Interpreting Lady Macbeth: Sarah Siddons vs. Ellen Terry

For Shakespeare’s Birthday

Ellen Terry

Sarah Siddons

Michael Holroyd’s A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families tells the story of 19th century theatre-manager Henry Irving, and his lead actress Ellen Terry.

I have read Ellen Terry’s memoir (my review here), and loved it, but once I read Holroyd’s book I realized how much she left out. The effect of her memoir is that of shifting veils: you get the sense that what she ISN’T revealing may be more interesting than what she IS. Ellen Terry herself wrote:

I never felt so strongly as now that language was given to me to conceal rather than to reveal – I have no words at all to say what is in my heart.

When Terry’s memoir came out, Virginia Woolf, a big fan of the actress, wrote in her diary about it:

… a bundle of loose leaves upon each of which she has dashed off a sketch …Some very important features are left out. There was a self she did not know.

But the strength of Terry’s memoir lies in the acting portions of it, her memories of rehearsal processes, how she thought about acting … The more “shocking” elements of her life (her failed marriage as a teenager to the painter G.F. Watts, who made her famous, living in sin with Edward Godwin, the two children she had with Godwin, both of whom grew up to be famous and influential themselves) are left out of her memoir, or she hints at them, but does not divulge.

Henry Irving, as Shylock

Henry Irving, dedicated somewhat gloomy actor-manager, is someone I knew nothing about, besides what Terry said about him, and besides what people (like Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Shaw) – who saw him onstage – thought of his performances. Theatre probably saved his life, but there was a lot of wreckage there because of it: a failed marriage, a contentious relationship with his two sons (who despised him and yet who also used him for his fame), and who knows what was going on in his relationship with Terry. (Holroyd makes the leap they were lovers, but I don’t think he’s at all successful in “proving” it.)

However, Holroyd is great on the acting stuff. He finds first-person accounts of the the Lyceum Theatre productions, reports from audience members. Terry and Irving were 19th-century celebrities. You couldn’t get any more famous than Ellen Terry at her height. Cinema would change that. One of the things I really liked in Holroyd’s book was how he showed Terry’s growth as an actress. She was a star, seen as emblematic of their particular age. This was a good and bad thing. She was humorous and warm and graceful, a perfect combination for comedies. Bram Stoker (friend and assistant to Henry Irving at the time) said that Terry “moved through the world of the theatre, like embodied sunshine.”

Terry realized her limits when she played Lady Macbeth (the focus of this essay): Lady Macbeth was a totally different kind of part for her. She knew, because she was smart, and understood her own “instrument,” that she could not approach it the way she approached her other roles.

Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse, by Charles McLagan

Mrs. Sarah Siddons, a star of Drury Lane Theatre in the 18th century, had played Lady Macbeth and her “version” was still being talked about in Terry’s time, even though no one alive could have seen it. Ellen Terry was not known as a great tragedienne (like Siddons was), so Siddons’ Lady Macbeth haunted Terry when she set out to play the role. (It’s like any actor who tries to play Stanley Kowalski. One must deal with the ghost of Brando. Either kill the ghost, wrestle with the ghost, or lock the ghost in a closet – it doesn’t matter: the ghost must be acknowledged.) Siddons’ Lady Macbeth hung over the actresses in the 19th century in a similar way.

Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth

Interesting to compare and contrast the image of Sarah Siddons in the role with Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth:


Although one is a painting and one is a posed still photograph: Siddons’s Lady Macbeth is an iconic vision, like something from a ghost story (and, of course, Macbeth is a ghost story). Terry’s Lady Macbeth exudes femininity and grace. Terry’s image is perverse. This is not a criticism.

There is a great backstage anecdote: To get into the mood for Lady M’s sleepwalking scene (because, remember, Lady Macbeth is barely onstage for that whole play; you have a LOT of downtime when you play Lady M!), Sarah Siddons would go out into the alley behind the theatre, in costume, and chop wood. It got her into the proper frenzy. Isn’t that marvelous? There are some actors (and critics) who seem to think that good acting was invented in America in the 1950s, that everything that came before was mannered or not “connected” or whatever. Nonsense.

Ellen Terry was known for her warm and loving quality, a quality more appropriate to comedies. I loved this comment from Terry after her triumphant performance as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (which pre-dates her Lady M):

It is only in comedy that people seem to know what I am driving at!

Self-knowledge is more important than talent. In many ways, self-knowledge IS talent. Ellen Terry understood her own gifts. She was not universally beloved. Henry James had a problem with her (that may have been envy speaking, since he was eager to write plays himself, and felt left out of the theatrical world) and his cranky comments on her give a nice glimpse of what exactly it was Ellen Terry was about. James wrote:

[Terry] is greatly the fashion at present, and she belongs to a period which takes a strong interest in aesthetic furniture, archaeological attire, and blue china.

