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Shakespeare & Beyond

Advice from the players

10 great actors on performing Shakespeare

You might be familiar with Hamlet’s “advice to the players” speech:

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and  now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature…Hamlet, 3.2

How about a little advice from the players? We’ve released over 200 episodes of our Shakespeare Unlimited  podcast and had the chance to talk with some amazing actors about their craft. Here are a few of our favorite quotations…

Glenda Jackson as King Lear in King Lear, 2019. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

Glenda Jackson, Episode 121

…on why theater is so important.

“One of the things, when times are hard and money’s short, [that] gets slashed is engaging children with art. If they have that—and I remember from my childhood and certainly from my son’s early years in school that that was a very present force. I mean, children were taken to see plays. They were taught music in school. All that kind of thing. Their other learnings improved because of that. Because now, we see where those kinds of things have been drastically reduced and in many instances taken away from state schools. There has been a deterioration.

“It is so important, so important. When you get a really good night in the theater, a group of strangers is sitting in the auditorium in the dark. Another group of strangers come on in the light. Then energy goes from the light to the dark and hopefully, that energy is increased and sent back to you from the dark. You can create a perfect circle. And that is an ideal for a perfect society, isn’t it? So, that’s my theory. One of my theories. One of my—not my theories—one of my beliefs as to the importance of theater.”

Harriet Walter, Episode 118

… on how performing Shakespeare expands our sense of self.

“Shakespeare has this magical effect that he does teach you, you know? You have to get bigger than you are in the first place to play Shakespeare. You have to grow to reach these characters, to reach the language, to reach the imagery. And because you hear yourself saying certain beautiful, powerful, extraordinary things, you hear your voice saying it, and you know your mind has thought it, it actually expands your sense of yourself. You know, I’m maybe taking a sidetrack here, but that’s why it’s so valuable to perform these things in schools, to perform these things in prison, to get women to play men, because these are people who mostly don’t think of themselves as powerful and don’t think of themselves as articulate or imaginative or that what they think matters. If you hear yourself saying these things, then you come away a bigger person. I can’t really explain it better than that.”

Stephan Wolfert, Episode 81

… on managing veterans’ symptoms of post-traumatic stress by speaking Shakespeare.

“I’ve lifted about 35 of his monologues, edited them down in some cases, and associated them with symptoms out of the diagnostic manual for post-traumatic stress. Some are ones that I find are unique to veterans and the veteran’s transitional experience. And the language then provides so many things. Number one, just a description of how they’re feeling. Then, it’s in the natural human rhythm on top of it. What is required to begin speaking Shakespeare are exactly the same techniques to interrupt an anxiety attack, or a post-traumatic-stress moment, or hypervigilance. It’s that grounding and breathing in, grounding and breathing in. Then, add to that being able to express ourselves, rather than live in that moment and cycle through over and over again the emotion, to express it and let it out. They’re also preventing the re-traumatization that this re-experiencing can cause. That just the basic techniques that we use to act, they’re using to calm their central nervous system. To speak this language that can create, or simulate rather, life and death circumstances, language that’s taking them back to that memory that may even be traumatic, and yet the technique and the language is what carries them through…

“Plant, breathe in, speak a line of verse. Plant your feet again, breathe in, speak the next line, Quite literally, we go that slow, even slower until they get that routine down and low and behold the language starts sinking in. They go, “Oh my god, am I saying this? I think so.”

Patrick Page and Michael Milligan in “King Lear,” Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2023. DJ Corey Photography.

Patrick Page, Episode 205

… on discovering the “necessary questions” of the play.

“What is useful for me is to say, “Well, what are the questions of the play? What does Shakespeare seem to be wrestling with?”… When Hamlet’s scolding the players… he’s saying, “Well, I don’t want the clowns to speak any more than they’re supposed to speak….” he says, “Because some important question of the play will be missed.”

