On This Day: Sarah Siddons is Born

“Portrait of Mrs. Sarah Siddons,” by Sir Thomas Gainsborough, 1785.

On 5 July 1755, Sarah Kemble Siddons, the famous English actress and tragedienne was born in Brecon, Wales. She was the daughter of Roger Kemble and Sarah “Sally” Ward, the latter for whom she was named. Kemble was the manager of the Warwickshire Company of Comedians, a touring theater company. Sarah belonged to one of the most prominent acting families in Great Britain: the Kemble family.

She was a woman who broke many boundaries during her lifetime. When she entered acting, it was barely a respectable profession for a young woman. Yet, with her rise to stardom, we see how acting evolved for women. Her career on the stage lasted from 1774 until June 1819.

The role she was most famous for was Lady Macbeth. She first performed in this role on 2 February 1785. The audience immediately fell in love with her performance. They were so accustomed to the bloodthirsty and evil performances of Lady Macbeth. In essence, Sarah made the performance entirely her own. She presented the audience with a more feminine and delicate Lady Macbeth.

In 1773, she married an actor by the name of William Siddons. She was eighteen-years-old at the time and he was in his late twenties. Their marriage would produce seven children.

Sarah was not only an actress and star but she became a cultural icon. Laura Engel, an associate professor of English at Duquesne University, tells us that Sarah created the category of “the Female Star.” Engel writes that Sarah “cleverly blurr[ed] the distinction between the characters she played on stage with representations of herself offstage (as much portraiture of the period invoke[d].” By doing this, she was able to project the image of  “divine and the ordinary, domestic and authoritative, fantastic and real.” Essentially, she was larger than life to the eighteenth and nineteenth-century audiences. Even in the twenty-first century, her gorgeous portraits still inspire awe.

McManaway, James G. “The Two Earliest Prompt Books of Hamlet.” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 40, no. 3, pp. 288-320.

“Siddons [née Kemble], Sarah (1755-1831).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Online Edition). Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Thomas. Life of Mrs. Siddons: Volume I. London: E. Wilson, 1834, pp. 108-9.

Engel, Laura. Fashioning Celebrity: Eighteenth-century British Actresses and Strategies for Image Making. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 2011, p. 10.