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Queen Victoria on William Shakespeare

Updated Wednesday 20th April 2016

What did the Queen of England think of the Bard of Avon? We dip into her diaries to find out...

Friday 26th January 1838

Said I was going to see Hamlet tonight. [Lord Melbourne] observed that it was a fine play but a heavy and very long play. He spoke of the different scenes, of Hamlet's character, said it was an obscure play to understand, &c.,&c. I observed that many of Shakespeare's plays were not readable for young people. He quite agreed in that, but observed that Shakespeare was not so bad as some of the other writers of his time,- Massinger, Fletcher, &c.,&c.,whoLord Melbourne said were quite dreadful, and scarcely possible to be read at all.

[...]

At 7 I went to Drury Lane with the Duchess of Sutherland, Lady Portman, Miss Cavendish, Lady Mary Stopford, Lord Conyngham, Lord Headfort, and Col: Buckley (who this day replaced Col: Grey). It was Shakespeare's tragedy of Hamlet and we came in at the beginning of it. Mr. Charles Kean (son of old Kean) acted the part of Hamlet and I must say beautifully. His conception of this very difficult and I may almost say incomprehensible character, is admirable; his delivery of all the fine long speeches quite beautiful; he is excessively graceful and all his actions and attitudes are good, though not at all good-looking in face; the two finest scenes I thought were the play scene, which he acts, they say, quite differently to any other actor who has performed Hamlet; and the scene with his mother, the Queen; it was quite beautiful when he rushed out after having killed Polonius, exclaiming, “Is it the King?” He fights uncommonly well too. All the other characters were very badly acted. I came away just as Hamlet was over. They would recognize me between the 2nd and 3rd acts,- I was compelled to come forward, curtsey, and hear “God save the Queen” sung. The house was amazingly crowded and they received me admirably. Came home at ½ p.10.

The earliest photograph of Queen Victoria, with the Princess Royal Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: The Royal Collection The earliest known photo of Queen Victoria

Sunday 14th February 1838

Lord Melbourne asked if I had seen King Lear (which I had half intended to do last week); I said I had not. He said (alluding to the manner in which it is being performed at Covent Garden) “It is King Lear as Shakespeare wrote it; and which has not been performed so, since the time of Queen Anne”. As it is generally acted, Lord Melbourne told me, it is altered by Cibber, who “put in a deal of stuff” of his own; that it was a much finer play as Shakespeare wrote it, but “most dreadfully tragic”. That Dr. Johnson had seen it performed in that way, and that“it made such an impression on him that he never forgot it”. I observed to him that I feared that, and did not like all that madness on the stage. Lord Melbourne said, “I can't bear that, but still it is a very fine play, and many think, Shakespeare's best.” Spoke of the play of the play of Richard III, which I said I was going to see. Lord Melbourne said it was “a fine striking play”. He observed that that scene where Richard makes love to Anne, at the funeral of Henry VI, did not belong to the play, but was taken from Henry VI; he said “That is a very foolish scene; I always thought it a most ridiculous scene; and there is not the slightest foundation in History for it; he married her 8 years afterwards”. He added that Shakespeare constantly mixed up events, in his Historical plays, without minding when they happened, and how far assunder.

Sunday 20th January 1839

I sat on the sofa with Lady Charlemont, Lord Melbourne sitting near me, and Ma. and several of the ladies being seated round the table. Lord Melbourne looked at some new woodcut illustrations of Shakespear; and he talked of Romeo and Juliet, which I said I had never seen; Mrs. Cibber, he said, was supposed to be the best Juliet there ever was; she used to act with Garrick and Barry, and Lord M. said the Balcony Scene was the celebrated one, and “Mrs. Cibber used to say that when Garrick acted it, he was in such very high spirits that she almost thought he would jump up to her; and when Barry acted it, he was so soft and séduisant that she always felt inclined to jump down to him; that was her account of it”.

Wednesday 17th July 1839

After dinner, when Lord Melbourne came up to me, I talked of the heat and being tired; of what I should say to Mr.Macaulay; “Oh! ask him about India and Auckland.” Talked of the Play of Henry V.; “It's a spirited play,” said Lord M. Too much of the Welshman, I said; “But that's thought very clever,” he replied. The broken French of Catherine at the end, I thought absurd, in which Lord M. agreed. Henry V, he said, wrote in French. I talked to Mr. Macaulay, who had to be presented. 

Thursday 26th March 1840

At ¼ to 6 we dined, before going to Covent Garden, to see "Romeo & Juliet", which I had never seen before. It is a beautiful Play & C. Kemble acted the part of Mercutio extremely well. A Miss Emmeline Montague took the part of Juliet, & was charming in the Balcony Scene, but not so good afterwards. Mrs C. Jones acted the part of the Nurse very well. A piece called "One Hour" followed, in which Mme Vestris & C. Mathews, as usual, acted delightfully.

Friday 5th February 1841

We dined quite early & went at ½ p. 6 to Covent Garden, where Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream" was given, — beautifully got up, but spoilt by the introduction of stupid duets & songs. Healy, &c, were very good. Mendelssohn's beautiful Overture was played at the beginning. We saw the Introduction to the Pantomime & there came home.

Friday 4th February 1853

We went over to the Rubens Room, after 8, & Shakespeare's splendid Tragedy of "Macbeth" was extremely well given. The scenery, including the Cave or Cawdor scene with the apparitions, was admirably managed, & the dresses beautiful, & most correct. Both Keans acted very well, but she in particular. It is a most interesting, thrilling, & heartrending play. Ld Aberdeen & Ld Carlisle, both great connoisseurs of Shakespeare, were much pleased. 

Thursday 22nd February 1855

We dined early & went with Vicky & Affie, &c — to the Haymarket to see "Romeo & Juliet", Shakespeare's beautiful Play, alas! shamefully acted, excepting, fortunately, the 2 principal characters. Miss Cushman took the part of Romeo, & no one would ever have imagined she was a woman, her figure & voice being so masculine, but her face was very plain. Her acting is not pleasing, though clever, & she entered well into the character, bringing out so forcibly its impetuosity. Miss Swanborough, who personified the lovely character of Juliet, is quite a new actress, from Liverpool, — very pretty, & one of the most graceful actresses I ever saw. This was particularly marked in the Balcony Scene, when she takes leave of Romeo. All the tender parts, she does to perfection, but her voice was not quite strong enough. What a lovely Play it is! Such youth & freshness in the simple love of Romeo & Juliet for one another. 

Monday 28th April 1856

We walked out late & dined early, going with Vicky, &c — to the Princess's to see the production of Shakespeare's "Winter's Tale". It was the benefit of the Keans. Though the performance lasted from shortly after 8, to ½ p. 12, we hardly noticed the length of time, for the interest never flagged one moment, & one was led from one more splendid scene to another, really bewildering, from its wonderful beauty. The story is so poetical & touching. Mrs Kean was admirable as the cruelly wronged Queen Hermione, — Kean being very good as the jealous tyrant Leontes. Miss Heath & Miss Leclercq were charming at "Florizel" & "Perdita", the latter, looking lovely. All the other actors were likewise good. Albert was in ecstasies, for really the whole "Miss en scène, the beautiful & numerous changes of scenery, the splendid & strictly correct antique costumes, all taken from the best works & models, — the excellent grouping of every scene, the care with which every trifle was attended to, — made it a unique performance. There was very appropriate music, composed by a Mr Hatton. Parts were touching beyond belief, & we came back deeply impressed & enchanted.

 

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