“So, what are the ‘questions of the play?’ What are those things that he’s interrogating? That, to me, is what Shakespeare is, is the interrogation of questions that are so complicated and so paradoxical that we don’t have an easy answer for them…

“One of the ways to open myself up from the bubble that I live in is to look at the play and to see which words, or clusters of words, are repeated over and over and over and over again. In [Lear], for example, the question of “how much?” There there’s a lot of back and forth about how much does somebody actually need. The great speech, “O, reason not the need.” What do we really need? “Our basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous. Allow not nature more the nature needs.”

“There’s another one of those words. “Nature.” What is our nature? When you drill down into the core of your identity, what is your nature? Is your nature ultimately violent? Is your nature ultimately foolish? Or when you go down right to the bottom of it, do we find—the other great word in Lear, which is: “nothing.” Do we find, ultimately at the bottom of it, do we find nothing?

“Of course, Lear is stripped of all identity first. The identity of king, governor, the man who runs things. The identity of being the father… Then, of course, he meets—in the storm—he meets a man who has been stripped of everything: Poor Tom. And he says, “Look, you don’t even have clothes. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.” At that point, Lear tries to strip off his own clothes. He’s reaching for what’s under here. “What am I? Who am I? Who is it that can tell me who I am?” I think that’s the Shakespearean question. “Who’s under there?” The first line of Hamlet. “Who’s there?” He’s looking, looking, looking, searching, searching, searching. “What is my nature? What’s under here? How much do we need? Do I need a hundred knights? Do I need 50 knights? Do I need 25 knights?” Well, if you really look at it, you don’t need anything.”

Adrian Lester, Episode 212

… on how Shakespeare’s characters discover themselves.

“The idea of “Who’s there?” It’s, “Who’s there,” as in, “Who’s out there? … Make yourself known to me.” But also, “Who’s there?” if you’re on your own in a quiet room and you say, “Who’s there?” It’s a question for self-discovery, because we don’t know who we are, none of us do…. But, one of the things that Shakespeare does brilliantly is he allows the character to reveal itself to itself, live, in front of the audience.

“Every one of Shakespeare’s major characters, in their major soliloquies, they don’t know who they are. They are actually in that process of discovery as they speak to the audience in that moment…. There’s, like, a triangle. There’s who they think they are, that they hold on to. There is the problem or the dilemma they’re trying to solve. And, they’re trying to work out what that means, then. What does that mean: “I am?” “Am I evil? Am I good? Can I trust the ghost? Can I not? Maybe it’s there to test me, but maybe it’s not. Maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe—”

“It’s a wonderful way of creating character. The character isn’t fixed …that isn’t Shakespeare. What Shakespeare does is the character has an idea of who it thinks it is. As the process of the play, as the situations test the person and shape the person and push the person, just like life, the character starts to shift and change and become something else… If major characters in his plays can be a different people at the end than they were at the beginning, that’s the best journey.”

Sir Ian McKellen as King Lear in King Lear. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

Sir Ian McKellen, Episode 195

… on backstory.

“The first word in Richard III is ‘now.’ ‘Now is the winter of our discontent,’ Shakespeare plays are happening in front of your eyes, ‘now.’ He has this technique where sometimes uses a chorus to tell you what’s been going on, but things have been going on and you’re in the middle. The play starts in the middle of life, ‘now.’

“For an actor to worry too much about… how come at 80, he’s got three daughters? Could they have had the same mother, Queen Lear? And where is she? She’s never mentioned. Or, did he have two wives and did the second wife die in childbirth? And is Cordelia now of an age and looking like her mother when King Lear fell in love with her and married her? Well, you can invent all this, but it won’t really advance what the audience sees in the story. He’s not interested in the mother or mothers. I used to wear two wedding rings, for the alert, but it doesn’t matter.

“Now, it might matter to the actor. It might make it easier for the actor to remember the mother of Cordelia as he looks into the young girl’s eyes. But you can’t start explaining all that to the audience, and if Shakespeare wanted you to, he would’ve put in the scene, the speech, the reminiscence which would’ve made for that clarity, which sometimes we as an actors, we can feel we’re missing.

“So you just have to say, ‘Now,’ and get on.”

Sir Derek Jacobi, Episode 92

… on the questions actors shouldn’t ask themselves.

