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Drawing of the actress.

Mary Saunderson (1637–1712), later known as Mary Saunderson Betterton after her marriage to Thomas Betterton, was an actress and singer in England during the 1660s and 1690s.[1][2] She is considered one of the first English actresses.

Stage career

Her most notable accomplishments are her being the first female actress to portray several of Shakespeare's woman characters on the professional stage. She was the first to portray Juliet in Romeo and Juliet,[3] Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, and other female roles in The Tempest, Hamlet (as Ophelia),[4] Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, King Lear.[2] In Shakespeare's day, female roles were played by teenage boys, as women and young girls were not allowed on the stage. By the 1660s, however, the laws in England had changed, allowing females to act professionally. Mary's connections through her husband, Thomas, who was also a famous actor, allowed her to play several significant roles.[2] Saunderson had a reputation for virtue; Colley Cibber described her as leading "an unblemish'd and sober life".

One of her earliest roles was in The Siege of Rhodes, taking over the role of Ianthe in place of a Mrs. Edward Coleman, whom many agreed had done very poorly in the role. Acting under the direction of William Davenant, Mary did very well, even to the point that she was frequently called Ianthe for the rest of her life. She sang in several of Aphra Behn's operas. Perhaps her greatest and most lauded accomplishment was her performance in the role of Lady Macbeth. Actor-playwright Colley Cibber considered her "so great a Mistress of Nature" who was the only actress able to "throw out those quick and careless Strokes of Terror from the Disorder of a guilty Mind … with a Facility in her Manner that render'd them at once tremendous and delightful".[5] She played the major female roles for about 30 years, until she gradually faded out of the stage lights in the early 1690s. Her final appearance was in John Dryden's last play, Love Triumphant, where she played the leading female role.[2]

Teaching career

As acting was one of Betterton's most beloved passions, she also had the desire to put forth her talents as a way of educating and influencing the young minds around her. Mary Betterton and her husband even informally adopted actress, Anne Bracegirdle, and played a key role in training her for the very successful and popular stage career that she would have. Bracegirdle was also known as, "the celebrated virgin," meaning that she was popular for not being the risqué stereotype that came with many actresses during this time.[6] The "celebrated virgin" label that Bracegirdle received was easily attributed to the moral teachings that Betterton also provided when training the young actress. Mary Betterton was such a positive light and educator to young actresses that King Charles II requested her as his first choice to train his nieces (daughters of his younger brother) to become great actresses, which is a huge reflection of how respected she was as an acting coach and mentor.[7] As Lady Anne and Lady Mary grew up to be Queens, the work of Betterton could be seen in their speeches with their "clear and direct voices".[7] Betterton had a lasting impact on these women, so much so that when Thomas Betterton died, Queen Anne granted her a yearly pension to ensure that she was taken care of financially.

Personal life

Mary Betterton was a granddaughter of Richard Burbage, one of William Shakespeare's men, one of the first and most famous Shakespearean actors. Very little or if anything is known of her childhood. The first information that can be found of her is that Sir William Davenant hired her to perform for the Duke's Company in 1661. She lived with other actresses in the company including Hester Davenport under his wife's care until she and the leading man of the company, Thomas Betterton, obtained a marriage license on Christmas Eve in 1662.[8] Their marriage lasted for some 48 years under "the strictest amity" until her husband's death in 1710.[9] Mrs. Betterton was different than many other English actresses, in that she attracted no public chatter or gossip about her personal life; she was simply not interested in enticing any foolish blather about her life off stage.

