Lessons Learned from Ellen Terry’s ‘Four Lectures on Shakespeare’ (1932)

Ellen Terry as Beatrice. Photographs by Albert Sterner (1863-1946). Image is in the Public Domain in the US.

Ellen Terry as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Photographs by Albert Sterner (1863-1946). Image is in the Public Domain in the US.

Sometimes actors have a pitiful time talking about their work.  Not so with the early twentieth-century actress Ellen Terry.  Her little book, Four Lectures on Shakespeare (originally published in 1932), reveals the mind of an actor who thought deeply about her experiences with Shakespeare, to the point where many of her insights could easily provoke the envy of a dissertating PhD student.  (Guilty.)

The editor of Four Lectures, Christopher St John (who is actually a woman), hoped that this little volume would give Terry a touch of immortality, but the hard truth of rare books is that you need resourceful acolytes for immortality (e.g., the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio).   And it’s surprisingly difficult to be remembered as an actor, since so much of what one does is confined to the transient boundaries of the stage.  Unfortunately for Terry’s posterity, this lovely book is probably only housed in university libraries, not your Barnes and Noble.  Even a quick Amazon search turns up practically nothing.

It seems that the unavailability of this book is endemic to a pattern in our collective memory of Ellen Terry.  In a 2012 article for The Guardian that considers Terry’s Four Lectures, Lynn Truss explains that one of dominant struggles of Ellen Terry’s career was her admirers’ fixation on her presentation, a fixation that created a “painterly” veneer over Western culture’s memory of her.  Referencing an essay by Virginia Woolf on Terry, Truss writes:

Woolf was right.  Actors leave only picture postcards behind them, and Terry left more picture postcards than most. The trouble is that in her own time it was already her fate to be defined more or less exclusively in painterly terms. She certainly loved art, of course; her aesthetic effect was not accidental. She had been married at 16 to the painter GF Watts; the father of her children was the architect-designer Edward Godwin; she had a brilliant sense of colour and costume. When Oscar Wilde saw her at the Lyceum as Lady Macbeth in 1888 (in the costume immortalised by John Singer Sargent’s portrait at Tate Britain), he wrote that Lady M evidently patronised local industries for the clothes of her husband and servants, “but she takes care to do all her own shopping in Byzantium”.

But the text of these lectures reveals that Terry did indeed attempt to leave behind more than “picture postcards.”  The four lectures cover children in Shakespeare, letters in the plays, the “pathetic” woman, and the “triumphant” woman.   Aside from her insights, one cannot help but notice how well these lectures transcribe to the page.  If Christopher St John was faithful in her transcription of the lectures from Terry’s notes, then the text shows that Terry knew how to ease an audience into an argument and how to keep them listening.  (Many an academic could take a cue or two from Terry’s easy-to-follow lectures.)

Interestingly, quite a lot of what Terry has to say supports playing the “least likely interpretation” (a phrase I learned recently from a book on auditioning).  In her essay on “The Triumphant Woman,” she notes the tendency to play Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing with an air of bitterness.  But Terry suggests that the text of Much Ado offers a softer and more mirthful vision of Beatrice:

‘By my troth a pleasant-spirited lady,’ says Don Pedro.  The actress who impersonates Beatrice should remember that testimonial.  Beatrice’s repartee in her encounters with Benedick can easily be made to sound malicious and vulgar.  It should be spoken as the lightest raillery, with mirth in the voice, and charm in the manner. (Terry, pp. 83-84)

In Terry’s opinion, “wit” is what Beatrice loves the most.  She even references Hero’s remark that “[Beatrice’s] wit / Values itself so highly that to her / All matter else seems weak.”  And Terry makes the important distinction that wit is something quite different from disdain.  How often, for example, do we see actors play Beatrice from Much Ado and Katherine from Taming of the Shrew in much the same way?  (Full of spit and fire!)  Terry is right; these small nuances make all the difference.

She offers a similar observation about Desdemona in “The Pathetic Woman”:

The part of Desdemona gives an actress far more difficult problems to solve.  I know no character in Shakespeare which has suffered from so much misconception.  The general idea seems to be that Desdemona is a ninny, a pathetic figure chiefly because she is half-baked.  It is certainly the idea of those who think an actress of the dolly type, a pretty young thing with a vapid innocent expression, is well suited to the part.  I shall perhaps surprise you by telling you that a great tragic actress, with a strong personality and a strong method, is far better suited to it, for Desdemona is strong, not weak.  (pp. 128-9)

Terry goes on to point out how “unconventional” Desdemona truly is.  She elopes with a foreigner without her father’s permission, describes her marriage in nun-like terms (a “consecration”), is enchanted by Othello’s stories, speaks freely with her husband (to the point of exacerbating Othello’s suspicions of adultery planted by Iago), and doesn’t perceive that something is wrong with Othello until he literally assaults her.  As Terry writes, “she is not a simpleton, but a saint” (131).

The implicit argument of this little book is that actors have an incredible ability to be good close-readers (maybe even the best), so long as they know how to pay attention.  That’s all close-reading really is, anyway: paying attention.  And Terry takes it a step further, too, implying that attending to the text with all your faculties is not the final end.  When she delivers Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech, for instance, she plainly tells the audience,

“I have done.  I want you to go away with those words in your ears, and to try and make them a living force in your hearts” (122).


  1. Good points from Terry about Desdemona and Beatrice. I am going to reblog this on my Shakesepeareinthemountains.wordpress blog to help my readers in December if you don’t mind. Good writing.

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