Henry James’ criticism is the very thing Oscar Wilde found so enchanting about Ellen Terry. Remember Wilde’s notorious comment “I am finding it harder and harder to live up to my blue china.” I am sure Henry James’ comment was a dig at both Terry and Wilde.

Elizabeth Robins, an American actress at the time, said Ellen Terry had “the proportions of a goddess and the airy lightness of a child.”

Now perhaps you can see why Terry playing Lady Macbeth was not an obvious choice on the face of it. Lady M having the “airy lightness of a child”? Really? Terry herself said it was “only in comedy” that people seemed to know what she was “driving at”, How could this translate into Lady Macbeth?

Terry knew she could not out-Siddons Siddons so she didn’t even try.

But what, then, would be her “way in”?

As they began rehearsals for Macbeth, Henry Irving wrote Terry an extraordinary note which illuminates their special artistic relationship:

To-night, if possible, the last act. I want to get these great multitudinous scenes over and then we can attack our scenes … Your sensitiveness is so acute that you must suffer sometimes. You are not like anybody else – see things with such lightning quickness and unerring instinct that dull fools like myself grow irritable and impatient sometimes. I feel confused when I’m thinking of one thing, and disturbed by another. That’s all. But I do feel very sorry afterwards when I don’t seem to heed what I so much value … I think things are going well, considering the time we’ve been at it, but I see so much that is wanting that it seems almost impossible to get through properly. ‘To-night commence, Mattias. If you sleep, you are lost!’

Let’s talk about The Scottish Play for a bit, shall we?

The exceptional thing about Shakespeare’s work is how adaptable and flexible it is. Change the focus of your lens, and hierarchies of new meaning emerge. Change the focus again, you perceive new hierarchies. The work is dizzyingly deep in that respect. Do you want your “version” of Macbeth to be about the drive to dominate? Or do you want it to be about the ravages of war? Do you want your Macbeth to be about the dissolution of personality accompanying absolute power? Focus in on any one element and the play will play along.

Lady Macbeth thinks the “milk of human kindness” makes you weak. In my opinion, she’s the real psychopath. After making plans to kill Duncan, in the devastating Act I, scene vii, you can see what she “does” to her husband. It goes back to the PAIR theory of criminal psychology, the folie a deux phenomenon. Macbeth may not have been as bold if he acted alone. Also, knowing Shakespeare’s obsession with twins, I have to believe the “twinning” of Macbeth and Lady M is deliberate.

Directly before their scene together, Macbeth has his waffling “if it were done, when tis done, then twere well it were done quickly” soliloquy, where you can feel him getting up the guts. There is still a remnant of conscience in him. Lady M. bursts in on his reverie, interrupting him (his soliloquy ends with a dash. Lady M won’t even let her husband finish his damn soliloquy).

Lady M. He has almost supp’d. Why have you
left the chamber?

Macbeth: Hath he ask’d for me?

Lady M: Know you not he has?

Macbeth: We will proceed no further in this business:
He hath honor’d me of late, and I have bought
Golden opinions from all sorts of people,
Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,
Not cast aside so soon.

[Lady M is not gonna like this.]

Lady M: Was the hope drunk
Wherein you dress’d yourself Hath it slept since?
And wakes it now to look so green and pale
At what it did so freely? From this time
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valor
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life
And live a coward in thine own esteem.
Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would,”
Like the poor cat i’ th’ adage?

[She certainly knows how to push his buttons – which is supported by Macbeth’s next line:]

Macbeth: Prithee peace!
I dare do all that may become a man
Who dares do more is none.

Lady M: What beast was’t then
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time, nor place,
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

[A famous passage. With as many interpretations as there are stars in the sky. Eroticism and violence, nurturing and death, mother and lover, a swirl of associations creating a double/triple-bind for Macbeth. Equating her husband with the now-apparently-dead baby is manipulation of the highest order. It also goes along with her famous cry early in the play: “Unsex me here.” She begs the “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts” to “unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the toe topful of direst cruelty.” Lady Macbeth needs spiritual HELP: Even she can’t do it alone. The plea to be “unsexed”, however, is a private moment with herself. Her husband is not let in on that particular struggle. To him, she shows only a passionate unwavering commitment. Heady stuff.]

Macbeth: If we should fail?

Lady M: We fail?
But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.

After her big pumping-up speech about how the murder of Duncan is going to go, Macbeth exclaims, in a line that makes me wince for him:

Macbeth: Bring forth men-children only!
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males.

An intense line, especially coming after the “tender” image of nursing a baby followed by an image of the baby’s brains being dashed out as it smiles at her. Jesus, Lady M!

No wonder why people have such a bad reaction to this play, almost rejecting it. There is something truly eerie about it, a dark door opening on a bottomless pit – which is the human capacity for evil. Nothing is explained. Hamlet at least has a reason – revenge. Macbeth’s is just a power grab.

