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Thomas Betterton painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller

Thomas Betterton (August 1635 – 28 April 1710), the leading male actor and theatre manager during Restoration England, son of an under-cook to King Charles I, was born in London.

Apprentice and actor

Betterton was born in August 1635 in Tothill Street, Westminster.[1] He was apprenticed to John Holden, Sir William Davenant's publisher, and possibly later to a bookseller named John Rhodes, who had been wardrobe-keeper at the Blackfriars Theatre. In 1659, Rhodes obtained a license to set up a company of players at the Cockpit Theatre in Drury Lane; and on the reopening of this theatre in 1660, Betterton made his first appearance on the stage.[2]

Betterton's talents at once brought him into prominence, and he was given leading parts. On the opening of the new theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1661, Davenant, the patentee of the Duke's Company, engaged Betterton and all Rhodes's company to play in his The Siege of Rhodes. Also in 1661 he played Prince Alvaro in Davenant's Love and Honour. Betterton, besides being a public favourite, was held in high esteem by Charles II, who sent him to Paris to examine stage improvements there.[2] According to Cibber, after his return to England, it was the first time that the shifting scenes replaced tapestry in an English theatre.[3]

In 1662 he married the actress Mary Saunderson (died 1712). She started her professional career playing some major female roles in Shakespeare's plays. She and her husband Thomas Betterton shared the stage in a production of Hamlet, in which she played Ophelia, opposite to Betterton's Hamlet.[3]They also played Bosola and The Duchess in Webster's 'The Duchess of Malfi' in the early 1660s. In the meantime, she was also her husband's consultant and business partner. In an age when the profession of acting was often thought as notorious and indecent, and actors, both male and female were unfairly criticized as whores, the Bettertons were still regarded as respectable. They were invited to teach the children from noble and royal families to perform John Crowne's Calisto, 1675, in the last Stuart court Masque.[4]

In appearance he was athletic, slightly above middle height, with a tendency to stoutness; his voice was strong rather than melodious, but in recitation it was used with the greatest dexterity. Pepys, Pope, Steele, and Cibber all bestow lavish praise on his acting. His repertory included a large number of Shakespearian roles, many of them presented in the versions adapted by Davenant, Dryden, Shadwell and Nahum Tate. Even though those adapted versions did not receive critical acclaim, they did not harm or shadow Betterton's acting either. Still, his performances were largely praised.[3] He played Lear opposite Elizabeth Barry's Cordelia in Tate's modified version of Shakespeare's King Lear. Betterton was himself author of several adaptations which were popular in their day.[2]

Actor and manager

From Davenant's death in 1668, Betterton was the de facto manager and director of the Duke's Company, and from the merger of London's two theatre companies in 1682, he continued to fulfill these functions in the new United Company. Enduring progressively worse conditions and terms in this money-grubbing monopoly (see Restoration spectacular and Restoration comedy), the top actors walked out in 1695 and set up a cooperative company in Lincoln's Inn Fields under Betterton's leadership. The new company opened with the premiere of Congreve's Love for Love with an all-star cast including Betterton as Valentine and Anne Bracegirdle as Angelica. But in a few years the profits fell off; and Betterton, laboring under the infirmities of age and gout, determined to quit the stage. At his benefit performance, when the profits are said to have been over £500, he played Valentine in Love for Love.[2]

Betterton's career not only spans the period of Restoration theatre, it also marks its high point.[5] There was a period of time when the size of theatre audience started to reduce, in order to revive people's interest in theatre, he invented new stage machines at Dorset Garden Theatre, transposed The Prophetess into an opera, and introduced French singers and dancers to the Restoration stage.[5] He also built the first permanent theatre fully equipped with Italianate machinery. Additionally, he invested in remodeling the tennis court in the Lincoln's Inn Fields and built a new theatre there, therefore in addition to his salary, he also received a small amount of "rent" fees for each performance done there.[4] Betterton worked with all of the most significant playwrights of his age and the first generation of English actresses.[6] During his time, with the exception of William Mountfort, who gained a versatility in terms of portraying roles, most of Betterton's contemporary actors deliberately restricted themselves to certain popular character-types. However Betterton had more than 120 different roles from the genres such as heroic drama, Jonsonian comedy, comedies of manners, tragicomedies by Beaumont and Fletcher, and tragedies, comedies and histories by Shakespeare.[5] At the age of seventy-five, he claimed, "He was yet learning to be an actor."[4] The first acting guide published in English was The Life of Mr Thomas Betterton, which was mainly a pastiche from French rhetoric manuals with passages borrowed from English plays.[4]

