Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Sarah Bernhardt and Shakespeare

Sarah Bernhardt in the 1890s
One of the most famous actors of her generation, Sarah Bernhardt is a thespian legend. Among her many iconic performances, she is perhaps best known for her roles in Shakespeare plays.

Here's just a little taste of Bernhardt's career and her contribution to Shakespeare's continued popularity.

A Little Background on Bernhardt

A performer for all of her adult life, Sarah Bernhardt was a firm favourite with audiences in the United Kingdom, the United States, and in her 'native' France.

I say, 'native', because, although Bernhardt claimed that France was her country of birth, there is much about her life that remains a mystery. She was famously dubbed by Alexandre Dumas, fils, as a, “consummate liar”.

Subsequently, she remains one of the most iconic of iconic figures, partly because she's still shrouded in mystery.

It is perhaps this mystique surrounding Bernhardt that ensured her success and the continued interest in her life and work. Whatever the exact reason (or reasons), for her popularity, she became known as ‘The Divine Miss Sarah’ and is still considered to be one of the world’s finest actors.

Do Put Your Daughter on the Stage Mrs Bernhardt

Bernhardt as Theodora in 1882
Bernhardt was just seventeen when she graced the stage for the first time, in 1862. From that date, until her death, in 1923, she was almost continuously working.

And during the twentieth century, Bernhardt was eager to be part of the very latest acting medium: film. She starred in nine movies between 1900 and 1923.

One such movie was an adaptation of Hamlet, Le duel d'Hamlet (1900), directed by Clement Maurice.

Sarah Bernhardt and Shakespeare

Sarah Bernhardt’s first foray into Shakespearean theatre, came in 1867. At the age of just twenty-two, Bernhardt took part in a production of King Lear.

It was in 1899, in London, that Bernhardt took on arguably the most famous role in the Shakespearean cannon: Hamlet.

Although that may seem like quite a radical move, the fact is, during this period, it was not unusual for women to play the depressed young Danish prince. In fact, Sarah Bernhardt was just continuing what had become something of a tradition.

Sarah Bernhardt is famous for her
portrayal of Hamlet
Despite having one of her legs amputated, Bernhardt continued to perform and, in 1916, just a year after the loss of her leg, she played the role of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, in Washington D.C.

What Elizabeth Robins Thought of Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet

Despite being one of the most famous, and popular, actors of her day, Bernhardt wasn't without her critics. And her Hamlet was treated harshly by author, playwright and fellow actor, Elizabeth Robins.

Elizabeth Robins' very famous critique of Bernhardt’s Hamlet, entitled ‘On Seeing Madame Bernhardt’s Hamlet’, was published in the North American Review, in December 1900.

Robins reaction to Bernhardt’s performance was less than flattering, claiming that “…in this version of Hamlet, the great tragedy has been drained of its dignity, as well as robbed of its mysterious charm.”

It should be mentioned, in fairness, that Robins is not without compliments for Bernhardt, “Among the most notable of these is her wonderful mastery of sheer poise, that power she has of standing stock still for an indefinite length of time with perfect ease and grace, never shifting from her ground, and equally never ceasing for a moment to be dramatic.”

An actor herself, perhaps Elizabeth Robins
was a little jealous of Bernhardt
However, it is clear that Robins does not approve of Bernhardt’s portrayal.

Now, there are numerous possible reasons for this. For instance, despite her claim to have no preconception of a woman playing the role, she may have already reached a conclusion about the suitability of a female in the part.

Additionally, it is worth mentioning Robins’ fascination with Edwin Booth, whose portrayal of Hamlet was very highly regarded during the period.

Alternatively, Elizabeth Robins, herself an actor, may have been suffering from a case of professional envy!

Despite her detractors, Sarah Bernhardt was, and continues to be, a cherished figure in France and the wider world.

Her performances in Shakespearean plays, and Hamlet in particular, are still the subject of discussion...a fact that would, no doubt, displease Elizabeth Robins.

A version of this post was originally published, by the author, on

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