I guess if Macbeth were “just” a psychopath, a kind of Scottish Idi Amin (i.e. the “last King of Scotland”), it might be easier to explain him away. It’s one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays. There is no moral. Or, the moral is … Don’t let a psychopath ruin your country? Macbeth is nihilistic in a way Shakespeare’s other tragedies are not, most of which have piercing moments at the end showing mercy, or awareness of loss and folly (Lear’s “never, never, never, never”, Hamlet’s “the rest is silence”, etc.) But with Macbeth: he chops his way to the top, is haunted by the Ghost of Banquo, he loses his marbles, and finally loses his own head, and nobody feels bad about it, because he’s already murdered anyone who would care, and then they have a new King now, and all cry “long live the King of Scotland”.

The play, even with its supernatural element, is chillingly realistic when it comes to power politics. Maybe it’s best to say the play has a heart of darkness which has fascinated/repelled actors/directors/audiences for centuries. Trying to figure it out is one of the best reasons to put on the play.

Back to Ellen Terry’s performance as Lady Macbeth

Ellen Terry was fearful about approaching Lady Macbeth. Sarah Siddons’ performance the century before was Terry’s own Ghost of Banquo. William Hazlitt had called Siddons “tragedy personified”, and Terry was intimidated. Siddons’ well-documented interpretation was seen as “the only way” to play Lady Macbeth.

So where did Ellen Terry start? She went back and researched Sarah Siddons’ approach, to try to see where Siddons was coming from. Terry did this not to imitate, but to soak up the knowledge of a woman who had trod the path before her. Ellen Terry was a childlike soul (the word comes up again and again in people’s memories of her): stagehands tell stories of seeing her, a woman in her 40s, climb up a rope backstage into the wings, and then slide down, laughing hysterically. This was who she was, this was the part of her audiences fell in love with, so Terry’s question was: How could she use that, COULD she use it when playing Lady M? It wasn’t an option to try NOT to be that. Terry knew herself too well. She knew she had to find a way, and she had to justify her choice through the text.


Holyroyd describes her approach in his book:

‘Lady Macbeth interests me beyond expression,’ Ellen told Stephen Coleridge, ‘– how much I fear will she will be beyond my expression!’ Of what use would her celebrated charm, her gift for pathos, her natural vivacity, be in depicting the ‘fiendlike queen’?…

But what persuaded Irving to put on Macbeth, and gave Ellen guidance as to how she might find a new interpretation of her character, was an article, published on 12 August 1843, in the Westminster Review, which revealed Mrs. Siddons’s private thoughts about the play.

That essay, by Sarah Siddons, entitled “Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth”, is a detailed analysis of the play and Lady M. I have a copy of it in the indispensable book Actors on Acting: The Theories, Techniques, and Practices of the World’s Great Actors, Told in Thir Own Words.

Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth

Sarah Siddons analyzes not just the character, but the structure of the play itself. Ellen Terry found in it many revelations.

Siddons starts with:

In this astonishing creature one sees a woman in whose bosom the passion of ambition has almost obliterated all the characteristics of human nature; in whose composition are associated all the subjugating powers of intellect and all the charms and graces of personal beauty. You will probably not agree with me as to the character of that beauty; yet, perhaps, this difference of opinion will be entirely attributable to the difficulty of your imagination disengaging itself from that idea of the person of her representative which you have been so long accustomed to contemplate.

Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth

I can almost feel Ellen Terry’s jolt of “a-ha, now THIS is something I can bring to it” in response. As an actress, Terry understood that one of the weapons in her arsenal was her beauty. It was an undeniable fact, it was a gift, and she knew it. She had been a muse to powerful men since she was a teenager. She did not scoff at this, or twist it into a sense of resentment for being “used” – these powerful men helped make her famous.

To consider the possibility of incorporating her beauty into an interpretation of Lady M, to highlight her beauty as an essential weapon in Lady Macbeth’s arsenal (a revolutionary concept at the time, when “evil” was synonymous with “ugly”) … must have given Terry a sense of confidence, that yes, she could do the role and she could do it her way. She didn’t need to “unsex” herself. She could be the fully bloomed sensual woman she already was, and how interesting, how new and different, to see a Lady Macbeth who was sexual – because then the character’s begging to the spirits to “unsex” her would represent that much more of a challenge. How on earth could you “unsex” Ellen Terry?

Siddons goes on in her essay about the character:

According to my notion, it is of that character which I believe is generally allowed to be most captivating to the other sex, – fair, feminine, nay, perhaps, even fragile –

Fair as the forms that, wove in Fancy’s loom,
Float in light visions round the poet’s head.

Such a combination only, respectable in energy and strength of mind, and captivating in feminine loveliness, could have composed a charm of such potency as to fascinate the mind of a hero so dauntless, a character so amiable, so honorable as Macbeth, to seduce him to brave all the dangers of the present and all the terrors of a future world …

Comments like these are why I don’t even need to have seen Siddons’s Lady M to know she was a hell of an actress. Her analysis here is not only specific but PLAY-able. You cannot play an abstract, you cannot play an idea.

