Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Tragedy personified": Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth

By Catherine Curzon

The term "showbiz legend" is much bandied about these days when it comes to the world of entertainment, sometimes with less reason than others. Sarah Siddons, the first lady of the Georgian stage, was truly deserving of that lofty title. From humble beginnings she rose to the pinnacle of her craft, leaving her adoring fans gripped with Siddons fever as they flocked to her performances in droves. Famed as a tragedian, she will forever be associated with one particular role, that of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth.

Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth by Henry George Harlow, 1814
Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth by Henry George Harlow, 1814

When the celebrated Mrs Siddons played the lady of Dunsinane for the first time on 2nd February 1785, she was just 29 years old. With her tall, commanding figure and strikingly handsome looks Siddons made an instant and lasting impact; she would return to the role multiple times over the four decades that followed, making the part entirely her own. 

The majestic actress was known for the passion and fervour of her performances, bringing a deep understanding to each role as she practised the method of her day. Theatrical legend has it that, so intense was her portrayal and so blazing the look in her eyes, swooning ladies in the audience had to be carried from the theatre in order to recover their composure. The essayist, William Hazlitt, famously wrote that Siddons was "tragedy personified"[1], a sentiment with which her fans certainly agreed. 

In fact, away from the stage her life contained tragedy enough to inspire a thousand such performances. Her marriage to William Siddons ended in separation and five of their seven children predeceased their mother. She channelled her unhappiness into performances of startling intensity, focusing particularly on the famous hand washing scene. Siddons broke with tradition by setting down Lady Macbeth's candle to instead concentrate on repeated, hypnotising motions as she washed the blood from her hands again and again.

Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785
Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785

In her essay, Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth [2], Siddons shares her thoughts on the role and the reasoning behind her own stylistic choices. She displays a rich understanding of Lady Macbeth, whom she considers to be "made by ambition, but not by nature, a perfectly savage creature". The essay makes for fascinating reading, offering deep insight into this most remarkable actress and the way in which she approached her roles. 

Georgian theatre is occasionally depicted as an almost ridiculous place, with overblown performances and overheated thespians but in Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth we are privy to share what would appear to be a modern approach to the text, with Siddons examining dialogue, movement and psychology in her efforts to inhabit the role.

After a long and celebrated career, Sarah Siddons gave her farewell performance in the role that she had made her own at the Covent Garden Theatre on 29th June 1812. The reaction of the audience to the sleepwalking scene was so rapturous that they gave an ovation that seemed as though it might never end, forcing the curtain down. After a short delay in which the adoring applause continued, the curtains opened again to show Sarah sitting on stage in her own clothes, no longer in character. Once the crowds finally fell silent she gave a farewell speech of almost ten minutes in length, the actress as overcome with emotion as the audience who adored her.

References and Sources

[1]   Hazlitt, William, Selected Writings. (Oxford, 2009), p. 339
[2]   Siddons, Sarah, "Remarks on the character of Lady Macbeth" as quoted in  Campbell, Thomas, Life of Mrs. Siddons. (New York, 1834). 

Perry, Gill, Spectacular Flirtations: Viewing the Actress in British Art and Theatre 1768-1820, (Yale University Press, 2007)
Perry, Gill and Roach, Joseph, The First Actresses: Nell Gwynn to Sarah Siddons, (National Portait Gallery, 2011)

Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now, and she is also working on An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe.


  1. I enjoyed this post. I once did an abbreviated performance of Lady MacBeth in a friend's drama class project, and I was no Sarah Siddons, but I thought a lot about Lady Mac Beth's character.

    1. It's one of the great roles, isn't it? I played her in school but I suspect I wasn't *quite* up to Sarah's standard! ;-)


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