Kean, Edmund

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Kean, Edmund

Edmund Kean, 1787?–1833, English actor. Kean's acting expressed the ideal of the romantic temperament. A small man with a wild spirit and a gruff voice, he was lauded for his facial mobility; according to Coleridge he had the power to reveal Shakespeare by "flashes of lightning." With his energy and violent emotions, Kean brought about a radical change in the prevailing classical style of the period.

Kean served an apprenticeship with groups of provincial and strolling players and in 1814 appeared at Drury Lane as Shylock, a triumph that is a landmark in the history of the theater. He further increased his reputation with portrayals of Richard III, Iago, Othello, Macbeth, Barabbas, and Sir Giles Overreach. In the United States in 1820–21 Kean had many triumphs, but a broken engagement in Boston ruined his popularity there.

Kean's personal life was as stormy as his career. In 1822 a suit against him for adultery resulted in his separation from his wife and son and hastened the disintegration of his reputation. In 1825 he again visited the United States and in some measure retrieved his reputation. After his return to England in 1826 his health and dramatic powers declined.

See biographies by H. N. Hillebrand (1933) and M. W. Disher (1950).



His son, Charles John Kean, 1811?–1868, went on the stage against his father's wishes. At his father's last appearance in 1833 he played Iago to his father's Othello at Covent Garden. He often played opposite his wife, Ellen Tree Kean, 1808–80, a noted comedienne, whom he married in 1842.

See the letters of C. and E. Kean, ed. by J. M. D. Hardwick (1954).

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