Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 220
Sir Patrick Stewart joins us on the podcast to talk about how Shakespeare has shaped his life. Stewart tells host Barbara Bogaev about his Yorkshire youth, his audition for the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing Starfleet Captain Jen-Luc Picard.
Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Sir Patrick’s memoir, Making It So, is available now from Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
From the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published October 10, 2023. © 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. Leo Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Ngofeen Mputubwele in New York and Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
MICHAEL WITMORE: On this week’s episode: Sir Patrick Stewart on a life shaped by Shakespeare. From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.
Sir Patrick Stewart became famous to American TV audiences as Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Turns out, even in the 24th century, Shakespeare is still a pretty big deal:
[CLIP from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Patrick Stewart is Jean-Luc Picard.]
PICARD: Data, you’re here to learn about the human condition and there is no better way of doing that than by embracing Shakespeare.
WITMORE: For some young sci-fi fans, hearing Patrick Stewart as Picard quote Shakespeare might have been their first time hearing the Bard’s work.
PICARD: What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable; in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god.
DATA: Surely, you don’t see your species like that, do you?
Here at the Folger, Stewart helped us get through COVID lockdowns with his daily sonnet readings on Instagram.
[CLIP of Sonnet 92, read by Patrick Stewart.]
But do thy worst to steal thyself away,
For term of life thou art assurèd mine,
And life no longer than thy love will stay,
For it depends upon that love of thine.
Then need I not to fear the worst of wrongs
When in the least of them my life hath end;
I see a better state to me belongs
Than that which on thy humor doth depend.
Now, Sir Patrick has come out with a memoir, Making It So. In it, Stewart tells the story of his working-class upbringing in Yorkshire, his first exposure to Shakespeare, and his decision to pursue a career on the stage.
He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966 and worked his way up through small roles. But eventually he’d play King John, Oberon, Shylock, Titus Andronicus, Marc Antony, Claudius, Prospero, and Macbeth.
Here’s Sir Patrick Stewart, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.
PATRICK STEWART: Excuse me. My voice is a little gravelly, and it’s because I’ve been doing too much talking. But it’s still me.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Oh, no, it’s fine. We’re happy to hear your voice no matter how it sounds. In fact, I wanted to ask you to start about your voice, because you write, near the end of your memoir, that your whole career has been to a degree defined by your speaking voice.
When did you become aware of your voice as something special or something potentially special?
STEWART: Well, I have to go a long way back to the time when my first acting teacher, when I was just still a young teenager and an amateur actor. I was told after the first session that I had, that if I wanted to be an actor seriously and to play anything and everything, then I would have to learn to speak without an accent.
I grew up speaking with an accent—with a local Northern England accent. Very local. The people who lived there could almost identify by a few streets where I was born and brought up. It was so specific.
BOGAEV: This is a Yorkshire accent, right?
STEWART: This is Yorkshire, yes. I not only spoke with an accent, I spoke dialect, which means we use different words. The best example I can think of is, that when I would go to a friend’s house to see if he was free and wanted to come out, when he came to the door, I would say, “Atta lakin ot?”
STEWART: Atta lakin ot? Okay. Now, I’ll now translate it for you. Atta: art thou. And, seriously, we said “thee” and “thou” in my family and indeed, except to my father—if I said “thee” to my father I would get walloped because it was impertinent.
“Lakin.” Lakin is at least a 16th-century word, which meant “players.” And Shakespeare’s fellows, and he himself at one point, would have been called a “laker.”
And so, “Atta lakin”—are you playing—“ot.” “At.” Are you coming out to play? “Atta lakin ot?” That was how I spoke.
So, you can see, there was quite a lot of work to do, because that language was the language of my surroundings. Even in the classroom, we spoke with this dialect.
Yet it was challenging because I had to learn to speak totally differently. After a while I did, I could do it, and my teacher was very happy with my pronunciation. But if any of my friends heard me talk like that, I would be cruelly mocked.
BOGAEV: I bet.
STEWART: I mean, “Who the bloody hell does to think thou art, lad?” That is what they’d say. “Who the bloody hell does to think thou art, talking like that? That’s bullshit. Shut up.”
BOGAEV: Well, and you’re—where you come from is pretty rough. You said you had a Victorian childhood. What does that mean? No indoor plumbing?
STEWART: Actually, those are not my words. My wife, who is American, will say to people who don’t know me very well, “You must understand about Patrick, he had a Victorian childhood.” That’s her phrase.
BOGAEV: I see.
STEWART: Yes, we had plumbing. We had cold water. We had one stone sink. Our house I lived in was called a one up one down. It had one room on the ground floor. You stepped in off a cinder covered yard, and you went straight into a living room. In front of you were a couple of stone steps with a door. You opened the door and you went up to the next floor, which also had one room.
There was no hot water. There was no kitchen. There was no toilet. The only toilet was out around the corner of the house, in this yard I spoke of. Where there were four toilets, each one belonging to four houses in the yard.
So in the winter, when you had to go to the bathroom, you needed to dress for it. Put on clothes. I mean, I kept a woolen cap behind the door, which I would put on my head.
