English actor; born in London Nov. 4 (?), 1787; died at Richmond, near London, May 15, 1833. He was the natural son of Aaron Kean, a Jew (Stirling, "Old Drury Lane," ii. 131). Contemporary writers have alluded frequently to Kean's Jewish physiognomy. Kean was deserted by his mother in infancy and was reared by a Miss Tidswell, while his uncle Moses gave him perfunctory instruction in mimicry. In May, 1801, Kean appeared in "King John" as Prince Arthur to the King John of Kemble and the Constance of Mrs. Siddons. Finding his mother, Kean went into the provinces with her; later he was adopted by a Mrs. Clark, but ran away in 1803 and joined a traveling circus, in which he broke both his legs. On his recovery he was summoned to Windsor to recite before the king. Refusing an offer to join the Drury Lane Theatre on the ground of lack of experience, he traveled through the provincial towns, at one time with Mrs. Siddons. The turning-point of Kean's career occurred on Nov. 14, 1813, when his acting drew the attention of Dr. Arnold, a director of the Drury Lane Theatre, who engaged him for three years at a salary ranging from eight to twelve guineas weekly. On Jan. 26, 1814, Kean appeared in "The Merchant of Venice." His performance of the part made him famous immediately. He took rank as the first actor of the day, and even displaced John Philip Kemble, whose powers were now declining. For eleven years he maintained his position, but in 1825 was made corespondent in a divorce suit instituted by Alderman Cox, and when he next appeared before the public he was hooted off the stage; from this period his popularity sensibly declined.
In 1820 Kean went to America, and appeared in New York (Nov. 29). He scored great successes in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. In 1825 he returned to America to escape the unpopularity which the suit had created, but Boston mobbed and stoned him, and he had to be smuggled out of the city at night. He remained in America, however, to the end of 1826; on his return to England he was cordially received, but dissipation had wrecked his health, and on March 25, 1833, he broke down while playing Othello to the lago of his son Charles. He died a few weeks later. Kean was a master of high-tensioned emotion. In level scenes he was very indifferent. He was admirably adapted for such characters as Shylock, Othello, and Richard III. Romeo, as he himself confessed, was beyond his powers.
- J. Doran, In and About Drury Lane, p. 29, London, 1881;
- Biography of the British Stage, 1824, pp. 93-131;
- Proctor, Life of Edmund Kean, 1835;
- J. F. Malley, Life and Adventures of Edmund Kean, 1888;
- Dict. National Biog. xxx. 258-265;
- Chambers's Cyclopœdia.