Skip to main content
Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Judi Dench

On Seven Decades of Shakespeare, with Brendan O’Hea

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 234

In her new book, Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent, Dame Judi Dench and actor/director Brendan O’Hea chat about her long history with the Bard. On this episode, Dench and O’Hea join host Barbara Bogaev to talk about Dench’s experiences playing Ophelia, Gertrude, Lady Macbeth and Titania. Plus, parrots, Polonius, dirty words, hijinks with Sir Ian McKellen, why it’s easier to laugh while working on a tragedy, and more.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, YouTube Music, Spotify, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Judi Dench - Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent

Dame Judi Dench has played nearly all of Shakespeare’s great roles for women, plus a few non-Shakespearean parts, too, including the title role in Stephen Frears’ Philomena, M in 8 of the James Bond films, Granny in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, and Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love, for which she won an Academy Award. Brendan O’Hea has acted in and directed multiple productions at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, and appeared with Dench in the film Quantum of Solace. Their book Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent is available from St. Martin’s Press.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published April 23, 2024. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica, with help from Kendra Hanna. 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 London Broadcast Studios and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

Previous: Shakespeare and the Environment, with Todd Andrew Borlik


Sir Ian McKellen on Shakespeare Unlimited

Dame Judi’s longtime friend and colleague Ian McKellen joins us on the podcast to talk about some of his most famous roles.

Ian McKellen on Playing Hamlet
Shakespeare Unlimited

Ian McKellen on Playing Hamlet


Sir Ian McKellen played Hamlet in his thirties, and again in his eighties. He gives us his take on the Melancholy Dane.

Ian McKellen on Richard III, Macbeth, and Gandalf
Shakespeare Unlimited

Ian McKellen on Richard III, Macbeth, and Gandalf


Sir Ian McKellen tells us about some of his most famous roles: playing Macbeth opposite Dame Judi Dench, King Richard III with a screenplay he co-wrote, and Gandalf the Grey in The Lord of the Rings films.


MICHAEL WITMORE: On today’s episode, an icon of the British stage shows her silly side.

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

Dame Judi Dench first fell in love with Shakespeare because of his language. Not his poetry, mind you—his potty mouth. She was in grade school, watching her brother in a production of Macbeth, and was delighted to hear the word “bloody” onstage.

Dench tells that story in her new book, Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent, co-written with fellow actor and director Brendan O’Hea. And it’s one of the first clues to Dench’s mischievous, down-to-earth personality.

The book takes the form of dialogues between the old friends Dench and O’Hea, as they discuss each of Dench’s Shakespearean roles in turn. In her first professional role Dench played Ophelia in Hamlet at the Old Vic. She describes her years studying the older members of the Old Vic Company as crucial to her training as an actor.

Dench would go on to play virtually all of Shakespeare’s roster of great roles for women: Lady Macbeth, Viola, Titania, Juliet, Portia, Regan, Cleopatra, Volumnia, Paulina, Gertrude, and many others. She played a few non-Shakespearean parts too, including the title role in Stephen Frears’ Philomena, M in eight of the James Bond films, Granny in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, and Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love, for which she won the Oscar.

Her co-author, Brendan O’Hea, has acted in and directed multiple productions at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, and appeared with Dench in the film Quantum of Solace.

Here are Brendan O’Hea and Judi Dench, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: Judi, what a wonderful title. I understand it’s something your husband, Michael Williams, used to call Shakespeare. Do you remember the first time he said it?

JUDI DENCH: I do certainly remember, because I had been at the Vic from 1957 to when I met Michael, in 1961 or ‘2. Michael had been in the other half of the Royal Shakespeare Company, so he literally was the man who paid our rent and went on being so, thank goodness. Paid mine for a long time. He just went on being. So that’s what he was known as in the house.

BOGAEV: Brendan, though, you say you thought of calling the book Herding Eels. Is Judi that wriggly?

BRENDAN O’HEA: Oh, dear god, yes. She had to be coaxed with glasses of champagne. Butterkist. Yes, I mean—

BOGAEV: Butter kissed? What is…

O’HEA: Oh, Butterkist. It’s a sugar popcorn.