Betterson's innovation in scenery and theatre management, and his contributions to theatre making shaped the culture of English theatre.[6]

Betterton performed to within fifteen days of his death.[5] Three days before his death at seventy-five,[5] he made his last appearance on the stage in 1710, as Melantius in The Maid's Tragedy. He died shortly afterwards, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.[2] From his debut as an actor in 1659 to his last appearance in 1710, his fifty-year career stretched nearly to the end of Stuart Dynasty. Thomas Betterton's death marks the end of a generation.[4]

In popular culture

Betterton is portrayed by Tom Wilkinson in the 2004 film Stage Beauty. Wilkinson was in his mid 50s at the time, yet the film is set around 1662, when Betterton would have been younger than 30.

Selected roles


  1. ^ The National Cyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge, Vol.III, London, Charles Knight, 1847, p.273
  2. ^ a b c d e Chisholm 1911.
  3. ^ a b c "Thomas Betterton (c. 1635-1710)". Retrieved 22 April 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d e Milhous, Judith (2011). "Thomas Betterton, The Greatest Actor of the Restoration Stage". Theatre Survey. doi:10.1017/S0040557411000536. S2CID 164129934.
  5. ^ a b c d e Armstrong, William A. (20 June 1954). "The Acting of Thomas Betterton". English. 10 (56): 55–57. doi:10.1093/english/10.56.55. ISSN 0013-8215.
  6. ^ a b "Thomas Betterton". Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 22 April 2016.


External links

12 Annotations

First Reading

Emilio  •  Link

Pepys's favorite actor, and generally held to be the best of the entire Restoration period. Sam will call him "the best actor in the world" in not too long (4 Nov. 1661).

Betterton is most famous for his voice, particularly for his dramatic intonation:…

Wim van der Meij  •  Link

Thomas Betterton, born c. 1635, was the son of an under-cook to Charles I, and first appeared on the stage at the Cockpit in Drurylane in 1659. He died in 1710 and was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey

Pauline  •  Link

from L&M Companion
Betterton, Thomas and Mary. Thomas (1635-1710) was perhaps the greatest figure in the contemporary theatre. In a career spanning fifty years he played a remarkable variety of part and earned the reputation, with most of his contemporaries as well as with Pepys, of being far and away the finest actor of his time. In addition he was a manager and trainer of actors, and himself wrote plays (mostly adaptations). He was a member and shareholder of the Duke's Company from 1661, becoming its joint-manager with Harris on Davenant's death in 1668, and had a controlling interest in the United Company formed by the merger of the Duke's and King's Companies in 1682. From 1695 he ran a troupe of actors who had left the United Company. After 1685 he was increasingly concerned with the production of opera, and put on the first performances of Purcell's "King Arthur and Fairy Queen".

His wife Mary (b. Saunderson, ?1637-1712, m. 1662) was also a member of the Duke's Company from 1661. Pepys calls her 'Ianthe' after her part in Davenant's "Siege of Rhodes". She had an important share in her husband's work of training young performers. Among their pupils Anne Bracegirdle (d. 1748) was the most eminent.

Paul Scott  •  Link

It was Betterton who went into Warwickshire in quest of information about William Shakespeare on behalf of Nicholas Rowe, Shakespeare's first serious biographer. Betterton is apparently the source for the deer-poaching, horse-holding and

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

BETTERTON (Thomas), a celebrated English actor, was born in 1635, and served his apprenticeship to a bookseller. He was usually styled the English Roscius. He made his first appearance on the stage in Sir William Davenant's company. At the restoration he belonged to the king's company at Drury-lane, and was sent by Charles II. to Paris, to observe the French scenery. At length the two companies were united, and Betterton was regarded as the first performer of the age. Mr. Booth, who knew him only in his decline, often declared, that he never saw him off or on the stage but he learned something from him; and frequently asserted, that he was not an actor, but nature itself; that he put on his part with his clothes, and was the very man or character he undertook to be till the play was over; and nothing more. So exact was he in imitating nature, than the look of surprise he assumed in the character of Hamlet (when he first personated the ghost), astonished Booth to such a degree, that he was incapable of proceeding in his part some moments. He published some dramatic pieces, chiefly taken from old authors, and died April 28, 1710. He was buried in Westminster abbey.—For further particulars, see Cibber's Apology, and Tatler, No. 167.