Selected roles


  1. ^ Chester, Joseph Lemuel (1876). The Publications of the Harleian Society. Vol. 10. London: Mitchell and Huges. p. 274. The marriage, baptismal, and burial registers of the collegiate
  2. ^ a b c d Larsen, K. "Women". George Washington University. Archived from the original on 11 June 2007.
  3. ^ Halio, Jay. Romeo and Juliet. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998. pg. 100 ISBN 0-313-30089-5
  4. ^ Gilder, Rosamond (1931). Enter the Actress: The First Woman in the Theatre. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. OCLC 257526768.
  5. ^ Lanier, Henry Wysham. The first English actresses, from the initial appearance of women on the stage in 1660 till 1700. The Players, 1930.
  6. ^ Lowe, Robert W. Thomas Betterton. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, 1891. Print.
  7. ^ a b Smith, Gay. Lady Macbeth in America: From the Stage to the White House. Palgrave Macmillan. 2010. Print.
  8. ^ Macqueen-Pope, W. Ladies First. W. H. Allen, 1952.
  9. ^ Milhous, Judith. "Betterton [Saunderson], Mary (c.1637–1712)." Judith Milhous. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Ed. David Cannadine. Oxford: OUP, 2004. 20 February 2017.

7 Annotations

First Reading

Pauline  •  Link

from L&M Companion entry for
Betterton, Thomas and Mary
[Thomas's] wife Mary (b. Saunderson, ?1637-1712, m. 1662) was also a member of the Duke

Pauline  •  Link

Here is the link to her husband (I don't know how to copy more than one thing forward):…

And a chance to comment:

I like the birthdate preceded by a question mark. Coy, isn't it? And, heavens, what etymology for a name like Bracegirdle!

Pauline  •  Link

from JWB's link above:
An exception to these petty women was Mary Saunderson, one of the most famous actresses of the time. Following Mrs. Coleman's dismal production of The Siege of Rhodes, Saunderson took over the role of Ianthe, and reportedly performed it so well that she was referred to as Ianthe for much of her life. Her unblemished reputation is often attributed to her early marriage to Thomas Betterton, himself a famous actor of the period. She is said to have loved and admired her husband inordinately, and the two even shared a professional partnership for the remainder of their lives.

Saunderson was the first woman to play a female role in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet. While she made a name for herself with Shakespeare's tragedies, she proved herself as an actress by showing she could perform, with equal brilliancy, in Aphra Behn's comedies, and sing her way through D'Avenant's operatic versions of Shakespeare. When D'Avenant died, Thomas Betterton took over his place in the theater, and he and Mary moved into it, working and living under the same roof. Once London's two theaters united, Mary was forced into minor roles by a slew of younger, fresher actresses, and then disappeared from the stage for a while. She returned in 1690 and performed leading roles for three years, until her final appearance on stage in Dryden's last play, Love Triumphant. Mary's career outlasted that of the actresses with whom she had begun it, and even some of the generations after her.

Cheryl  •  Link

Just a word about the source…. It seems to be a page put together by a class; thus, it does not use the most recent, comprehensive, or reliable sources for its information. Some of its sections accept anecdote as fact, and it uses terms like "director" (neither the term nor the position existed, in a theatrical sense, in the 17c).

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

Mrs. Betterton was so great a Mistress of Nature, that even Mrs. Barry, who acted the Lady Macbeth after her, could not in that part, with all her superior Strength and Melody of Voice, throw out those quick and careless Strokes of Terror, from the Disorder of a guilty Mind, which the other gave us with a Facility in her Manner, that render'd them at once tremendous and delightful. Time could not impair her Judgment, tho' he had brought her Person to decay; for she was to the last, the Admiration of all true Judges of Nature, and Lovers of Shakespeare, in whose Plays she chiefly excell'd, and without a Rival. When she quitted the Theatre, several good Actresses were the better for her Instruction. She was a Woman of an unblemish'd and sober Life; and had the Honour to teach Queen Anne, when Princess, the part of Semandra in Mithridates, which she acted at Court in King Charles's Time. After the Death of Mr. Betterton, her Husband, that Princess, when Queen, ordered her a pension for Life, but she liv'd not to receive more than the first half Year of it.
---The History of the Stage. C. Cibber, 1742

Bill  •  Link

Mary Saunderson, who married Thomas Betterton, December, 1662, one of Sir William Davenant's company, who acted Ianthe in the "Siege of Rhodes," at Lincoln's Inn Fields. She retired from the stage about 1675, died April, 1712, and was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey on the 13th.
---Wheatley, 1899.

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




  • Apr