DENCH: It’s just very good that we were old—we were quite old friends, so we’d known each other very well, Barbara. As you probably know, it came out of all being closeted up during COVID.

When we were able to get about, it was Brendan’s idea. He said, “Why don’t I come down and why don’t we talk about all the parts you’ve played?” It started in a very kind of lighthearted, kind of jokey way. Fortunately, that’s the way it went. It was just like having long conversations, jokey conversations, laughing and eating and drinking with an old friend.

BOGAEV: Well, you really feel that reading the book. It’s so full of fun stories. I’m just thinking of one that just popped into my head. That you were talking about Cleopatra, and how at one point in this production, you’re holed up on stage in the monument for a long time with two other actors during Antony’s suicide attempt. So, a very serious point of the play.

DENCH: We were very, very quiet.

BOGAEV: But you’re talking about your favorite meals.

DENCH: Very quiet. Yes, we were. They had said to me early on in the production, “What is the favorite”—you know, whispering so nobody heard us—“What is your favorite food?”

I happened to say, “I’m very partial to lobster, very partial. Lobster and a glass of champagne, my idea of heaven.”

Then, on the last night, when we were there, suddenly they had torches and they put them on. And there, were the lobsters on a plate with a glass—

BOGAEV: While Anthony Hopkins—

—during Antony’s death.

BOGAEV: —was doing his best acting as Antony.

Yes. It’s true. It is true.

BOGAEV: Well, your first Shakespeare role was a biggie. I mean, Ophelia—

DENCH: It was. It was.

BOGAEV: —in Hamlet at the Old Vic. And you say you got cast straight out of drama school, opposite a very seasoned actor, John Neville. Were you terrified?

DENCH: During my time at Central, for three years, we used to go to the Vic for ninepence, in the balcony to see all the plays.

And—this is long before the Beatles—but Richard and John were the kind of equivalent of the Beatles. People used to kind of swoon over—We swooned over them.

So, yes, it was. I mean, it was a chance thing. We did our final show for Central, which was at the Wyndham’s Theatre, and to which about five casting directors were invited. One of them was Michael Benthall, who ran the Old Vic.

I was invited to go and see him the next day and do a bit of Ophelia, which I learnt. Then I got a message to say, “Would you go the following day and see him again, quietly?” Well, there were not, you know, a lot of people auditioning. And I did.

He said, “I’m going to take a real huge chance.” He did take the chance and I’m very pleased that he did. Because I, although getting not good notices at all as Ophelia—because I was, you know, complete newcomer, I knew nothing really about it—He did say to me, “I’m going to keep you on, Judi, if you’d like to. And you can understudy and play parts and just watch other actors.” That’s exactly what I did.

BOGAEV: He said something very interesting to you. That he told you, “You have to make your speaking more legato.” What did that mean to you?

DENCH: Yes. When you’re untrained you might say, [speaking quickly] “My lord, I have remembrances of yours that I have longed long to redeliver. I pray you now receive.”

He actually meant just take the time to say it. “My Lord, I have remembrances of yours that I have longed long to redeliver. I pray you now receive them.” It means just taking time and a breath, and not being quite so anxious. And then be able to manipulate the rhythm a little bit.

I can remember Roy Kinnear, when he was going to Stratford for the first time to be in the Taming of the Shrew. He had never done Shakespeare before, and he opens the play with, “Gentlemen, importune me no further.” And he said he rang Trevor Nunn the night before. He said, “I’m very worried about the iambic pentameter of the speech and things.”

And Trevor said, “Don’t worry, it’s just da da da da da da da da. Don’t worry about it at all. No concern.”

And when they came to the rehearsal, they said, “Right, we’ll start now.” And, and Roy said, “GenTLEmen, IMporTUNE me NO furTHER.” And they were all absolutely out. Everybody then suddenly had a class in speaking it, and, you know, how that you have to obey it, but not make the audience aware so much that perhaps it is… it’s written in the—or maybe you have to make the audience aware that it’s written in the meter, I don’t know. Brendan, say something.

