For a late 19th-century actor looking for a little self-promotion, there was one simple answer: a studio portrait.
These photographs often showed the actor as a character from a play. Sometimes the performer stood against a backdrop of scenery; frequently, he or she adopted a dramatic pose. These theatrics are very apparent in the portraits of actors in Shakespearean roles.
Some of the greatest actors of the time were associated with a particular Shakespearean character. Ellen Terry, for example, made such an impact as Lady Macbeth that she inspired a painting by John Singer Sargent. (Interestingly, her pose in the painting—arms aloft, lowering a crown towards her head—was not part of Terry’s performance. Sargent made it up.)
One of the most famous actresses of the time, Sarah Bernhardt, played both Shakespeare’s heroines and heroes, appearing as Hamlet in a five-hour production in 1899. Reportedly, to help her prepare for these tragic roles, Bernhardt slept in a coffin.
Exaggeration is certainly true of these portraits. Robert B. Mantell, described by the New York Times in 1915 as the “Dean of American Shakespearean actors,” glares over his villainous mustache as Iago. George Rignold, in suit of armor as Henry V, lunges awkwardly between a sword and a flagpole.
The actors, accustomed to being animated and lively on stage, had to take all of that vitality and channel it into a moment of stillness for each photo. The poses and facial expressions suggest great drama, but without movement and vocals they remain suspended, as an intake of breath before a line is delivered.
Nevertheless, what these images lack the sound and motion, they make up for it in sheer melodrama. On the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, regard with wild-eyes and clutched hands these most theatrical and entertaining portraits.