---Eccentric biography, 1801

Bill  •  Link

Mr. Betterton being Apprentice to Mr. Rhodes a Bookseller, (who in the Year 1659, obtained from the Powers then in being, a Licence to act Plays in the Cockpit, Drury-lane,) was brought by him upon the Stage in the Year 1660, together with his Fellow-prentice Mr. Kynaston.
Mr. Betterton, tho' but twenty Years of Age at his first Appearance on the Stage; acquired very great Applause by his performances in The Loyal Subject, The Wild Goose Chace, The Spanish Curate, and several other Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher. But while this excellent Actor was rising under his Master Rhodes, Sir William Davenant took him, and all who acted under Mr. Rhodes, into his Company, in the Year 1662. In this Company, which was call'd the Duke's, Mr. Betterton was applauded for his performances in the first and second Parts of the Siege of Rhodes, that being the Play with which Sir William Davenant opened his House, having new Scenes and Decorations, being the first used in England.
Betterton was an Actor, as Shakespeare was an Author, both without Competitors, form'd for the mutual Assistance and Illustration of each others Genius! How. Shakespeare wrote, all who have a Taste for Nature may read, and know; but with what higher Rapture would he still be read; could they conceive how Betterton play'd him!
Mr. Betterton had so just a Sense of what was true or false Applause, that I have heard him say, he never thought any Kind of it equal to an attentive Silence; that there were many ways of deceiving an Audience into a loud one; but to keep them husht and quiet, was an Applause which only Truth and Merit could arrive at: Of which Art, there never was a Master equal to himself.
---The History of the Stage. C. Cibber, 1742

Bill  •  Link

All our favorite actors from this time period have roles in the film: Stage Beauty (2004). And Hugh Bonneville (of Dalton Abbey fame) plays our own SP.…

Bill  •  Link

Thomas Betterton, younger but eldest surviving son of Matthew Betterton of Westminster, said to be under-cook to Charles I., but who (writes Colonel Chester) described himself in his will as a "gentleman." Thomas was baptized at St. Margaret's, Westminster, August 11th, 1635. He joined the company of actors formed by Rhodes, bookseller (and formerly wardrobe keeper to the Blackfriars Company), which commenced to act at the Cockpit, in Drury Lane, in 1659. When, after the Restoration, Davenant took over Rhodes's company, Betterton became his principal actor. Betterton died April 28th, 1710, and was buried in the East Cloister of Westminster Abbey on May 2nd.
---Wheatley, 1896.

Bill  •  Link

BETTERTON, THOMAS (1635?-1710), actor and dramatist; probably first acted in company licensed to Rhodes, a bookseller, 1659, his chief successes being in 'Pericles,' the 'Mad Lover,' the 'Loyal Subject,' the 'Bondman,' and the 'Changeling'; joined Sir John Davenant's company at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre, 1661; visited Paris by royal command, with view of introducing in England improvements in dramatic representation; played Hamlet, 1661, and Mercutio, Sir Toby Belch, Macbeth, and Bosola ('Duchess of Malfi'), 1662-6; associated after Davenant's death (1668) with Harris and Davenant's son Charles in management of Dorset Garden Theatre, 1671; played Orestes in Charles Davenant's 'Circe,' OEdipus in Dryden and Lee's 'OEdipus,' Timon of Athens, King Lear, Troilus, and other characters in adaptations of Shakespeare by Dryden, Shadwell, and Tate; amalgamated with the rival company of Drury Lane, 1682; opened 'theatre in Little Lincoln's Inn Fields,' 1695; produced successfully Congreve's 'Love for Love,' Congreve undertaking to provide a play each year, a promise which was not kept; opened theatre erected by Sir John Vanbrugh in Haymarket, 1705, but resigned management to Congreve and Vanbrugh; performances of 'Love for Love' (1709) and the 'Maid's Tragedy' (1710) given for his benefit at Haymarket; highly esteemed as an actor by most of his contemporaries. His dramas include the 'Roman Virgin,' acted 1670, adapted from Webster's 'Appius and Virginia,' the 'Prophetess,' 1690, an opera from the 'Prophetess' of Beaumont and Fletcher, 'King Henry IV,' 1700 (in which he played Falstaff), from Shakespeare, the 'Amorous Widow,' c.1670, from Moliere's 'Georges Dandin,' and the 'Bondman,' 1719, from Massinger.
---Dictionary of National Biography: Index and Epitome. S. Lee, 1906.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.






  • Apr