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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Eddie Izzard

On Performing Hamlet. . . Solo

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 230

Eddie Izzard has a long record of dramatic roles. She has starred in two plays by David Mamet, and earned a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut in the play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. She had a recurring role in Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen, and even played the title character in Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II. But it’s her decades of experience as a stand-up comedian that prepared Izzard for her recent solo shows—first Great Expectations, and now Hamlet. Performing every role in those shows requires a marathoner’s stamina. Fortunately, Izzard also runs marathons. Eddie Izzard is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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Izzard’s Hamlet is onstage through May 4 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Get your ticket here.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published February 27, 2024. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Digital Island Studios in New York and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

Previous: Shakespeare and Disgust, with Bradley J. Irish



MICHAEL WITMORE: On today’s show, Eddie Izzard accepts one of acting’s biggest challenges: playing Hamlet—solo.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.

Eddie Izzard has a long record of dramatic roles. She has starred in two plays by David Mamet, and earned a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut in the play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. She had a recurring role in Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen, and even played the title character in Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II.

But it’s her decades of experience as a stand-up comedian that really prepared Izzard for her recent solo shows—first Great Expectations, and now Hamlet. Performing every role in those shows requires a marathoner’s stamina. Fortunately, Izzard also runs marathons.

Hamlet is currently running at New York’s Greenwich House Theater. Here’s Eddie Izzard, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: I was thinking you’ve been doing dramatic roles in films for—what? More than 20 years? And almost every serious actor that we’ve talked to here has had Hamlet in their sights. So has Hamlet been on your wish list too for a long time?

EDDIE IZZARD: That is a very interesting question because when I was seven, I wanted to act. I saw a play, A Boy with a Cart, by Christopher Freim. It was about Saint Cuthbert. Anyway, I was seven. My mom had died a couple years before. I hadn’t been—I’d done one little playlet thing before mom died, and I remember not being that bothered about it. And then I saw this play and I thought, “I have to do this.” And I think it was probably substituting the audience’s affection for mom’s affection.

So at the age of seven, I wanted to be an actor, tried like crazy to get into school productions. Being smaller and being dyslexic, I couldn’t do sight reading. All the auditions were sight reading: “Here’s some lines. You read them out.” And I would have probably stumbled over those lines. And I wasn’t very tall. So I could see the teacher saying, “Well, you’re no good,” and, “We want tall kids because they look like adults, and then they could be believable.” So I didn’t get anything for eight years, eight, nine years, which I kept pushing, pushing, pushing away.

BOGAEV: Woah, what determination. And, just to say, you said that you were substituting maybe, you know, the unconditional love of your mother with the most conditional love there is, an audience.

IZZARD: It is. It’s very conditional. And I think that’s a good swap because mother’s love can be unconditional, sometimes it can be not there at all or somewhat conditional, but mine, my mother was such a loving mother that it was a very positive love.

But, yes, you have to do good work. So it encourages you to do good work to get this love of the audience. And I think, in my head, that’s quite a good deal, I think, in life.

So I felt, when I hit puberty and became a spotty Herbert and I fancied girls—I hadn’t told anyone I was trans at that point—in the basic boy-girl kind of relationships, it went from me being a football player, a soccer player when I was a kid and feeling that I had a sporting existence and so I could play kiss-chase with the girls when I was younger—I hit puberty and it all went down the drain.

And so I just thought, “I can’t play…” It didn’t tie in. I wasn’t at ease with playing serious roles at this point. But comedic versions of it—I discovered Monty Python and I thought, “Well, that’s what I’ll do.” So I actually dropped drama at the age of about 14, 15. I did do some dramatic roles after that, but I wasn’t pushing for it. I was pushing strongly for comedy. And it took a long time to go through.

I went to university, dropped out of that, went professional, tried to get things going, couldn’t, took 10 years before my career took off. By the time I’d gone through sketch comedy and then street performing and then stand-up. When that started taking off in ‘93, I got a separate acting agent, and I started pushing for dramatic roles.

So Hamlet was not on my list. This is a very long answer, isn’t it?

BOGAEV: I love that you came around, though.

IZZARD: Hamlet was not initially on my list. Shakespeare wasn’t on my list because also dyslexic. I had great difficulty grabbing hold of Elizabethan verse when I was a teenager at school.

So I’m hyper-analytical which Hamlet says he is. You know, thinking too precisely on the event—one part wisdom, three parts coward, in his mission that his dad has set up for him.