O’HEA: What? I’m listening to you.

DENCH: You know how to do it.

BOGAEV: Brendan, you pick up on so many interesting things in this book that Judi says. One of the things you pick up on—since we’re talking about Hamlet—is Judi’s sympathy for Polonius. Which I love, because I always think of him as such a conniving, social-climbing, obsequious, just manipulative ass. So, were you surprised that Judi was so generous in her impressions of him?

O’HEA: Well, yea. But then I think in the book, I don’t know. I asked the question, does it take being a parent to understand what he’s going through? And Jude, then obviously speaks incredibly eloquently about how he’s a single parent. And yes, he’s a buffoon and he’s a busybody, and he says, you know, ten words when one will do. But you kind of allowed me to see the human side to him and what he goes through. It is—you’re right, Barbara, it’s too easy to see him as a kind of pantomime buffoon. But he isn’t. He’s much more than that.

But, did you realize that when you were when you were playing Ophelia, Jude? Or did it take being a parent?

DENCH: I don’t think so. I think that’s what’s so wonderful about these plays. You may, in your imagination, understand the actions of a parent, but when you actually become a parent, then you experience what those actions are.

That’s why you can do a Shakespeare play a couple of times. But in the sequence of your own life and your experience, something will happen that actually you suddenly realize. Like, for instance, the death of one of your parents, or both your parents. You know, suddenly you experience something that only in your imagination have you had to experience if you’ve done the play before.

So, constantly you’re bringing your own experience to a rehearsal process, or certainly with your association with the other actors on stage, and definitely to the play, that you didn’t understand before.

BOGAEV: You also played Gertrude later on. Your Hamlet was Daniel Day Lewis, who infamously had a kind of nervous breakdown during a performance.

DENCH: He did.

BOGAEV: Did you sense his turmoil during the run?

DENCH: No. No. I mean… no, I didn’t. I knew of his tremendous affection for his father, and that his father had died. And, that evening, it was just… it… I think it was something that suddenly overwhelmed him in the middle of the play.

He just, I suppose, had a sort of breakdown in the middle and we paused. I went, raced up the stairs to see Jeremy Northam, who was his understudy. I said, “When was the last time you had a rehearsal for this?” I think he said something like, “Oh, about two and a half, three weeks ago.” Anyway, he did brilliantly, Jeremy.

But it, you know, playing Hamlet—my goodness. The demands on you, not only physically and vocally, but emotionally, you know, are very great indeed. If you had something like that happen, I can see why you might have to suddenly stop the play.

BOGAEV: Yeah, plenty of other Hamlets have had issues and carried the part home with them.

Well, on a very different note, I love that you call Gertrude, “Dirty Gerty.”

DENCH: Dirty Gerty. Not often, only in private.

BOGAEV: Well, I mean, she is so sexual. You and Daniel Day Lewis did play up the incestuousness and kissed each other on the lips. Whose idea was that?

DENCH: Oh, uh… I don’t know. Both of us, maybe? I don’t know.

BOGAEV: It just happened.

DENCH: It just happened.

BOGAEV: There’s so many zigzags of emotion going on in that scene. That seems—it seems to me like it must be complicated to—

DENCH: In the closet scene?

BOGAEV: Yeah, in the closet scene. How do you roll with them?

DENCH: You just do. You just go and you just play them. The audience—I don’t think the audience often… I don’t think the audience probably realize how important their contribution to a play is. You know, you can feel—actors can feel the atmosphere of an audience very, very quickly.

BOGAEV: What do you feel? This is so fascinating to me.

DENCH: You just—well, it’s to do with tension, I think. Isn’t it, Brendan? It’s to do with tension.

BOGAEV: Well, let’s see what Brendan says. I mean, how do you know, Brendan, because you’re an actor as well as a director. How do you know when the audience is lost? And just to add in this scene, this closet scene with Hamlet and Gertrude, and Polonius is lying there dead on the floor, right?

I get irrationally peeved sometimes in this scene because Hamlet and Gertrude are going through this whole big psycho drama, but he’s dead there. You’ve got a body, for Christ’s sake.

