Barrymore was not a Shakespearean in the academic sense of the term. I do not know how many actors have been wholesale students of the Bard, but the general feeling persists that a person with the gift of portraying the great Will's characters must of necessity be such a scholar as to possess even an antiquarian knowledge of the source material for the masterworks of Stratford's first gentleman.
Garrick, as an upbuilder of Shakespearean enthusiasm, seems to have been in literary as well as dramatic tune with the finest lyre since the golden Greeks'. And, if we may descend the stairs, several flights of them, at a swift downward bound, we find in our own time that numerous hams of our boardinghouse acquaintance actually were excellent analysts of the folios, no matter how wretchedly they carried the spears on-stage or how bombastically they hurled the labored line. Many non-Shakespearean actors are familiar with the Avon classics. Eddie Foy, of comedy a king, actually knew Shakespeare's works, majoring in the tragedies, and could recite, word for word, any of the longer speeches.
It is true that Jack [Barrymore] had heard much of the Elizabethan text in his own richly endowed home. Likewise, he had seen numerous of the "greats" perform in the classic roles. But he himself pointed out that there was a difference between reading and viewing, and once told me that he never really had "perused the iambic perfections" until he played Richard.
Jack, during his later years, used to read aloud privately from various Shakespearean plays. There were two circumstances, two reasons actually, pertaining to these readings: first, my intention to keep him for a time off the streets and away from such Hollywood philanthropists as believed that fifths of straight brandy were a specific for his duodenal ulcer; and second, the exciting pleasure stirred by his first reading of several of Shakespeare's plays.
It so happened that neither of us had read King Lear. We had seen it, of course, yet neither had ever read it in toto.
"Cardinal", he said, "let us sit here in the Sistine Chapel of your home, before the auctioneer arrives with his gavel and his sheriff's authorization to seal you out, and see what we can exhume from King Lear's whiskered mind."
He was ill at this time, as one could plainly see, yet he acted that he was well. He put on his spectacles, a pair of ancient lenses borrowed from some woozy tourist at Earl Carroll's restaurant. One temple-bar was missing from the frame, but Jack had obstinately refused to consult an oculist or permit his friends to renew the mountings of these dilapidated windows.
"It has a lorgnette effect," he said. "Makes me feel like a dowager."
He seemed a bit "caved-in" this night, as I took King Lear down from the dusty shelf to give it to Barrymore. He snorted several times, a device used, I fully believe, to cover up his pain or deflect attention from his growing lapses of memory. I am confident that these tragic-comic snorts often were employed by him instead of groans.
He opened the volume, then began to read Lear. He entered the scenes without flourish or tumult. As he sat there, his jaws sagging at first, his hair stringing down in squaw-like disarray, his face stubbled with beard-hairs, and pale with loss of blood from a recent stomach hemorrhage, his heart heavy with long misfortune, he entered upon a performance the like of which I never before had seen, and never again shall see.
A great majesty came upon him. Rather, it came from within him, for there always existed in his nature a latent dignity of mind behind the scoffing shelter of his own public mien. One forgot the nondescript eyeglasses, the stringing-down hair, the slumped man on the couch. Indeed, his own ills, his own epic disasters of the last years may have enabled him the more readily to become Lear in immediate concept and projection. The tragic king now cried out in this room, and in Barrymore's reading one say this old monarch wearing, not the customary crown of straw, but one of thorn.
-Good Night, Sweet Prince: The Life and Times of John Barrymore by Gene Fowler, pp. 168-170 (New York: Pocket Books, 1947 [first edn. Viking Books, 1944])