And all the weird things I’ve done, like stand-up in different languages, marathon running, political activist, getting all the way to Hamlet, it’s quite a weird journey.

So what I bring to the table here—where I wasn’t looking for Hamlet, but there came a point where I said, “I’m going to go for Hamlet. I want to do it, Shakespeare.”

Elizabethan verse, it scares me. I had done a Christopher Marlow play earlier in my career but I was not bathed in this, and I wasn’t brought up in it. I remember—I’m good friends with Judi Dench, and she said… her recent book on Shakespeare, which everyone should read, if they’re a lover of Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent.

IZZARD: Yes, Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent. She said she, I think she said, all she wanted to do was to play Shakespeare. That was her big—she actually studied as a graphic artist, her brother was an actor, and then she said actin,g and thought, “Shakespeare.” That’s what she wants to do. And it wasn’t what I wanted to do.

BOGAEV: So what scares you about it? You said you were dyslexic. Is it just… I mean, it’s amazing to think you’re doing this solo show, and yet you have this history.

IZZARD: Well…. yeah, but it’s spoken word. It is designed as a spoken word so that is easier.

The learning, if I was sight reading it, it would be harder. But learn it and then live underneath the words, that is an easier thing for me to do. It just takes a long time to learn 13,500 words.

I did find that I was initially scared of the poetry. Because if you look at, say Gertrude’s speech about how Ophelia died, it is very grabbable. It’s very understandable. It’s beautiful poetry, which is something I really do respect, that he had a great ability with poetry.

But sometimes, there’s certain parts of Hamlet which are completely obtuse and you can’t work out what he’s going on about. Because certain words are old language, like a “bodkin” is actually a dagger, it’s a very thin dagger, and so they would have known that 400 years ago, but even if you translate the word, you cannot make out what you’re doing.

BOGAEV: And there are a lot of words in Hamlet that we recognize, but they mean something—they meant something else back then. Makes it even more confusing.

IZZARD: Yes, there’s that. I don’t think he wrote a play to make it obtuse to his audience, I think he wrote a play that was grabbable. He wanted the money coming. He wanted the tickets sold. I don’t think he wrote spinach theater. I think he wrote accessible theater, and that’s what we’ve tried to make it.

BOGAEV: Yeah. I see that. Where did you start? Because every actor that we talk to here seems to have their own process. And some, they get this… you know, they’ve wanted to play Hamlet. They finally landed. They read the play straight through, and then they watch a million movies, or they read every secondary source. What did you do, and what did you do first?

IZZARD: I did not watch the movies. I wanted to do my own version. I didn’t want to be influenced by other people’s, even though I had already seen other people’s versions of it, a couple of filmed versions.

But I’ve got to a certain age where I have lived a life that is quite unusual and different, and I thought I could bring that to it… what really grabbed myself and Selina Cadell, my director.

BOGAEV: Your director.

IZZARD: Also, my older brother, Mark, who is two years older than me, did the adaptation. Took it down from four hours to two hours. —and what he chose to leave in and what he chose to take out is an interesting choice—but he’s a natural academic.

We fought long and hard over exactly what it is, but I came to it with the idea that when they were starting… when he was writing these plays, they had just moved out from being traveling players. There’d been centuries of traveling players with no fixed theaters. And then the curtain theaters, it starts off in the mid-1500s, and then you go through that.

He’s at the birth of that time of the theaters becoming more established and set up.  And I felt as someone who was a street performer—and I had been performing on the street for four years at Covent Garden, which is just around the corner from the Globe Theatre—I knew what it was like to perform to people and see and look in their faces.

So I just thought my training was so unusual that I was bound to bring something, if I could be open and honest and really get underneath the text, as Selina was constantly pushing for me to just live underneath the words.

BOGAEV: What does that mean to you as an actor?

IZZARD: Well, it meant don’t emote over the lines, but just find the emotion built into the text. And you can just live through the words as opposed to pushing it and trying to emote over the top of it.

BOGAEV: So it sounds like the guiding light was getting under the words. Because, again, we talked to all sorts of directors here, and many of them talk about having a unifying approach.

And the famous example, maybe, is Peter Brook. He thought of Hamlet foremost as a play of questions. And he began and ended his production with, “Who’s there?” He also wanted this production with Adrian Lester to feel as if it took place entirely inside of Hamlet’s mind so that very internal, intimate feeling.

So did you and your director, Selina Cadell, approach the play in this way, in any way, by identifying a unifying concept?