Here is Siddons on the sleepwalking scene:

Behold her now, with wasted form, with wan and haggard countenance, her starry eyes glazed with the ever-burning fever of remorse, and on their lids the shadows of death. Her ever-restless spirit wanders in troubled dreams about her dismal apartment; and whether waking or asleep, the smell of innocent blood incessantly haunts her imagination…

During this appalling scene, which, to my sense, is the most so of them all, the wretched creature, in imagination, acts over again the accumulated horrors of her whole conduct. These dreadful images, accompanied with the agitations they have induced, have obviously accelerated her untimely end; for in a few moments the tidings of her death are brought to her unhappy husband. It is conjectured that she died by her own hand. Too certain it is, that she dies, and makes no sign. I have now to account you for the weakness which I have, a few lines back, ascribed to Macbeth; and I am not quite without hope that the following observations will bear me out in this opinion. Please to observe, that he (I think pusillanimously, when I compare his conduct to her forebearance) has been continually pouring out his miseries to his wife. His heart has therefore been eased, from time to time, by unloading its weight of woe; while she, on the contrary, has perseveringly endured in silence the uttermost anguish of a wounded spirit.

Wow. Yes. The text supports this. “Unsex me here” is a private moment, and her husband never gets wind of her internal struggle. To him, she is dominating, compelling. He is helpless. It is his tragic flaw.

Siddons goes on:

Her feminine nature, her delicate structure, it is too evident, are soon overwhelmed by the enormous pressure of her crimes. yet it will be granted, that she gives proofs of a naturally higher toned mind than that of Macbeth. The different physical powers of the two sexes are finely delineated, in the different effects which their mutual crimes produce. Her frailer frame, and keener feelings, have now sunk under the struggle – his robust and less sensitive constitution has not only resisted it, but bears him on to deeper wickedness, and to experience the fatal fecundity of crime.

That twin thing again. Two parts made whole, in a terrifying way.

Ellen Terry read Sarah Siddons’s essay and got fired up. She knew what to do now. She had found her “way in”.

Here is Holroyd’s description of that process:

What surprised Ellen as she read this essay was the revelation that Sarah Siddons had apparently seen Lady Macbeth as a ‘fair, feminine, nay, perhaps, even fraile’ woman … This was very different from the virago she had portrayed onstage where Lady Macbeth’s motivations appeared to spring from a hive of evil seething within her that destroyed her initially virtuous husband. In the theatre, Mrs. Siddons’s Macbeth had been the tragedy of power used as a substitute for love – she overwhelmed Macbeth’s intermittent sense of the emptiness behind his ambitions. But on the page Mrs. Siddons had written of Macbeth as a tragedy that evolved from a flaw in human nature.

Why, then, Ellen asked herself, did Mrs Siddons ‘write down one set of ideas upon the subject and carry out a totally different plan’? The answer must have been that she was a prisoner of her own solemn talent, an actress who, in Leigh Hunt’s words, could ‘overpower, astonish, afflict, but … [whose] majestic presence and commanding features seemed to disregard love, as a trifle to which they cannot descend’. Ellen Terry possessed little of the stately genius of Sarah Siddons that had made her Joshua Reynolds’s ‘the Tragic Muse’, but she had in a unique degree that ‘trifle’ of love and the potent web of charm that Sarah Siddons identified as being Lady Macbeth’s essential qualities. Who would not murder for her husband? Ellen could understand such a question and perhaps achieve something that had eluded the legendary Sarah Siddons. Her Lady Macbeth ‘pricks the sides’ of her husband so that he will better attain his wonderful aspiration. She feels a joy in his presence and subdues everything to his dreams. Irving’s acting version, which replaced the original twenty-nine scenes with nineteen, omitted Lady Macduff, leaving Lady Macbeth a more isolated figure like Macbeth himself. The two of them stand alone – and eventually stand apart from each other. Irving’s Macbeth was ‘a poet with his brain and a villain with his heart’ who clothes his crimes in romantic glamour. His wife is deluded by this glamour until she sits ‘wondering and frightened’ as Ellen recorded, realising that Macbeth has ‘no need of his wife now’.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

To ask “why” the characters do what they do is not excuse-making. It is essential for theatrical truth. Asking “why” is not akin to “I ate Twinkies as a kid, and that’s why I shot up my school”. This is looking at something which has daunted scholars for centuries (why do they do what they do?) and making a stab at understanding. These are not superhuman creatures sprung from the depths of Xenu’s galaxy. They are human beings. Human beings sometimes do terrible things and feel no remorse. This is a FACT. Remorse in Macbeth is even more terrifying because it works on a subliminal level. Lady Macbeth experiences remorse only when she is sleepwalking and sees blood on her hands. Other than that, she is blind to the implications of what she has done. Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo at the dinner and flips out, not knowing what is real and what is imagined. He is too “mad” to consider the depths of his own evil when his victims come back to haunt him.

How does Ellen Terry then take the revelation from Sarah Siddons’s words and make it her own?

