April 27, 2012

“Like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.”


The British stage actor Edmund Kean was like the James Dean of his time.

He gained celebrity and fame at a young age.

His performances were fiery and highly innovative at the time, especially the new twists he gave to well-known characters in plays by Shakespeare.

For example, instead of playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice the traditional way, as a comic villain, Kean’s Shylock seemed intelligent, intense and dignified.

Almost every biography of Kean mentions a famous quote about him by the British poet, critic and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

On April 27, 1823, Coleridge said in a conversation:

       “To see him act, is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.”

This comment, recorded by Coleridge’s son-in-law, was included in the book Table Talk, a collection of spoken remarks by Coleridge that was published in 1835, the year after he died.

The “flashes of lightning” line is usually the only part of the what Coleridge said about Kean that is quoted and it is generally assumed to be a complimentary remark about Kean’s electrifying acting style.

In fact, if you read the rest of what Coleridge said about Kean, you realize that he wasn’t actually giving Kean a glowing review.

“Kean is original,” Coleridge acknowledged, “but he copies from himself. His rapid descents from the hyper-tragic to the infra-colloquial, though sometimes productive of great effect, are often unreasonable. To see him act, is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning. I do not think him thorough-bred gentleman enough to play Othello.”

It’s hard to know with certainty what Coleridge meant by the analogy “like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.” But in context, it seems to suggest that he thought Kean’s acting was not consistently illuminating or fathomable.

By the time the quote was published in Table Talk in 1835, Kean was beyond caring about Coleridge’s opinion or anyone else’s.

He died in 1833 at age 46, apparently burnt out by a rock star lifestyle that involved mass quantities of alcohol and wild sex.

According to legend, when Kean was on his deathbed someone asked him how he felt and he responded: “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”

He may not have actually said that. But it sure is a great exit line.

[Another famous quote by Samuel Taylor Coleridge from Table Talk is “Prose = words in their best order; — poetry = the best words in the best order.” Click this link to read the backstory on that quote.]

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