pierce Baker. (1919)

Before and Behind the Curtain, By Geneviève Ward. (1918)

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