200 years ago, Keats saw Edmund Kean playing Richard III

On Monday 15 December 1817, Keats saw Edmund Kean perform as Richard III at Drury Lane, which he reviewed for The Champion:


“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…

“Kean! Kean! Have a carefulness of thy health, an in-nursed 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!”

John Keats: extracts from a review published in The Champion 21 December 1817 (he told his brothers ‘I undertook the “Champion” [review] for Reynolds, who is at Exeter’). Edmund Kean had been absent from the stage for several weeks because of illness. Habeas Corpus had been suspended since February 1817.

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