There is such a thing as an actor’s process, and each actor works differently. I love to know, for example, that Mickey Rourke held ice cubes in his hand during the final confrontation with De Niro in Angel Heart. Rourke explains why he did it, but I’m not as interested in why as I am in love with getting a glimpse into his process. He thought he needed to do that and so he did. I love to know that Steve McQueen refused to rehearse, and refused (sometimes) to even visit a set before shooting a scene. He didn’t want to know where the chairs were, where the door was. This worked for McQueen, it wouldn’t work for others.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, John Singer Sargent

So once Terry figured out she knew how to play Lady Macbeth, here is how she went about it. Holroyd writes:

Never before had Ellen prepared for a role so comprehensively… Ellen filled two of the copies [of the play] with her copious notes, trawling through the text for illustrations of Lady Macbeth’s feminine nature and its effect on her husband. ‘I must try to do this: 2 years ago I could not even have tried,’ she scribbled next to one of her speeches. In a letter to the playwright Alfred Calmour she wrote: ‘I have been absorbed by Lady Mac… she is most feminine … I mean to try at a true likeness, as it is within my means.’ On the flyleaves of one copy of the play, she described Lady Macbeth as being ‘full of womanliness’ and ‘capable of affection, adding: ‘she loves her husband… and is half the time afraid whilst urging Macbeth not to be afraid as she loves a man. Women love men.’

Ellen Terry zoomed in on the emasculating subtext of Lady M’s speeches, how Lady M consciously preys on Macbeth’s anxiety that he is not enough of a man to satisfy her, his cock isn’t big enough, he doesn’t fuck her good enough, he is lacking in that department. Ellen understood this and did not shy away from it.

[Irving] had cut the text by approximately 20 per cent. ‘The murder of Baquo, I have cut out as the scene is superfluous,’ he informed the designer Keeley Halswelle. But one important cut from the 1875 production he restored: the speech of the wounded sergeant in Act I, scene ii, which tells of Macbeth’s extraordinary valour in vattle – a valour which forms a juxtaposition to his moral cowardice. As Elen observed in one of her annotations to the play, he was ‘a man of great physical courage frightened at a mouse.’ What this helped to define was the nature of Lady Macbeth’s love for him not simply an admiration for his exploits in the field, but a sense of what he lacked and she could make good.

Ellen Terry was in her 40s. She had been acting since she was 5 years old, and here she was, almost for the first time in her career, faced with a challenge. Instead of trying to be what she was not, or straining to imitate Siddons’ interpretation – which wouldn’t fit her – she instead saw Lady Macbeth as an aspect of her own personality, the one she could understand and access: the loving wife of a husband who was not quite good enough for her, and if she just pushed him a little bit he would be as glorious as he deserved to be, and she would then be able to reflect his glow. Her cajoling/emasculating, then, is all for his own good. It is done out of love, not contempt (this is super-sick, if you think about it for more than 10 seconds, and is evidence that most really good actors are great and natural psychologists).

Ellen Terry knew, in her bones, how to play THAT.

The Lyceum Theatre was known for its overwhelming scenery (horses and trees and running streams onstage), its realism (when they did Faust, for example, Ellen and Henry had traveled to Germany to research the area and get ideas for the scenery). For Macbeth, Ellen and Henry had gone to Scotland to get ideas. They went all out for Macbeth.


The sumptuous scenery, lit by flashes of moonlight that appeared to penetrate the thickest of castle walls, represented the awful depths in which Macbeth was shrouded: wide, desolate Scottish heaths, gloomy court interiors, a mysterious withches’ cavern lit by uncanny radiance, and then the vast battlefield over which, to roars off thunder, Irving manoeuvered his army of actors.

He was fond of magnifying the sense of apprehension by ‘leaving the stage in utter darkness,’ the American actor Arnold Daly observed. Sometimes he would light a set with ‘a solitary lamp or dull fire which may be in a room; while he has directed from the prompt place or the flies, a closely focussed calcium … so that you can only see a lot of spectral figures without expression moving about the scene – and one ghostly face shining out of the darkness.’

Arnold Daly wrote down his impressions of the production:

Macbeth was his most somber production – the sets so extensively gloomy that hen an outdoor scene was played in bright daylight there was a shout of relief from the audience.

Where is my time machine. I resent its absence.

Holroyd describes the sense of anticipation in the audience waiting to see this production. Ellen Terry and Henry Irving were stars. They had toured America. They had brought their productions around England, Ireland. Macbeth was THE ticket of the season.

Speculation and excitement had been rising in the weeks before the opening night and queues outside the theatre began forming at seven o’clock in the morning.