“It was the last day of a world tour. We were in Australia, in Sydney, and it was the last performance, and our interval came before the nunnery scene, so the first thing I had to do after the interval was ‘to be or not to be.’ I’m in the wings waiting for my cue when I was thinking, ‘You know, when any actor says “to be or not to be,” there’s a special, almost tangible, silence that falls on the audience. It’s the phrase that everybody knows. When an actor actually says it in context on the stage, you can almost hear a sort of little sharp intake of breath in the audience. It’s a magic moment.’ I’m thinking this in the wings, and then I thought, ‘What would happen if an actor forgot it?’ I heard my cue, I went on. ‘To be or not to be, that is the question, whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against …’ What comes next? What the hell comes next?

“I’d done it nearly 400 times, so automatic pilot took over, and it came out, and the rest of the play came out. So did every bit of sweat in my body. Every pore opened. I was sort of in a catatonic state. My toes became talons in my shoes, otherwise I’d have fallen over. It was so violent a reaction because I was so confident that I knew it, I’d done it all these times, that it shook—I didn’t go on stage for two years.”

“Don’t ever question yourself. I, by asking that question—what if I drop, what if I forgot it?—I was questioning my ability to act, my enjoyment of acting. All those questions that you think, those silly questions that the public… ‘How do you learn your lines?’ Yes, how do I learn my lines? ‘How do you get up in front of a thousand people?’ Yes, how do I get up in front of a thousand people? Once you’ve asked those questions of yourself, questions that didn’t apply I mean—you just did it, you just did it. Once you ask those questions… You shouldn’t ask them. Even talking to you about it now, you know, it’s silly. Silly really, ’cause I’m asking them again. But you shouldn’t, you shouldn’t.”

Antony Sher, Episode 94

… on coming to the really famous bits.

“Try standing on stage and saying, ‘To be or not to be.’ These lines are so famous that you’re terrified that if you pause for a second between the words, the audience will simply finish the line for you and, sort of, chant, you know, ‘To be or not to be.’ It just happens with those famous lines. But again, it’s something you worry about beforehand… in the actual moment, it’s no longer a problem. You have to. The character is impelled to shout at the storm, ‘Blow winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!’ You’ve forgotten that it’s a famous line. You’ve come to the point where your character is in this situation and, as you’ve said, is arguing with the storm.”

Paterson Joseph, Episode 98

… on juxtaposition.

“I think it was, possibly, a Laurence Olivier quote, or he may have got it from somewhere else, where if you’re playing somebody who’s old, find out where they’re young in spirit, and if they’re meant to be young, find out where they’re a little old, and I think that works for everything, that there should always be a kind of juxtaposition between what you’re meant to be, because we’re all a mixture of one thing and another. With Brutus, I’d noticed very early on, as I say in the book, how quixotic, I suppose you could say, he is. You have to be, I thought, on the moment, because if you set up this blanket ‘He is a Stoic,’ it would not only be rather boring, but also you’d make him less human, and that’s the beauty and the genius of Shakespeare, that he can balance those two things so easily.”

Lolita Chakrabarti, Episode 208

… on Shakespeare as gymnasium.

“I played Gertrude in Hamlet about five years ago. It was when I started writing Life of Pi, actually. I remember, I would write Life of Pi in the morning and I would go and do the show in the evening. It was my first mum. I thought, “Oh, I’ve got to that age where I can play mums now. How marvelous.” I was a bit in-between before.

“Oh, it is just beautiful. I’d just listen. I’d obviously be in it, but I’d listen and it’s such… I mean, but it’s so hard to get right as well. It’s just the total pinnacle of acting, and you never get it right. Even on the last night you’re going, ‘Oh, I didn’t get that bit right.’

“It’s a fantastic exercise, gym, exercise to practice your acting with, really. Yeah. I mean, I use bits of his plays in [the stage adaptation of] Hamnet. Small bits, you know, because otherwise it’s lazy, right? If I’m using lots of his words and not my own.

“But they are—there’s just so much to choose from and it’s so deep and clear and wide and expressive and of its time and of now. Yeah, it’s gorgeous stuff.”

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