John Philip Kemble as Vincentio in Measure for Measure, c. 1794


John Philip Kemble played Vincentio, with his sister Sarah Siddons as Isabella, in Measure for Measure at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 1794. This painting shows Kemble as the Duke of Vienna disguised as Friar Lodowick. The portrait seems to emphasise the ambiguous status of the actor in his double disguise. Is it Kemble, the Duke or the Friar?

Disguise and substitution

In one of the many substitutions in the play, the Duke asks his deputy Angelo to take on the role of ruler in his absence. The Duke claims he’s travelling to Poland, but instead he secretly adopts the habit of a friar, allowing him to spy on his deputy, gain pious Isabella’s trust and stage-manage events from the sidelines, before resuming his role as Duke. Authority – both religious and political – is taken on and cast off like a theatrical costume.

John Philip Kemble (1757–1823) and Sarah Siddons (1755–1831)

Kemble and Siddons had acting in their blood. Their parents were travelling players and they worked on stage as children, going on to become two of the best-known tragic actors of their day. Interestingly, Kemble trained for the priesthood in France, before returning to act in England. He chose not to pursue a religious path, but the experience made his acting more disciplined and austere. He was known for his artificial speaking style and statuesque stage-presence.

In their 1794 performance of Measure for Measure, the siblings used a revised version of the play, produced by John Kemble himself while he was manager of Drury Lane Theatre. This adaptation (published in 1795) simplified and sanitised Shakespeare’s play. It cut down the comic subplot, censored the sexual language and reduced the alternation between serious and bawdy scenes.

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John Philip Kemble (1757–1823) as Vicentio in Measure for Measure, 1794
c. 1794
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