DENCH: He’s not dead at the beginning.

O’HEA: Polonius is.

BOGAEV: No, but at the end.

O’HEA: Yeah, Polonius. He stabs him through the arras.

DENCH: Yes, he does, but not at the beginning.

O’HEA: No, but what Barbara’s saying is that the mother and son are playing out this psychodrama while there’s a dead man behind the arras.

DENCH: Yes, but isn’t he killed at the end of it?

O’HEA: No, nobody’s killed.

DENCH: Doesn’t he hear a rat?

O’HEA: Yeah, but he’s killed.

DENCH: He thinks it’s over her.

O’HEA: That’s right.

DENCH: He thinks somebody’s listening. He thinks the king’s there.

O’HEA: But that’s at the beginning of the scene. That’s at the beginning of the scene.

DENCH: Is it the beginning of the scene?

O’HEA: Yeah, and then they have this extraordinary, as Barbara says—

DENCH: Oh, I need to go back and do this again. I need to go right back and do it again and act as a dead man behind the arras.

[Editor’s note: In The Folger Shakespeare edition of Hamlet, Hamlet enters the scene on line 11 and kills Polonius on line 29. The scene continues for another 211 lines before Hamlet exits.]

O’HEA: Well, you were asked to play Polonius in Ian McKellen’s production. Do you remember what you replied?

DENCH: I did write back and said, “I am not suitable for the part of Polonius. Besides which, there isn’t an arras large enough in the country to hide my arse.”

O’HEA: Forgive us, Barbara.

BOGAEV: I want to talk now about Macbeth because you say it’s one of—it’s a favorite play of yours. Also it was the reason you went into theater. What production of Macbeth was it and what about it appealed to you so much?

DENCH: It was a production done at St. Peter’s School, York, which my oldest brother—who became a doctor like my father—was in. I was taken to it. I think I was probably eight. And my brother walked on and said, “What bloody man is that?”

And, I thought, “Oh, please. This is swearing and this is Shakespeare. This is for me!” I can remember thinking. I thought, “Bloody. He said ‘bloody, man!’”

Well, nobody said “bloody” in those days. “What bloody man is that?” I thought it was so exciting. Then subsequently, of course, they did a lot of plays of Shakespeare, and I was taken to them all. We were great theatergoers, my family.

BOGAEV: But you say as a kid you wanted to be a set designer.

DENCH: Yes, I did. I trained. That’s all I wanted to be. I went to York Art School, and that’s the life I thought I would lead: to be a set and costume designer.

Then, I was taken to Stratford by my parents, in 1953, to see Michael Redgrave as King Lear. The set was designed by a man called Robert Cahoon. And it was just a huge, flat, round—looked like a poppadom, actually.  Huge, flat, uneven surface that was a revolve. And in the middle, there was a huge rock, which was either a cave or a throne or anything else it needed to be.

So, consequently, nobody brought on scenery, nobody brought off scenery, and the play was continuous. It made an, well, incredible impression on me. And that is what changed my mind.

BOGAEV: Because, what? It was just, you couldn’t even imagine coming up with something like that?

DENCH: I couldn’t imagine that. I thought, “That isn’t in my imagination.” That would never be something that I could have thought up.

BOGAEV: Well, what made you think that you would like acting more?

DENCH: I mean, the war broke out when I was five, and I was brought up, no television. We just had bicycles, and we swam a lot, and we roller-skated a lot, and we read books, and we saw plays. And drew, always, always drew. My father painted, and my brother painted, and I’ve painted.

That’s the kind of life we had. So, the only alternative it seemed to me, was acting, because I love the theater so much.

BOGAEV: That’s interesting, that what you—how you described your childhood. Because when I was reading the parts about your process and how you prepare for a role, you wrote things like doing the work for you means you have a photographic memory, and you learn the lines, but then you cannot sit still and you go off. And you go for walks, and you swim, and you play cards; anything in order to let it—what is it doing? Is it… are the lines simmering in you?

DENCH: What is it doing? I don’t know. It’s taking up a lot extra energy and things. I mean you can be very, very serious on stage and then you can be amazingly larky in the dressing room.

