Keats on Kean's Shakespearean Acting

Mr. Kean  (1817) 
by John Keats

Keats wrote this review on 19 or 20 December, 1817, and it was published in the Champion, on 21 December. Edmund Kean had been ill, and was absent from Drury Lane for about six weeks in November and December. He returned to the stage in Richard III on 15 December, and on 18 December he appeared as Luke Traffic in Sir James Bland Burges’s play Riches: Or, The Wife and Brother. A Comedy.

Mr. Kean

‘In our unimaginative days,’ – Habeas Corpus’d as we are, out of all wonder, uncertainty and fear; - in these fireside, delicate, gilded days, - these days of sickly safety and comfort, we feel very grateful to Mr. Kean for giving us some excitement by his old passion in one of the old plays. He is a relict of romance; - a Posthumous ray of chivalry, and always seems just arrived from the camp of Charlemagne. In Richard he is his sword’s dear cousin; in Hamlet his footing is germain to the platform. In Macbeth his eye laughs siege to scorn; in Othello he is welcome to Cyprus. In Timon he is of the palace – of Athens – of the woods, and is worthy to sleep in a grave ‘which once a day with its embossed froth, the turbulent surge doth cover.’ For all these was he greeted with enthusiasm on his re-appearance in Richard; for all these, his sickness will ever be a public misfortune. His return was full of power. He is not the man to ‘bate a jot.’ On Thursday evening, he acted Luke in Riches, as far as the stage will admit, to perfection. In the hypocritical self-possession, in the caution, and afterwards the pride, cruelty and avarice, Luke appears to us a man incapable of imagining to the extreme heinousness of crimes. To him, they are mere magic-lantern horrors. He is at no trouble to deaden his conscience.

Mr. Kean’s two characters of this week, comprising as they do, the utmost of quiet and turbulence, invite us to say a few words on his acting in general. We have done this before, but we do it again without remorse. Amid his numerous excellencies, the one which at this moment most weighs upon us, is the elegance, gracefulness and music of elocution. A melodious passage in poetry is full of pleasures both sensual and spiritual. The spiritual is felt when the very letters and points of charactered language show like the hieroglyphics of beauty:- the mysterious signs of an immortal freemasonry! ‘A thing to dream of, not to tell!’ The sensual life of verse springs warm from the lips of Kean, and to one learned in Shakespearean hieroglyphics, - learned in the spiritual portion of those lines to which Kean adds a sensual grandeur: his tongue must seem to have robbed ‘the hybla bees, and left them honeyless.’ There is an indescribable gusto in his voice, by which we feel that the utterer is thinking of the past and future, while speaking of the instant. When he says in Othello, ‘put up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them,’ we feel that his throat had commanded where swords were as thick as reeds. From eternal risk, he speaks as though his body were unassailable. Again, his exclamation of ‘blood, blood, blood!’ is direful and slaughterous to the deepest degree, the very words appear stained and gory. His nature hangs over them, making a prophetic repast. His voice is loosed on them, like the wild dog on the savage relics of an eastern conflict; and we can distinctly hear it ‘gorging, and growling o’er carcase and limb.’ In Richard, ‘Be stirring with the lark to-morrow, gentle Norfolk!’ comes from him, as through the morning atmosphere, towards which he yearns. We could cite a volume of such immortal scraps, and dote upon them with our remarks; but as an end must come, we will content ourselves with a single syllable. It is in those lines of impatience to the night who ‘like a foul and ugly witch, doth limp so tediously away.’ Surely this intense power of anatomizing the passion of every syllable – of taking to himself the wings of verse, is the means by which he becomes a storm with such fiery decision; and by which, with a still deeper charm, he ‘does his spiriting gently.’ Other actors are continually thinking of their sum-total effect throughout a play. Kean delivers himself up to the instant feeling, without the shadow of a thought about any thing else. He feels his being as deeply as Wordsworth, or any of our intellectual monopolists. From all his comrades he stands alone, reminding us of him, whom Dante has so finely described in his Hell:

         ‘And sole apart retir’d, the Soldan fierce!’

Although so many times he has lost the Battle of Bosworth Field, we can easily conceive him really expectant of victory, and a different termination of the piece. Yet we are as moths about a candle, in speaking of this great man. ‘Great, let us call him, for he conquered us!’ We will say no more. Kean! Kean! have a carefulness of thy health, an innursed respect for thy own genius, a pity for us in these cold and enfeebling times! Cheer us a little in the failure of our days! for romance lives but in books. The goblin is driven from the heath, and the rainbow is robbed of its mystery!