Enchanting Evil: English Romantic Criticism on Edmund Kean's Interpretation of Richard III and Schiller's Theory on the Immoral Characters in Art

By Papageorgiou, Ioanna | Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Enchanting Evil: English Romantic Criticism on Edmund Kean's Interpretation of Richard III and Schiller's Theory on the Immoral Characters in Art


Papageorgiou, Ioanna, Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research


The threatening power of any behavior perceived as dangerous and disruptive for the social order has always been designated as "evil" in the Western Christian culture. Its presence has often acquired a metaphysical character, which compelled a manichaeistic approach, and transferred it into the territory of the forbidden. Nevertheless, the forbidden, threatening though it may be, has always exerted a remarkable appeal on people. Even though the people of the late medieval period attempted to defeat it with the weapon of mockery in the Mysteries and religious iconography, unholy figures often succeeded in upstaging their more pious companions (Spivak 82). Since then evil in its various manifestations - ergo as the Satan in Paradise Lost, the libertines of Marquis de Sade's novels, the villains of melodrama and the unaccountable terrifying figures of modern horror films - has never lost its peculiar appeal

In the early nineteenth century, under the impact of the Romantic world view, evil dismissed some of its manichaeistic inheritance, and the artists felt freer to avow their fascination with it. Mario Praz, in his book Romantic Agony, cites a long list of the transformations of the Schillerian noble bandit or the Byronic fatal man (58-83). This essay will trace another version of the captivating evil of Romanticism, in Edmund Kean's representation of Richard III. More specifically, it will examine the way Kean's interpretation of the stage hero was perceived by a group of critics and commentators whose writings form a part of what we may call the English Romantic theatre criticism of the early nineteenth century. This group includes William Hazlitt, Thomas Barnes, John Hamilton Reynolds, an anonymous critic of The New Monthly Magazine, and the diarist Henry Crabb Robinson.

The positive reaction of those writers toward Kean's novel interpretation presents many affinities with Friedrich Schiller's theory about immoral characters in art. Comparing these two parallels in England and Germany, this essay will draw attention to both their common aspects and their differentiations regarding the aesthetics of evil. Furthermore, it will trace in Kean's interpretations and in the corresponding criticism certain points of departure from the eighteenth-century English tradition of dramatic character.

According to the evidence of his contemporaries, Edmund Kean had accomplished an inimitable acting style. His long experience in melodrama and pantomime, together with the inborn agility of his facial muscles made him exceptionally adept in the externa lization of subjective states of mind.1 This outstanding expressiveness, combined with physical vigor and impetuosity, rendered his acting very effective. Other important features of his style were his ability for quick transitions, and the careful preparation of each role, at least at the beginning of his London career.

Such a style was particularly suitable for the exhibition of violent and fiery passions. Kean was at his best when performing characters consumed by jealousy, hatred, revenge, and marked by strong will and a passion for controlling their own and other people's lives. The most outstanding roles of his repertoire were Richard III, Othello, Shy lock, Sir Giles Overreach (from Philip Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts), Macbeth, and to some extent, King Lear. Except for Othello and King Lear, the other parts belong to the pantheon of the great bad characters of English drama.2 Kean, like George Frederick Cooke before him, climbed to the top of his profession mainly by embodying villainy. He transformed the repugnant aspects of humanity into an attractive spectacle, which, much like its medieval evil forerunners, managed to upstage virtue. In Shylock, following the tradition of the previous century, Kean highlighted the sympathetic aspects of the original character. He portrayed Shylock as the representative of an oppressed race (Page 116-19). The effect of Sir Giles's wickedness was assuaged mostly by the means of the astonishing performance of the actor himself, as he overwhelmed his spectators with the electrifying representation of the character's madness. …

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