After the play opened, Terry wrote in her diary:

It (‘Macbeth’) is a most tremendous success, and the last three days’ advance booking has been greater than ever was known, even at the Lyceum. Yes, it is a success, and I am a success, which amazes me, for never did I think I should be let down so easily. Some people hate me in it; some, Henry among them, think it my best part, and the critics differ, and discuss it hotlly, which in itself is my best success of all! Those who don’t like me in it are those who don’t want, and don’t like to read it fresh from Shakespeare, and who hold by the ‘fiend’ reading of the character … One of the best things ever written on the subject, I think, is the essay of J. Comyns Carr. That is as hotly discussed as the new ‘Lady Mac’ – all the best people agreeing with it. Oh, dear! It is an exciting time!

The production ended up running for 150 performances to sold-out houses the entire time.

It takes courage to “re-interpret” such a well-known character. It doesn’t always succeed. There have been a couple of instances recently where a performance has made an indelible impression, helping people to re-think, in general, the WAY a certain part should be played. There was the Doll’s House a couple years back, with Janet McTeer’s Nora, a performance people are still talking about. Scholars can opine and theorize but very often it is the actor who breaks new ground in interpretation.

The reviews of Terry/Irving’s Macbeth were mixed, but it had an impact on audiences that grew over time (in a similar way Sarah Siddons’s performance of Lady Macbeth had done a century earlier).

Terry, in her memoir, writes of Irving as Macbeth:

When I think of his “Macbeth”, I remember him most distinctly in the last act after the battle when he looked like a great famished wolf, weak with the weakness of a giant exhausted, spent as one whose exertions have been ten times as great as those of commoner men of rougher fiber and coarser strength.

“Of all men else I have avoided thee.”

Once more he suggested, as only he could suggest, the power of Fate. Destiny seemed to hang over him, and he knew that there was no hope, no mercy.

Holroyd writes:

Irving’s ironic, semi-humourous speeches were peculiarly strong and, in recollection, Ellen Terry’s interpretation of her role more memorable than it promised to be – the audience, as if hypnotised by her disordered figure, the haggard face, the straggling hair, had collectively seemed to hold its breath during the sleepwalking scene. It was not tragic acting but a masterpiece of pathos. ‘There is more of pity than of terror in her end,’ Ellen wrote. ‘… She dies of remorse.’

The fact that this interpretation is debatable is the best thing about it. The interpretation is HERS, one she had earned the right to through arduous study. She stood by her choice. There were those who did not like her interpretation at all. Where was the evil schemer Lady M audiences had come to expect?

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

It occurs to me that all of this is reminiscent of my feeling when I saw Natasha Richardson (may she rest in peace) play Sally Bowles at the Roundabout production of Cabaret. I described that in full here, in my memorial piece for Richardson. Are certain roles NOT up for re-interpretation? Or is it just that the person who originally played it made it so their own that we cannot even imagine it done another way? Richardson literally wiped out the indelible impression made by Liza Minelli in Fosse’s film (no small task because Minelli was brilliant). This isn’t to say Richardson’s was better. It was not. Still, though: Best live performance I have ever seen.

Holroyd talks about some of the skepticism at the time about the new spin on Macbeth:

But was Macbeth really ‘an Empire builder led astray by listening to bad advice from a parcel of witches who had lured him from his regimental duty’? Henry Labouchere could not resist poking fun at Ellen’s soft-natured damsel who ‘roars as gently as any sucking dove’. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that ‘such a magnificent show as the new Macbeth has never been seen before.’

Ellen wrote a letter to her daughter about the controversy surrounding her “interpretation” and concluded:

Meanwhile, I shall not budge an inch in the reading of it, for that I know is right. Oh, it’s fun, but it’s precious hard work for I by no means make her a ‘gentle lovable woman’ as some of ’em say … She was nothing of the sort, although she was not a fiend, and did love her husband.

I believe her.

Holroyd writes:

This love [that Lady M had for her husband] was the ingredient Irving had been seeking to give his production its originality. ‘The great fact about Miss Terry’s Lady Macbeth is its sex,’ wrote a critic in the Star. ‘It is redolent, pungent with the odeur de femme. Look how she rushes into her husband’s arms, clinging, kissing, coaxing, and even her taunts, when his resolution begins to wane, are sugared with a loving smile.’

It’s even more sinister, if you think about it. It’s an extremely daring interpretation. At the time, no other actress could have pulled it off but Ellen Terry. She inspired the next generation of actresses to be bold and yet thoughtful in their approaches to classic roles. A couple of people who saw her performance of Lady Macbeth when they were young credit it, and it alone, with inspiring them to go into the theatre. One young woman, after seeing Terry’s Lady M., decided, almost on the spot, to be an actress (and she did go on to some success in America).

Since this was, after all, 1888, we have no record of the performance, no film, no audio, nothing. We only have the responses of audience members who wrote down their impressions. We have to take their word for it.

We do have one image, however, which captures the power of what Terry did with the role.

Terry was very into her costumes. She felt, often, that without a good costume, with the right texture and colors, she couldn’t play the part.

