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Shakespeare & Beyond

What makes a Shakespearean actor truly great?

A recent episode of the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast offers an interesting interview with British Shakespearean scholar and author Stanley Wells.

At the heart of that conversation, one might say, is a simple question. For all the contributions of directors and designers, for the majority of audience members, Shakespeare is brought to life by the male and female actors who speak his lines.

So, what separates the great Shakespearean actor from the merely good one?

It’s a subjective question, and Wells has a subjective answer: “One that bowls you over in some way.”

Just in time for the upcoming 2016 Shakespeare anniversary, Wells has mulled over some of the most outstanding Shakespeare performers of the past and present and essentially created his own personal Hall of Fame. The resulting book, Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh, relies on firsthand accounts of performances, gathered by Wells from biographies, theater reviews, and letters.

In an extended conversation with Stephanie Kaye, Wells talks about the intimate connection between actors and audiences, the special demands Shakespeare imposes on actors, and whether modern audiences would still esteem the great actors of the 18th and 19th centuries if they saw them onstage today.

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Explore this photo gallery to see some of the actors Wells mentions.