You know, somehow, now, looking back on all the tragedies I’ve played… the levity of everybody off stage, it seems to me, to be much more present if you’re doing a tragedy. And, if you’re doing a comedy, people are rather somber.

I mean, I only say that because of Macbeth. When we did Macbeth, at The Other Place, Ian McKellen and I. I mean, the larks we all got up to during the half were unbelievable. Just very, very funny jokes and laughing and people— And then, somehow you can distill something. And if you get rid—it’s like beer. If you think of the glass of beer, with a froth on the top. You’re going to do a tragedy, you have to get to the essence of it. You have to get rid of the froth. And in a way, that is the only comparison I can think of. What do you think, Brendan?

O’HEA: Oh.

BOGAEV: Yes, Brendan, what do you think? Is it a matter of energy, like saving the energy?

O’HEA: Oh, a comedy is much harder.

DENCH: Much.

O’HEA: Because you have to go for the truth and play the scene, but you also have an ear out listening to the timing of a joke and the audience’s reaction to that.

DENCH: You have to go for the truth in tragedy, too.

O’HEA: Well, all right. [LAUGHTER] Sorry, I was under the impression you asked me a question.

DENCH: I’ll give you a good smack.

BOGAEV: Brendan, this is an interesting question for you as a director. Judi talks a lot about how you have to do the work before you show up in the rehearsal room and sometimes other actors, you notice, want to do the work in the rehearsal room.

But, I’ve talked to a lot of directors on this program. For instance, Greg Doran talks about all the exercises they do and how so much of the work is done in rehearsal.

What about you? What’s your thought on that? Are you okay with actors coming in with less formed ideas and complete prep?

O’HEA: Sometimes, you know and I know that as being an actor you can overthink something. You come into the room and then you’re not open to what, obviously, the director gives you, but more importantly what the other actors give you. And it has to be a collaborative relationship.

One of the best directors I worked with was the late Stephen Pimlott. I did a production of King Lear with him in Chichester, with the great David Warner playing King Lear, who was, for me, one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen.

Stephen Pimlott, on Day One, said, “I know the meaning of every single line. I know where everybody should be on stage. I know everybody’s motivation. But I’ve left all of that outside the door, and what I want is what you bring into the room. And if we need—if I need to refer back to my own homework, that’s fine.”

And I thought for me that was incredibly helpful. I try to—obviously I have to do the research and do the prep and all of that. But you have to leave a lot at the door because the collective, you know, ten bodies in a room will come up with many, many more better ideas than I certainly will as an individual. And you have to be open to that. You can’t be too prescriptive as a director.

BOGAEV: While we’re talking about directors, Judi, you often say how much you enjoy working with Trevor Nunn. We were talking about Macbeth, and the second time you were Lady Macbeth, it was in 1976 with Trevor Nunn directing. What kind of director is he? What do you love so much about working with him and what does he focus on?

DENCH: He has a great sense of humor. That, for me, is very, very important, because unless you can really laugh and push it to its limit, I don’t think you can then cry or push the limit of grief to whatever level.

Working on it every day, the intensity of it, was… it was absolutely intense to the extreme. But afterwards, he remembers that all I would say is, “How many handstands can you do against this wall?” on the way walking back to where we were all living.

I mean, it is an extraordinary thing that when you’re doing a tragedy, the tension is so great that you have to somehow relieve it. And Trevor’s wonderful about that. He just remembers so many jokes and things—that didn’t go on in rehearsal room, but nevertheless, when it burst out of that tension of rehearsing for so many hours, six hours or whatever, suddenly you got very silly.

O’HEA: Well, also, humor in a room or the ability to have fun in a room allows you to fail more. And it’s only by failing do you arrive at the truth, I suppose, or your own performance.

DENCH: Absolutely.

O’HEA: You find what your mean is, where you need to be with the play.

You talk sometimes about directors you’ve worked with who haven’t made you feel safe, and or been a little tyrannical in the room.


O’HEA: And then you can’t go there can you because you’re too it’s based on fear.

DENCH: Well, you don’t dare then to do anything.