The dress she wore for Lady Macbeth was designed by Alice Comyns-Carr. It had a bold and almost pagan design. Everyone talked about the dress. John Singer Sargent had seen the show on opening night, or a preview performance, and wanted to paint her in the dress. He made her the offer. Ellen Terry hesitated in accepting. What if the play wasn’t a success? She was cautious about having some glorious painting done of her in a role that might flop. Once Terry realized she was a hit in the role, that her performance was the draw of the year, she accepted Sargent’s offer.

The dress is described by Alice Comyns-Carr in her memoir:

[Mrs. Nettleship] bought the fine yarn for me in Bohemia – a twist of soft green silk and blue tinsel … When the straight thirteenth-century dress with sweeping-sleeves was finished it hung beautifully, but we did not think that it was brilliant enough, so it was sewn all over with the real green beetle-wings, and a narrowborder in Celtic designs, worked out in rubies and diamonds, hemmed all the edges. To this was added a cloak of shot velvet in heather tones, upon which great griffons were embroidered with flame-colored tinsel … [and] two long plaits twisted with gold hung to her knees.

Here it is!

Ellen would put on that magnificent dress at her house and travel by carriage to Sargent’s house. Oscar Wilde, who adored her as an actress, idolized her, and wrote two sonnets for her, saw her rattle by in her carriage once, dressed in her Lady M dress on her way to Sargent’s. Wilde wrote:

The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities.

Sargent went back and forth about how he wanted to portray Terry in the dress, and finally decided to isolate her, have her body block out the background entirely.

His portrait is the 19th-century equivalent of a Rolling Stone cover by Herb Ritts or Annie Liebowitz. It is a star-making portrait. It caused a huge controversy among Victorian art critics who found it distasteful. The Saturday Review called it ‘the best hated picture of the year’.

Looking at the portrait over the abyss of time, across a century-plus, I think it captures some of what Ellen Terry was going for in her interpretation of that part, and how vibrantly she succeeded in it.

Yes, the pose is exquisite, yes, the colors play up the disturbing quality of it all … but for me, it’s the look Sargent was able to capture in her eyes.

Puts an ice-cube right down my spine.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth 1889 John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen 1906

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth 1889 John Singer Sargent 1856-1925 Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen 1906

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15 Responses to Interpreting Lady Macbeth: Sarah Siddons vs. Ellen Terry

  1. Desirae says:

    I saw a local production of Macbeth last year and they really amped up the sexual tension between Macbeth and Lady M – they were all over each other. The dynamic was a little bit different than what you describe, though, because although the actor that played Macbeth was quite a bit older than the actor playing his wife, he was kind of a physically dynamic soldier type. So instead of seeming like an older man trying to keep up with his young wife it was more two people spiraling off into their own little world of desire and ambition. A valid choice for those two, I think. It was a good, if not great, production. The best actor in it was totally the one that played the porter, though. He stole the show the minute he walked out on stage.

    It must be pretty cool to come from a family where creative pursuits are seen as actually careers choices. I started painting recently and I mentioned to my Dad that if I turn out anything worth looking at I might try and sell it. He immediately pointed out, “you know you could never make a living off that, right?” Uh, yes. I really didn’t need that highlighted.

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  3. nabeel says:

    Wow, amazing post – I couldn’t stop reading! The amount of detail you put and your own reflections on the character and actors’ processes mixed in with quotations from contemporaries and accounts of the performance itself make it so interesting to read! Thanks for this.

    It’s interesting that some scripts/plays can sustain many, many different interpretations of the same character, whereas others are very clear on how characters are to be played; it’s hard to define what exactly makes a script one as opposed to the other, but it’s definitely I would go for as a writer.

  4. sheila says:

    Nabeel – thanks so much!!

    In my opinion, Macbeth is one of those plays that lends itself to many different interpretations – the brutality is so extreme, the violence so extensive – that historical precedent is on its side. The Patrick Stewart version I saw at BAM had it placed in a Stalinistic totalitarian world, with 30s-era dress, and very bland colors – all greys and silvers. The horrors of war in that play impinge on everything – you could put that play into North Korea, or into current Zimbabwe – into 1930s Germany or Austria – or you could put it back into Scotland’s Middle Ages, of course. Power is dangerous, and that’s what the play is about and as long as human beings are what they are, the play will be relevant.

    I liked the BAM version because they didn’t worry about making it too much of an A to B correlation – there weren’t hammer and sickle flags hanging about or anything like that – it was just in the set design, the lighting, and the costumes – that gave you that kind of brutal Soviet feeling. It totally worked.

    But you’re right – many plays don’t work when taken out of its specific context. Clifford Odets’ plays are like that. You can’t remove Paradise Lost or Awake and Sing or Waiting for Lefty out of the American Great Depression. It all falls apart. They are, inherently, period pieces – I’ve never seen them “modernized” and have it work. They’re wonderful plays, with some of my favorite dialogue ever – but they seem to be completely localized in one era.

    Again: thanks for reading!

