When women first appeared on the English stage, in 1660, Shakespeare’s reputation was at a relatively low ebb. Many of the plays which provide his best female roles, especially the romantic comedies but also including for instance Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline, Coriolanus, and The Winter’s Tale, had fallen into disfavour.
In the years that followed, other plays, such as Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, and Macbeth, were acted only in radically adapted texts which distorted the female roles. Moreover, evidence is scarce; theatre criticism was slow to develop and accounts of performances tend to be anecdotal and effusively uncritical.
The first female Juliet appears to have been Mary Saunderson, to Henry Harris’s Romeo in 1662 when her future husband, Thomas Betterton, played Mercutio. Later she acted admirably as Ophelia and Lady Macbeth but nothing I have read characterizes her as great. Elizabeth Barry (c.1658–1713) succeeded her as Betterton’s leading lady, excelling in pathetic roles and achieving her greatest successes in the heroic tragedies of her own time. Conversely Anne Bracegirdle (c.1671–1748), renowned for her modesty in an age when most actresses were notorious for flamboyant sexuality, was clearly a great comic actress.
She was the first Millamant in William Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700), but her principal Shakespeare roles were given in heavily adapted texts — Charles Gildon’s version of Measure for Measure and George Granville, Lord Lansdowne’s of The Merchant of Venice, in which she became the first woman to play any version of Portia.
Another fine comedienne, Anne Oldfield (1683–1730), played almost no Shakespeare. Margaret (‘Peg’) Woffington (c.1714–60) worked with David Garrick and was for a while his lover; in breeches roles she appealed especially to women in the audience, but her harsh voice resulted in her being dubbed ‘the screech-owl of tragedy’. Garrick’s principal leading lady, Hannah Pritchard (1711–68), supported him successfully in Macbeth even though, by her own admission, she had read only the scenes in which she appeared; this provoked Samuel Johnson to tell Sarah Siddons that ‘she no more thought of the play … than a shoemaker thinks of the skin out of which the piece of leather of which he is making a pair of shoes is cut’.
And Sarah Siddons (1755–1831) is the first indisputably great Shakespeare actress, a performer of towering reputation whose art inspired eloquent tributes in both prose and verse from some of the finest writers of her time, as well as almost as many paintings and drawings as there are of Garrick. They include a splendid canvas by Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds’s commanding portrait of her as Melpomene, the Greek muse of tragedy. Shadowily visible behind her stand embodiments of the Aristotelian emotions of tragic passion, Pity and Terror.