IZZARD: No. I don’t think we did. I think we didn’t come with any preconceived ideas. We didn’t want to say, “We’re going to make it this. We’re going to make it that it’s all a dream. It’s all in his mind. It’s all that.”

But it was trying to make sense of where Hamlet is going. It is his story, but why does he delay so much? And if you think of it from Shakespeare’s point of view, he technically, basically, you know, he has his father turn up at the end of Act I and says, “Avenge me. Get revenge for me.” And if it was Laertes, he would have done it at the beginning of Act II.

But Hamlet has another four acts where he does not do it. And it’s how he delays in it. It’s trying to make a narrative thread that’s believable in this technical thing that Shakespeare’s doing of saying that, “I am Hamlet. I’m really pissed off that dad’s dead, and I’m not going to do anything about it for the longest time you could believe.”

So it was two things at once that we were trying to do. But accessibility is what we wanted.

We wanted it so that people could come along. And if they did not—were not Shakespeare lovers, not Shakespeare police, not people coming on and saying, “This is how it’s got to be.”—we took it so that it would be accessible just like, hopefully, how he would like it, so that everyone could follow it, understand it, and be driven through it.

BOGAEV: So okay. Big question. Logistics. What were the discussions like with your director around how you’d handle switching parts or distinguishing between the characters?

I imagined watching you that, you know, this is perfect—in your stand-up, you play parts and you kind of you kind of pivot between them, you switch sides and move physically to do that—and I figured, “Oh, they just assumed it was probably straightforward decision.”

Also with the Dickens solo show that you did: “I just pivot around when I switch parts. Let’s do it like that.” Is that how it went?

IZZARD: Well, yes, it is. That can sound a bit lumpy, a bit like I’m just going to pivot. But, essentially it’s…

BOGAEV: Actually, you do it quite fetchingly because you have a you have a jacket that has a peplum, and it kind of twirls.

IZZARD: Well, there is that but sometimes I will do a full turn, and sometimes I just switch each direction, and that’s whether I wanted something slightly more dramatic or something just quicker.

It comes actually from Richard Pryor. Richard Pryor did this to play different characters. He would turn and do that. And I came from sketch comedy, so I thought, “Well, I’ll do what Richard Pryor is doing.” And I’ve done that for 35 years in my stand-up, and I realized it could work for drama.

And the intelligence of the audience is if you keep the architecture very precise, as you flip the audience will hold the other character there while you’re playing. You’re flipping from one character to another. They will hold it in the negative space.

BOGAEV: Oh, that is true because often a lot of context in Shakespeare’s plays comes from who someone is talking to.

I was thinking that I was as I was watching you, I was just imagining, for instance, when Hamlet is on the parapet looking for his father’s ghost and he says, “The air bites shrewdly. It is very cold.” And he’s talking to Marcellus. Some directors have Hamlet direct that line at him and Marcellus is a Danish soldier and probably wouldn’t understand the fancy language. “The air bites shrewdly.” so Hamlet dumbs it down for him. “It is very cold.” And it’s this comedic moment that directors set up.

But it’s all in the context of who’s speaking to whom. When you’re all alone up there, you can’t necessarily exploit those cues.

IZZARD: Yes, there were decisions made on whether, is he trying to go for comedy here, right at the point where he’s trying to find his father? Is he then going to do a comedic beat against the other person who’s up there helping him or standing with him? And whether that’s the logic of what he’s doing, or that’s something that we can bolt on afterwards.

So there’s a lot of—I think, in Shakespeare—a lot of people say, “Ah, I see this means that, and that means this. And this is because of that.” And it can go in many different ways in this way but in the end, you will choose what you feel is the story and the narrative and where the comedic pieces should be and when they shouldn’t be.

BOGAEV: Yeah. And following up on this choosing to do comedy or not, you’re hilarious with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. You talk to them like sock puppets with your hands to either side of your head. You seem to be accosted by your own hands when every time they show up. How did that come about? Is that also something you’ve done in stand-up, or was it something you noticed?

IZZARD: No, I’ve never done it in stand-up, but I wanted to. I have done it with the Henson Factory and Brian Henson, son of Jim Henson. And I love it from the Muppets going forwards, what you can do with hand puppets.

I’ve done a solo band of training with them in Los Angeles when they were doing—they have a stage show called Puppet Up, where they do improvisation with different puppets.

And there’s also these French comedians who I work with. Yacine Belhousse and his colleague, Dedo. And I have… they do L’Histoire Racontée par des Chaussettes, which is history told by socks—you can look at it online.