BOGAEV: I was listening to that production and to your—that first scene where you have the famous lines as Lady Macbeth, “Come, you spirits.”

DENCH: “Come, you spirits.”

[CLIP from Macbeth: Act 1, Scene 5. Judi Dench is Lady Macbeth.]

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry “Hold, hold!”

DENCH: The other day I saw Ian McKellen. I haven’t seen him for a long, long time. And I said to him, “Funny enough, a couple of nights,” before seeing him, “I thought of our production and suddenly, I suddenly realized that Lady Macbeth is much more of a villain than Macbeth is.”

She actually—her first lines when she reads the letter that he sent about the witches. She talks about him and then says, “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be, / What thou art promised.” Then she says, “Yet do I fear thy nature. / It is too full of the milk of human kindness / to catch the nearest way.

Thou wouldst be great, / art not without ambition, but without / the illness should attend it.”

And then she goes on. I think, I’m not sure it’s ever been played, that Macbeth is a quite innocent, startled man by the witches at the beginning. And here’s their prophecy. And she’s the one who takes it up and says, “Ah, ha, ha, ha. No, no, no, no, no, no. You’re going to have exactly what you want. If you want to be king, and if it means killing somebody else, I’ll be there with you.” Do you know? Does it make sense?

O’HEA: It does. It does, but that doesn’t make her evil. That—

DENCH: Who said evil?

O’HEA: Well, you said evil.

DENCH: Oh, I didn’t say evil. I just meant…

O’HEA: Or more of a villain.

BOGAEV: It makes her more ambitious.

DENCH: I’m so pleased I’m not being directed by him at this moment.

BOGAEV: It makes her ambitious, which I was going to ask you. Where does her ambition come from? And who is it for? Is it for her or her husband? Or are they the one?

DENCH: I think that—I’ve always said, I think their relationship is passionate. I think if that’s what he wants, then that is exactly— “I will aid him in getting what he wants. And if it means murder of the king, okay, we’ll have him round.”

BOGAEV: Were you and Ian McKellen talking about this? Is that what you were talking about?

DENCH: We did. I hadn’t seen Ian for ages. And we were… our very dear friend of ours, Bill Kenwright, died. This was a memorial. And Finty, my daughter and I, did something at the very beginning, cause he, Bill Kenwright, meant a great deal to us.

So, we did our bit, and Ian was appearing later. After we’d rehearsed, suddenly there was a knock on the door, and there was Ian. So, we were able to catch up after. I haven’t seen him for a long time.

BOGAEV: Well, he told some lovely stories about you getting up to hijinks at Buckingham Palace with him, when he was on the podcast—sneaking into the throne room, did you, to have a smoke?

DENCH: I can remember him sitting on a chair and thinking, “Good grief. This is the throne of England. I’m changing my pants.” I’d forgotten… Gosh, how badly we behaved.

O’HEA: In that same production, I love that story, Jude, you say about… because you always say that you love knowing that there’s somebody in the audience to play it to. And it could be a stranger, of course. You’d think each night, and then one night you decided who you were going to play Macbeth for when you were at The Other Place. And you said to Ian…

DENCH: Yes, as Brendan said, I didn’t know anybody in that night. And I just think it’s very nice thing to give a present to somebody if you know that they’re there, so you do the performance for them.

So, I said to Ian, “I’m going to pretend, Ian, tonight that God the father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost have bought three seats at the front. I’m going to do it for them,” I said.

Ian said, “That’s perfectly fine, Judi. Except they’ll only want one seat,” he said.

BOGAEV: He’s so quick. So quick. I know I have to let you go soon, but I have to leave a little time for Titania—or as you call her, Tits—in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

O’HEA: No! No, my daughter has two cats. They’re called Oberon and Titania, and they’re known as Ron and Tits. So that’s how that…

BOGAEV: Oh, I thought it was a joke, because a lot of our audience might not remember, but that production—I think it took place during the seventies, is it? When everyone was topless, basically, in Shakespeare, it seemed like.

DENCH: In the film.

BOGAEV: In the film, yes.

