In 1778, Kemble joined the York company of Tate Wilkinson, appearing at Wakefield as Captain Plume in George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer; in Hull for the first time as Macbeth on October 30, and in York as Orestes in Ambrose Philips's Distresset Mother. In 1781 he obtained a "star" engagement at Dublin making his first appearance there on November 2 as Hamlet. He also achieved great success as Raymond in The Count of Narbonne, a play taken from Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto.
In the following year they played Montgomerie and Matilda in Richard Cumberland's The Carmelite, and in 1785 Adorni and Camiola in Kemble's adaptation of Philip Massinger's A Maid of Honor, and Othello and Desdemona. Between 1785 and 1787 Kemble appeared in a variety of roles, his Mentevole in Robert Jephson's Julia producing an overwhelming impression.
In December 1787 he married Priscilla Hopkins Brereton, the widow of an actor and herself an actress. Kemble's appointment as manager of the Drury Lane theatre in 1788 gave him full opportunity to dress the characters less according to tradition than in harmony with his own conception of what was suitable. He was also able to experiment with whatever parts might strike his fancy, and of this privilege he took advantage with greater courage than discretion.
He played a huge number of parts, including a large number of Shakespearean characters and also a great many in plays now forgotten, in his own version of Coriolanus, which was revived during his first season, the character of the "noble Roman" was so exactly suited to his powers that he not only played it with a perfection that has never been approached, but, it is said, unconsciously allowed its influence to colour his private manner and modes of speech. His tall and imposing person, noble countenance, and solemn and grave demeanour were uniquely adapted for the Roman characters in Shakespeare's plays; and, when in addition had to depict the gradual growth and development of one absorbing passion, his representation gathered a momentum and majestic force that were irresistible.
His defect was in flexibility, variety, rapidity; the characteristic of his style was method, regularity, precision, elaboration even of the minutest details, founded on a thorough psychological study of the special personality he had to represent. His elocutionary art, his fine sense of rhythm and emphasis, enabled him to excel in declamation, but physically he was incapable of giving expression to impetuous vehemence and searching pathos. In Coriolanus and Cato he was beyond praise, and possibly he may have been superior to both Garrick and Kean in Macbeth, although it must be remembered that in it part of his inspiration must have been caught from Mrs Siddons.
In all the other great Shakespearean characters he was, according to the best critics, inferior to them, least so in Lear (though he never played Shakespeare's tragic Lear, preferring the happy ending History of King Lear as adapted by Nahum Tate), Hamlet and Wolsey, and most so in Shylock and Richard III. His production of Cymbeline was staged regularly from 1801 on. On account of the eccentricities of Sheridan, the proprietor of Drury Lane, Kemble withdrew from the management, and, although he resumed his duties at the beginning of the season 1800-1801, he at the close of 1802 finally resigned connection with it.
In 1803 he became manager of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in which he had acquired a sixth share for 23,000. The theatre was burned down on September 20, 1808, and the raising of the prices after the opening of the new theatre, in 1809, led to the Old Price Riots, which practically suspended the performances for three months. Kemble had been nearly ruined by the fire, and was only saved by a generous loan, afterwards converted into a gift, of £10,000 from the Duke of Northumberland. Kemble took his final leave of the stage in the part of Coriolanus on June 23, 1817.
His retirement was probably hastened by the rising popularity of Edmund Kean. The remaining years of his life were spent chiefly abroad, and he died at Lausanne on the 26th of February 1823.