So I had actually worked with them in French doing puppetry on that. And I just thought, “Well, why don’t we do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as sock puppets but without the socks?” So that’s where that came in. They seem to work as comedy foils as Hamlet drills into them

BOGAEV: They really do. Do you like the funny bits when you go to see Shakespeare? Or do you even think the funny bits of Shakespeare are funny?

IZZARD: Well, they’re not really funny. I don’t think Shakespeare had—my director disagrees with me on this—I think funny wasn’t his strong suit. I think poetry is his strong suit. His best poetry is beautiful.

But his comedy, I think, he goes for wit. I think the scene with Polonius where he’s reading and talking, that should be a really funny scene but it struggles to hit funny. And you do need the comedy with the drama you know? Just two hours, four hours, three hours, whatever it is, of tragedy can be a relentless thing. The comedy, the light and shade, I think, is very important to make it work.

So I think he went for wordplay: wordplay and wit. But he wasn’t—most people who come from comedy, have a comedy background, they do say things like, “Shakespeare funny.” “This is Shakespeare funny.” which means not funny, but slightly funny. Or if you’re just watching something that is very, very serious, then something even a tiny bit funny makes everyone laugh like drains because it’s such a change to the atmosphere.

BOGAEV: The light and the shade. Let’s talk about the shade now because you do the soliloquies really well. You come to the front of the stage and you face the audience in a spotlight so they’re set apart from the rest of the action. And it really feels like you’re very much talking to the audience there. Or did you think of the soliloquies in that classical sense as Hamlet speaking to himself or in thinking?

IZZARD: That’s an interesting point. It is to the audience, but the audience is… I felt the audience is the Greek chorus of his mind, and he’s checking in with his sanity.

Because I was a street performer and I did used to talk to the audience, they were there in plain sight, just like they were. Remember—and people got to remember this, if you go to the Globe Theatre, it’s in the light. You see people in the light. There are no artificial lights. And that’s what I had four years of experience of that.

So when I talk to the audience, I really am talking to them. They’re my gang. Even from stand-up, I worked out this. If you ever get heckled, if you can turn the tables on someone who’s a heckler, which could have quite easily been a groundling. Groundlings, the people who stood in front of the audience, then they stood. They did not sit. They stood.

These guys would have said, “Boring. Get off,” you know? They would have been like a rabble of people out there. And you had to keep the play as interesting enough to bring them along with it. So, I am really talking to them, not at them. That’s the difference.

I think most actors will happily talk at an audience. This training that I have, this weird, odd training, it’s got to hopefully give something different so that people come along and go, “This is a bit odd. This is unusual.” And hopefully, it works better in that way, that the soliloquies are solo-loquies to that audience, and I’m looking in their eyes, I’m looking in their faces.

BOGAEV: Well, particularly, “What a piece of work is a man,” is really beautiful the way you do it. Very quiet and very intimate. What were you most paying attention to when you were working on it? What were you most concerned with?

IZZARD: On all the soliloquies, we needed to find the arc of the soliloquy because “Rogue and peasant slave” is right next to the “To be” speech. It’s about eight minutes from one to the other, these two big soliloquies.

And you’ve got to realize the depressed state of mind that Hamlet is in. Because by the time he gets to, “To be” which is just coming up, that there has to be a continuation through “Rogue and peasant slave.” Initially, I was playing it too brightly.

But it is someone trying to… thinking too precisely on the event. He does hyper-analyze everything. Now the weird thing is that I, as soon as I started playing Hamlet, I felt very at home. I thought, “This is a bit odd. Am I just throwing myself in the…”

Yeah. I didn’t have a problem with playing Hamlet, because surely, you should. It’s Hamlet. And there’s going to be a, “To be” speech, and you’re going to—people are going to watch. I just didn’t have this problem. And this was a couple of years ago when we started doing open rehearsals on it.

BOGAEV: Because he’s so analytical, and you said you are so analytical.

IZZARD: Yes, because I am hyper-analytical. I came out as trans 40 years ago or 39 years ago, and I did self-analysis on myself because I couldn’t get an appointment at the medical practice at university. They just couldn’t get it together to give it to me. So I thought, “Right, I’m not going to do that. I’ll do self-analysis.” And I just lay on my bed and I walked my mind through what I was thinking and why I felt the way I did.

I didn’t come to any great conclusions except for I decided shame and guilt were not something I should be dealing with. Because this is how I feel as opposed to I have twisted myself into a place where I’m a wrong person thinking having wrong thoughts I do think this way. I do feel that I would have been happy to be born a girl or a woman.

