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Samuel Phelps: Actor, Theatre Manager & Tragedian

In the last couple of months, I have been beavering away amongst our rare book collection cataloguing and updating records. Tucked away on the bottom shelves I found prompt copies for Samuel Phelps of Shakespeare’s tragedies, histories and one comedy. This small collection is printed copies from microfilm of originals held by The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. So, my thoughts turned to wondering, who was Samuel Phelps? A blog by Anne Marie Mcharg Rare Books and Special Collections Assistant.

Annotated page of King Lear

King Lear [Samuel Phelps's prompt copy, 1845] [Ref. PR2819 SHA]

Early Life

Samuel Phelps was born 13 February 1804 in Devon, near Plymouth Dock, which today is named Devonport. During his lifetime he was a well-known actor and director, who trod the boards as Hamlet, Macbeth, and made a very good Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream. He was considered the finest King Lear of his time.

Samuel was educated at a school in Saltash and by the time he reached the age of sixteen both his parents had died. He was then looked after by his eldest brother, who found him a job in the offices of the Plymouth Herald, as a junior reader of the press.  A year later he moved to London and became a reader at the Globe and Sun newspapers. While he was in London, he acquired his love for the theatre and stage after meeting Douglas Jerrold and William Edward Love, who fueled his interest in acting.

First Steps treading the boards

His first major break in the theatrical world was on the York circuit. As he gained experience treading the boards his repertoire of prominent roles grew, and he was touted as being a rival to Edmund Kean. In August 1837, his first performance on the London stage was as Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice at the Haymarket Theatre. Over the next six years he continued to make a name for himself in theatres at Covent Garden, the Haymarket and Drury Lane.

Sadler’s Wells Theatre

In May 1844 Samuel Phelps became co-lessee with his friends the scene painter, Thomas Longden Greenwood, and the leading lady, Mrs Mary Warner, of the little known, unfashionable, Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Leaving aside the Shakespearian adaptions of the day that had been favoured by the public since the restoration, such as those presented by David Garrick and others, Phelps and the new management took the opportunity to restore Shakespeare’s plays to the original text of the first folio.

They were able to do this because of the freedoms created by the Theatres Act of 1843, also known as the Theatre Regulation Act, which limited the powers established under the Licensing Act of 1737, by which the Lord Chamberlain had been granted the ability to vet the performance of any play he chose, and to prevent any new plays being staged without his approval; the Theatres Act restricted these powers.

The little trio worked well. Greenwood had a good head for business, while Samuel was the theatre manager and Mrs Warner was the principal actress. For the next twenty years Samuel Phelps remained in this position and in doing so his reputation as an actor, and that of the theatre, rose to an increased position in London theatre land. He continued to play leading roles such as Hamlet, Macbeth, Leontes, Bottom and Cardinal Wolsey, and had considerable success with the dramatization of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, Ivanhoe and The Fortunes of Nigel. 


In his prime he was the most versatile actor of his day, as well as a capable theatre director. He was a success playing comic characters and taking leading roles. After Greenwood retired, Phelps was left running the business side of the theatre. In time he was unable to cope and realised business was not his forte. His last appearance on stage was in 1878 as Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. As old age crept up on him, his skills unfortunately declined to the extent that theatre critics abandoned him.

Phelps died on 6 November 1878 and was buried at Highgate cemetery.

Prompt copies of Shakespeare [Ref. PR2817 SHA]

It was his love for Shakespeare that was Phelps’s greatest achievement. Having the prompt copies of Shakespeare’s plays in our collection, which have been annotated in his hand to give directions, brings to life the man behind the characters and performances.

His prompt copy of King Lear, includes Phelps’ annotations about the weather sound effects, as well as other stage directions.

We have annotations from two different performances of Macbeth by Phelp's and you can see the difference in his stage directions for Act 3, Scene 4 between the performances in 1844 to those in 1860.

His annotations on Act 4, Scene 1 shows how he envisaged the stage with his doodles during his last appearance was as Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII. 

A blog by Anne Marie Mcharg Rare Books and Special Collections Assistant.



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