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. She is considered one of the first English actresses.
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, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, and other female roles in The Tempest, Hamlet (as Ophelia), Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, King Lear. In Shakespeare's day, female roles were played by young 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. She married her husband in 1662 and they took the young actress Anne Bracegirdle into their home. 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, and after Davenant died in 1668, her husband Thomas became co-manager of the company, and she continued to act in minor roles into the 1690s. Her final appearance was in John Dryden's last play, Love Triumphant, where she played the leading female role.
- Chester, Joseph Lemuel (1876). The Publications of the Harleian Society 10. London: Mitchell and Huges. p. 274. "The marriage, baptismal, an burial registers of the collegiate"
- Larsen, K. "Women". George Washington University.[dead link]
- Halio, Jay. Romeo and Juliet. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998. pg. 100 ISBN 0-313-30089-5
- Bloomsbury Guides to English literature: Augustan Literature
- Judith Milhous, ‘Betterton (Saunderson), Mary (c.1637–1712)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 5 Sept 2007
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