DENCH: Well, I—gosh, I played it at school. Then I played First Fairy at the Vic. Then I played Hermia at the Vic. Then I played Titania at Stratford. And then I played Titania again for Peter [Hall]

O’HEA: At the Rose Theatre, Kingston.

DENCH: The Rose in Kingston. Ian Richardson, oh, he was absolutely the most beautiful actor. He played Oberon. And, you know, then you have to, just in your mind worked out what this—She’s… they’re terribly jealous of each other. Terribly jealous of each other.

And she’s very angry with him. He with her. And, as she says then that wonderful speech about the seasons. “Because of this, because of us, the seasons have all gone out of kilter.” That long speech about, you know, “The ox hath therefore stretched his yoke in vain, the plowman lost his sweat, and the green corn hath rotted, ere his youth attained a beard.”

[CLIP from Midsummer, Act 2, Scene 1. Judi Dench is Titania]

The fold stands empty in the drownèd field,
And crows are fatted with the murrain flock.
The nine-men’s-morris is filled up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green,
For lack of tread, are undistinguishable.
The human mortals want their winter here.
No night is now with hymn or carol blessed.
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound.
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set. The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazèd world
By their increase now knows not which is which.

DENCH: And then she says, at the end of it, “And all this comes from our debate, we are their parents and original.”

In fact, that speech, I thought, actually at the moment, would be so pertinent. Because of—I mean, I don’t know about you, but we have nothing but rain this spring. Nothing but rain. And everything is, you know, so…

BOGAEV: You know, and the world is koyaanisquatsi. Everything’s upside down.

DENCH: Everything, yes.

BOGAEV: Judi, I want to ask you about soliloquies. For instance, let’s, as an example, Viola’s in Twelfth Night. Her soliloquy, “O Time! Thou must untangle this, not I.” Do you think of that as a dialogue with the audience, or an internal argument? Or do you always approach a soliloquy as situational, what’s going on in the play at that moment?

DENCH: It’s telling the story. It’s actually telling the story to the audience.

It’s something you share, and maybe not with the other person on stage, but you do with the audience. The audience are let in on the play, aren’t they? So they know.

But you always have an ear out for the audience because every single audience is different.

O’HEA: We disagreed a bit about this, didn’t we, because of my experience working at the Globe as an actor. Because the audience are visible scene partners, that you can only but have a dialogue with them. You can’t ignore them. It has to be a conversation with them, where they happen to not answer back.

DENCH: Well, they answer back at the Globe, don’t they?

O’HEA: Sometimes they do, and that’s absolutely thrilling. Yeah. But I suppose it’s different in a proscenium arch theatre where they’re passive spectators sitting in the dark.

DENCH: Yes, yes.

BOGAEV: What do they say back to you at the Globe?

O’HEA: Oh, I’ve… well… it’s… well I’ve had pigeons defecate on me. [Dame Judi laughs] I’ve had babies cry. Why are you laughing? I’ve had babies cry. Yes, no, it’s been—but it’s really—people faint. No, that’s thrilling. It’s less to do with what they say and more to do with a kind of reaction of people just walking out and shuffling around.

But that’s great because they’re feral when they’re at their best, especially the groundlings. You just have to kind of hold them there. But it is—it can only but be a dialogue, those soliloquies, which I think is different to a proscenium arch theater where, as I said, the audience is sitting in the dark.

Talking of pigeons and birds, you have a parrot, Jude, that you’re trying to teach Shakespeare.

DENCH: Yes, but my parrot won’t play up. My parrot says lots and lots of words. She’s called Sweetie. And she… I was given her three years ago, but—I thought, “Oh, this is a parrot that doesn’t speak.”

Then, one day, somebody came into my kitchen walkway, she said, “You’re a slag,” she said to her. And I thought,” Oh, she does speak!”

But she says—Sweetie says, “Shh.” So I go, “Shh.” She goes, “Shh.” “Shh.” We do that for a long time. But I’ve been going, “Shh-akespeare. Shh-akespeare.” No. Not a bean.

BOGAEV: She cannot be directed.