  5. nabeel says:

    That’s an interesting point about context, I guess that varies depending on how important ‘place’ or the historical situation is to the play; I’d say that Chekhov’s plays – say, Uncle Vania – could work in any context as long as you have the situation where the characters are basically sitting around bored on an estate of some sort. Whereas others like Miller’s ‘Crucible’ use a particular time and place as part of the drama.

    I also had in mind something that Tom Noonan wrote about writing a script, which I remembered when reading what you wrote about how both of the actresses took Lady Macbeth and did two totally different things with her: “A good script can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. A script that can only ‘work’ when done one particular way is of little value. For example, a script that can only work if an actor weeps or explodes in anger or shimmies seductively at a prescribed moment in the story is a manipulation. A good script is a revealed in it’s execution through the human presence of the actors, the director, and the crew. And that revelation is completely different depending on who is working on it. The more different interpretations a scripts can hold, the more value it has.”

    Do you think that’s true?

  6. sheila says:

    Nabeel – I’ve been thinking about that Tom Noonan quote. (I love him). I’m not sure that that is entirely true – although I can see what he is getting at. In terms of his comment // a script that can only work if an actor weeps or explodes in anger or shimmies seductively at a prescribed moment in the story is a manipulation. // I totally agree. I’m just speaking as an actress now – although I haven’t acted in a while. Of course sometimes you need to cry – or you need to laugh – There’s that whole scene in Crimes of the Heart where the sisters, at an inappropriate moment, start to laugh and then, horrifyingly, they can’t stop. They LOSE IT. I have always thought that that scene must be one of the hardest to get across – because laughter is far harder to do than crying. (at least it is for me). But it’s written that way – so actresses have to figure out a way to make it work.

    But the scripts I like best and the acting I like best – is the stuff that isn’t obvious. A script that leaves room for the actor to be brilliant and come up with something else.

    Also, having written a script myself – and I’m still trying to get the damn thing produced!! – I’ve now seen two different actresses (and actors) play the two lead roles – and it’s FASCINATING to see what different people bring to it. It’s nervewracking because of course, I wrote it, and I have an idea of “how they should say the lines” – but I have definitely been trying to keep it open to interpretation. So to see the one actress burst into tears spontaneously on a line where I never had imagined it …. To this day, that is one of the most exciting moments as an artist I have ever had … watching her take that script and step inside it. And then to see the other actress go a totally different way … It gives me confidence that what I have written may actually have a chance to LIVE.

  7. Jeff says:

    I stumbled on this while looking for the painting of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, and I just wanted to tell you that, in case you didn’t already know, this is a ridiculously interesting post. The information you give about Ellen Terry’s interpretation of her is fascinating. We just finished reading Macbeth in school and my interpretation of her was a bit more typical- that he loves her more than she loves him, etc- but the description of Terry’s version sounds brilliant and just as viable. I don’t know if my idea of her has changed in particular, but it’s great to read this and the other portrayals you mention. Thanks for such an interesting read!

    • sheila says:

      Jeff – I so appreciate you taking the time to read the post and leaving such a thoughtful comment. I, too, think that he loves her more than she loves him – or that their relationship is this symbiotic organism, that feeds off of one another – his insecurity driving her ambition and vice versa. The production I saw with Patrick Stewart had both of those elements at work and it really dealt frankly with the sexuality in their scenes together – which is there on the page, and I think an important element in the relationship.

      I just love to hear about how this smart actress, Ellen Terry, approached the role … making it her own. It’s a challenge any actor can relate to – and i think it really shows her smarts.

      Thanks again for reading!

  8. gina in alabama says:

    check this link out, hope it works, its a contemporary photograph of Ellen Terry in The Dress. How wonderful to have both the painting and the photograph. Sargent was so much more than “just” a portrait panter.

  9. Have you read Mary McCarthy on “General Macbeth”? ((I’m sure you have.) I think she makes a great case for Lady M being the real tragic hero. I’ve always felt she was Shakespeare’s greatest female creation and that he killed her off early because she scared the hell out of him.

  10. TraceyK says:

    I wonder what your thoughts are on the Marion Cotillard/Michael Fassbender version of a few years ago. The music and cinematography were astounding…and the introduction of a child into the story seemed to fit.

    • sheila says:

      That’s one I missed – I need to catch up with it, I love both of them and was very intrigued by the images I saw.

  11. Martin says:

    Thank you for a wonderful post. I have a question for you! I am writing a play about Terry and Shaw, drawn from their correspondence and I am stewing ideas about her Lady Macbeth. I don’t want to prejudice your answer by giving you my ideas but I’d be really interested in your thoughts.

    Here’s my question. When you look at Terry’s face in the portrait, what do you see? What do you think she is thinking about & feeling? What, specifically – or who – is she holding in the centre of herself at this moment? The painting is almost unbelievably powerful in the depiction of her face – you can feel the power she must have displayed in performance.

    Also – cheeky supplementary – do you see blood traces on her hands and on the crown, I wonder?

    Like I say, I’d be fascinated by your thoughts.

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