So since then, I have analyzed everything. And this is why when he says, “Of thinking too precisely on the event, a thought which quartered” —this is in his last soliloquies—”all occasions do inform against me.” A thought which is one part wisdom and three parts cowardice of him hyper-analyzing every situation.

Because when he sets up, you know, “The play is the thing where I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” it’s a delaying tactic. They’re all delaying tactics. Now, from a playwright’s point of view, you can understand he’s got to delay this to make it into this big epic that he wants to let, which ends with this massive fight and everyone dies. It kind of works, but it’s the oddest trajectory.

So, “Rogue and peasant slave” I just try and sit inside Hamlet as a non-actor saying, “How can this guy be so emotional? I can’t get any emotions out of me.” And just being right underneath that, and then saying, “This, if he was me, he’d go berserk at this point. And I’m not doing anything.”

Hamlet’s constantly seemingly to talk about himself, checking in with his brain, and going, “I’m not doing it. I’m really not doing it. Nothing’s happening.” Even at the end, he says, “My thoughts—from this time forth, my thoughts will be bloody. There’ll be nothing worth,” because he’s not doing it. He’s going off to England.

BOGAEV: He’s trying to talk himself up, it sometimes feels.

IZZARD: Yes, he’s trying to get himself to because he must be ashamed of himself for not doing what dad has said. Dad’s ghost turned up at the end of Act III saying, “You’re almost blunted thing,” which is a good technique from Shakespeare’s point of view. If everyone in the audience is going, “Where is this revenge? Isn’t this supposed to be revenge? Are you supposed to…?”

Because Laertes, who hasn’t got so much brains upstairs but is ready to kill Hamlet at the drop of a hat once he’s heard that Hamlet killed his dad. That’s what Hamlet should be doing, but he’s not doing that.

Anyway, that all revolves around into, “Rogue and peasant slave.” You go through several different beats in that until because, “What an [expletive] am I? I’m just doing—I’m just talking and talking and talking. I’m packing my heart like a like a whore and with words and god. Okay. Okay. I don’t know. What I’ve got to do, the play. Let’s do the play.”

But the play is the delaying tactic. He shouldn’t need to see his uncle pull a face, f you think about the real logic of it, because his uncle could pull a face because it’s his brother. You know, say someone else had killed old king Hamlet.

BOGAEV: Right, it makes no sense.

IZZARD: Yeah. He could say, “Oh, god, my god. This is a hellish thing” because his brother died. And he’s really emotional about it. That’s what I would do with my brother who did the adaptation.

I’d be horrified to see that. And then people say, “So you’re guilty.” “No. I’m horrified that my brother was killed in this way. This is repeating it in my brain”.

So it’s not a good proof. But we all go, “Well, it’s fine that, you know, the play’s the thing,” because we like the couplet and we like the idea. And Shakespeare needs it to make this play get to Act V.”

BOGAEV: I want to talk about Ophelia and Gertrude now because you do change your voice and your posture between characters as you switch but very subtly, often.


BOGAEV: Except with some notable exceptions like the gravedigger scene which was hilarious. But for Ophelia, and somewhat for Gertrude, though, you do have a somewhat different affect. And it’s understandable, Ophelia’s a young girl. So you seem to modulate your voice to a gentler tone or soften your gestures as well.

But you have thought so much about gender. How did you think about portraying these two female roles?

IZZARD: There’s a thing in British tradition and a British state of pantomime, which doesn’t exist in America, I think, but people might know of it. So women will play men. Men play women.

But the women play men quite elegantly in pantomime. The men play women in quite a… the ugly sisters in Cinderella, is the classic thing, and bad makeup, and clumpy boot, and they just look outrageous and nothing to do with what being a woman is, what feminine is, and anything like that.

So what I wanted to do—before in Great Expectations and here in Hamlet—was that the female characters that I was trying to mine the essence of, “What—if I had grown up as a woman? What—and became Gertrude in that situation, where would I be? What would I be?”

And try and physicalize it in a certain way. I have a certain more boyish look than girlish look but give certain hand gestures to both of them, certain physicalizations that hopefully will, over the time as I’m running the show more and more, that I can get it more and more precise or more and more different\, so that people watching on the stage can see, “Oh, that is Gertrude. That is Ophelia. That is Hamlet. That is Polonius.”

