Biography of Edmund Kean

Portrait of Edmund Kean

Edmund Kean was a nineteenth century actor noted for his Shakespearean roles.

When and Where was he Born?

17th March 1789, London, England.

Family Background:

Edmund Kean was the bastard son of Ann Carey, itinerant actress and Street hawker and Edmund Kean a mentally unbalanced youth who committed suicide at the age of 22.


Taught by Charlotte Tidswell, the mistress of Moses Kean, his father’s eldest brother and a member of the Drury Lane Theatre Company.

Timeline of Edmund Kean:

Charlotte Tidswell his guardian was an ex-mistress of Charles Howard the Eleventh Duke of Norfolk and was extremely ambitious for her child. However Edmund was a wilful boy and lived for many years as a stray fighting her example.

1804: At the age of fifteen Kean sets out on his own to go on the stage and joins Samuel Jerrold’s company in Sheerness, Kent for fifteen shillings a week. He was to become a strolling player for the next ten years working on tragedies, comedies, opera and pantomime. The theatrical style then in fashion was that of its leading exponent John Phillip Kemble who was tall and good looking and had a deliberate eloquent delivery. Kean was small with a harsh voice and had to adapt his own style rather than compete with Kemble.

1808: He marries Mary Chambers an actress.

Theatre Royal
The present Theatre Royal, Drury Lane opened in 1812. (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1814: Edmund Kean makes his debut at Drury Lane as Shylock in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”. He is a sensation and a new style becomes fashionable. Kean then goes on to specialise in other Shakespearean villains, notably Iago, King Richard the Third and Macbeth. He also excels at playing Othello and Hamlet. Kean used controlled but powerful transitions of voice, volume and facial expressions, which led the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to say that Kean played Shakespeare “by flashes of lightning”. He is financially successful earning upwards of £12,000 a year but always lived beyond his means trying jealously to guard his reputation as the “Head of the British Stage”.

1824: After frequent tours of Scotland he sees Woodend House (then a cottage). He leases the land and buildings from the Marquess of Bute and moves in with his wife and sister-in-law Susan Chambers in the autumn. His wife hated the place as “damp and sterile” and felt she would be marooned.

1825: He is sued for adultery with the wife of a City of London Alderman (Mrs. Cox). A press campaign is started against him and he suffered demonstrations against him both in England and in the United States. He then declined over the next eight years into a drunkard.

1833: Edmund Kean collapsed during a performance of Othello at Covent Garden.

When and Where did he Die?

15th May 1833, Richmond, Surrey, England of influenza.

Age at Death:



1808: Mary Chambers an actress.

Site of Grave:

St. Matthias’s Churchyard, Friar’s Stile Road, Richmond, Surrey, England.

Places of Interest:


The Isle of Bute.