DENCH: I’ve tried. Yes, I’m going to get Brendan to try.

O’HEA: But she knows how to do the pop of champagne. And, honestly, champagne being poured into a glass, you’d be amazed. It is uncanny. It’s a—that tells you a lot about the owner of the parrot.

DENCH: But she also does that very nice thing. And when she sees the bottle, she makes sound of it being poured.

O’HEA: “Do do do do do do.”

DENCH: Very clever parrot.

BOGAEV: I probably don’t even have to ask this question now, given how you all are talking right now. It’s clear you’re a very spontaneous and playful person. but I was trying to pin down what makes you so wonderfully present and real on stage. Then, I read that you have a Quaker background and you sometimes go to Quaker meeting.

DENCH: I do.

BOGAEV: Which surprised me. So does your Quaker experience, you think, have any relationship to your work as an actor?

DENCH: I expect every relationship, everything… That thing of sitting in a room with a whole group of people, maybe, silent for an hour. Not very usual, but it has happened. Some kind of communion between everybody sitting there. Shared thing. Maybe that, I mean, it is very important to me in my life.

I suppose it’s part of my work. I don’t know. I like being with people. I don’t like being on my own. I like—I love sharing things with people. Just sharing a… I don’t know, just sharing an atmosphere.

BOGAEV: Champagne.

DENCH: So, I suppose that has got a lot to do with—champagne as well! But yes I suppose that has got a lot to do with it.

O’HEA: But, to spare your blushes, Jude, I think you do throw the focus on other people. Someone once said that to be interesting you have to be interested. And I think that’s true of good friends, good lovers, but also certainly good actors. And you do.

I think you always put the focus on the other actor, and I think that’s what makes you…you’re kind of without vanity, in a way.

DENCH: Oh, really?

O’HEA: Yeah…

DENCH: How do I look?

O’HEA: Wretched.


O’HEA: You throw the focus onto other actors and…

BOGAEV: Brendan, I don’t know if you quoted Peter Hall or this is reminding me of something Peter Hall, the director once said that the irony of theater is that the mask brings out the authentic.

O’HEA: Oh, wonderful.

BOGAEV: Yeah. It’s a wonderful quote. I’ve always… maybe I don’t—I’m not sure I understand it, but I’ve always taken it to mean that since an actor is playing another person, they’re distracted from themselves and their issues and their problems and their hangups.

O’HEA: Oh, I think that’s absolutely wonderful.

DENCH: So do I.

O’HEA: On a similar vein, Declan Donnellan says, he asks the question, “Do you play a part in order to lose yourself? Or do you play a part in order to find yourself?” And I think that’s wonderful as well.

But you’re right, that mask thing that Peter Hall said, yes, it’s through… and I think what’s, dare I say it, about this book. I mean, we didn’t know what category to put it under, whether it’s under Shakespeare or memoir or biography. But I think by talking about Shakespeare, and especially these characters, I think Jude has probably revealed more about herself in this book than she certainly has in the other books that have been written about her or by her, I think because she hasn’t been the focus.

BOGAEV: Was there anything that she forbade you to include?

O’HEA: Oh god.

DENCH: What are you going to say?

O’HEA: Well, let’s just say…

DENCH: Oh! What are you going to say?

O’HEA: Well, let’s just say the next book we’ve talked about is Lovers I’ve Known.


O’HEA: Volume 1. It’ll be longer than Gibbons’ decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

DENCH: That’s because I’m going to be actually interviewing you.

O’HEA: No, no, no. Mine will be a pamphlet compared to yours.

BOGAEV: I can’t wait to read the four volumes. But I’m so, so lucky that I got to spend this time with both of you and thank you so much for your generous sharing.

DENCH: We too, Barbara, thank you very much indeed.

O’HEA: It’s been a pleasure, Barbara, thank you.

DENCH: It’s been lovely.


WITMORE: That was Dame Judi Dench and Brendan O’Hea, talking with Barbara Bogaev.

Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent is out now from St. Martin’s Press.

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 London Broadcast Studios and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a review on your podcast platform of choice, to help others find the show.

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, D.C. 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.