But it was giving honor. Get trying to give honor to the female characters so that people would still say, “Oh, well, you’re a trans person playing this, and that, you know, Ophelia doesn’t look quite as girlish as I thought she might look.” But it’s whatever I’ve got physically and mentally that gives them honor.

BOGAEV: Everybody makes this analogy between you running marathons and doing these marathon solo productions, Great Expectations and now Hamlet. But is that how you think of it yourself?

IZZARD: No, I don’t.

BOGAEV: Do you prep the way you would for a marathon, physically or mentally? And do you pace yourself the way you think about a marathon? You were just talking about eight minutes between two scenes, so that seems to be a marathoner’s mindset.

IZZARD: No, I only say eight minutes because it does seem to be eight minutes in my head. But I don’t…

I do have determination, and I do think—I don’t think I fought for it, I think I’ve got the determination gene. I think I had this when I was younger. I dropped out of university at 19, came out as trans at 23, and my career took off when I was 30. So it was a bloody long slog going through this.

So this endurance thing, this marathon thing, this endlessly pushing at things until they happen, that is a mindset that I have. And that doesn’t quite… doesn’t necessarily link with the marathons because the marathons are part of that.

But it’s not that the marathons are affecting the Hamlet. Hamlet is part of this thing of, “I wanted to do really good work, but I’m not on people’s list for Hamlet.”

If you think about it, someone who’s come through, who studied accounting at university, that’s just because I could add up and I wanted to do a course and I had to get a degree. This is—Dad. Mom and Dad had this idea, and even though Mom died years before, that they’d never been to university, and me and my brother had to go to university. This was the structure. We knew this for a long time.

But I always wanted to act. I wanted to do that. So I had to pretend that I was going to do some, well, civil engineering or some bloody thing or be an accountant. And it was kind of annoying. But then I dropped out of that, and I was pushing like crazy to be the actor that I wanted to be.

And so Hamlet is at the end of this—not even at the end. This is a point in that I just live my life like a marathon, and it just happens to be I’ve run marathons as well. But everything has been on, on, on trying to do it.

And as a trans person, when you came out, if you came out in 1995, that basically, career-wise, I didn’t even have a career. I didn’t even start my professional career. I hadn’t been able to get paid much for any gigs at that point.

But you were basically on a hiding to nothing. You were going nowhere. And I came out at a point when I could have just—I was just taking off, and I was just about… well, the information could have just killed my career just as it took off after pushing for so long.

I was 29 or 30. So many, you know, years after dropping out of uni, it was about 10 or 11 years since I dropped out of uni. About 23 years since I started wanting to act. Just at the point it begins to take off, and I said, “Alright. I’m going to tell everyone I’m trans.” And that could’ve just said, “Right, well no one’s going to hire you ever again.” That was quite on the cards. You know, there was no proof either way. I just thought it’s better to come out and tell everyone.

So I just think in a marathon runner’s type way. I think in a… I play the long game. And here is the end of a… or a certain point in the very long game of trying to go towards Shakespeare, which scared the hell out of me as a teenager. It just scared me so much. And now I’m really in beginning to enjoy it.

And, you know, it was selling out before we even opened, which is kind of amazing because there’s no reason why Hamlet—me doing Hamlet should sell out.

BOGAEV: Well, so exciting. I mean, it’s hard to look beyond this, but actors, as we said, usually work up to Hamlet. Are there other Shakespeare roles you’d stoop to?

IZZARD: There would be. But right now, I’m quite happy with Hamlet of Shakespeare’s plays. So I’m going to ride this horse for as long as I can.

And the great thing about it is because it’s me on the stage I don’t have to get all the actors back together to do another production because I’ll just keep this production going. It is an evergreen. It is a classic.

And I will keep experimenting as I perform. Not going off of piece, but just seeing what’s out there, emotionally, what’s out there, and bringing that to each performance. Each performance is like it’s press night. That’s what I’ve decided. Each time, I’m going out there to take risks.

BOGAEV: Well, I can’t wait for the next experiment. Thank you so much for this.

IZZARD: Thank you very much.


WITMORE: That was Eddie Izzard, speaking to Barbara Bogaev.

Izzard’s Hamlet has recently been extended at the Greenwich House Theatre through March 16 (note: followed by an extended Off-Broadway run at the Orpheum Theater March 19 – April 14). Tickets are available at

This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Digital Island Studios in New York and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. Our building in Washington, DC has been under construction for the past four years. But we’re looking forward to fully reopening on June 21, 2024. You can find more about the Folger at our website,

Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.