It also became my reading room because very early on, I was passionate about books and novels. They were my form of escapism.
BOGAEV: I’m starting to see why your wife calls it a “Victorian childhood.” You write about Friday was weekly bath night and that. But how did acting come into the picture for you then?
STEWART: Well, my English teacher, and from my second year in secondary modern school, Cecil Dormand. He was also an actor, an amateur actor, and director. The first play that I did was, in fact, directed by him. It had the headmaster of my school in it.
So, it was Cecil Dorman who put the first copy of Shakespeare into my hand when I was twelve. He passed out one copy, which was just this slim volume, which was one play, and then as he put it on someone’s desk, he would say, “You’re…” and would name somebody that we assumed was in the play. So, he was casting it.
When he finally got to me—and I thought I was going to be left off the list. Which, frankly, is what I wanted, because my reading out loud was not that good, and I still had a strong accent. But I was told, “Patrick, you’re Shylock.”
BOGAEV: How did the words feel in your mouth? What was your reaction to Shakespeare, and what kind of Shylock were you?
STEWART: In my mouth, they were meaningless, because in my head they were incomprehensible. The very first speech that Cecil Dorman had cast me in for this scene was about 30 lines long. When I faltered over the pronunciation, Mr. Dorman would give me the proper pronunciation and I would try to copy him.
But even though the lines were incomprehensible, something happened to me. Although I was uncomfortable, not knowing what the words I was speaking meant or how to pronounce them properly, without any doubt, I felt I was entering a new world. And I liked it.
Very soon after that, I think I’d gone home and told my parents about Shakespeare. They had told a neighbor who had told somebody else. And this is the kind of neighborhood I grew up in: A few days later, somebody knocked on our front door, and I went and opened it. There was a person standing there I knew, and they said, “Here, we’ve heard you like Shakespeare. Well, we don’t ever look at this, so it’s yours.” It was the complete works of Shakespeare, very old, a bit tattered. But I had that book. It’s still in my library in England, that book is.
I had the entire works of Shakespeare, including the sonnets, including some of the poetic pieces. And it became my world.
BOGAEV: You had to audition for the RSC. And it was a huge deal. It was what you were gunning for all along. You arrive there finally to do it, and you’re auditioning for none other than the big kahuna director, Peter Hall.
Tell us how it evolved, how it went down. And you chose some big monologues from Henry V and also Shylock’s “Cutthroat dog” [speech] from Act I of Merchant.
STEWART: Well, the—everything that surrounded this audition was challenging because I was working in repertory at the Bristol Vic Theater. The only day that I was free was Sunday. So, I got called to do my audition at six o’clock on a December night in Stratford-on-Avon.
I had a friend, Charlie Thomas, another actor who was already with the RSC living in Stratford. He said, “Come and stay with me for the night,” and “You’re only a ten minute walk to the theatre from there.”
I arrived there, drizzling with rain, very cold, a ghastly early December evening, and went to the stage door. They were expecting me, and said, “Yes, they’re all in the auditorium.” And when he said “they,” I thought, “Oh my lord, I thought I was auditioning for Peter Hall.”
But I went in, and there were four people, sitting halfway back. I walked onto a totally empty stage. They said hello and welcomed me and asked me what I was going to do. I told them, and they asked me, I think, to do the Henry V first.
BOGAEV: Was this the “St. Crispin” speech?
BOGAEV: Of course.
STEWART: “St. Crispin” speech. And John Barton—the great, brilliant John Barton—was also sitting with Peter Hall in the auditorium, along with the casting director. He came up to me and said, “Good, good, good. Well done, Patrick. That’s fine. Okay, now let’s just imagine that you’re talking to only one person. Not a group of people.”
And I said, “Really? But they’re all—”
He said, “Yeah, but let’s just invent something and say it’s a two-handed conversation. Okay. In your own time.”
So I did. Then, he came back and said, “Good, good, good, great. All right. Now you’ve got the whole British army in front of you and you’re addressing them from the top of the mound. It’s the same speech, the same words, but this time it’s for a thousand men to hear it.”
Then the penny dropped. I was being tested. I was being asked to illustrate that I could take notes, change what I was doing, even though I’d maybe rehearsed it for weeks, and come up with something totally different, totally new.
And I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the challenge of it. The excitement of, as I did the speech, finding that I was doing it quite differently from the way that I had prepared it. That was thrilling for me.
Then when I moved on to do the Shylock, and they did something of the same thing. But they didn’t pay as much attention to the Shylock as they did to the Henry V.
Then, said—Peter Hall came down to the edge of the stage and said, “All right, thank you very much, Patrick. We’ll see you in September.” And I was cast. These people… well, I came to tell myself they thought they had something in me and that gave me encouragement.
BOGAEV: Something they could mould. It’s interesting to hear you tell that story because later you played the role at Stratford; that’s Shylock in Merchant. Although you initially turned it down, because you said that there were only two traditional ways to go with that, the wolfish dog and the noble Jew. But somehow you found a third way. What was your third way for Shylock?
STEWART: First of all, the very first time I played Shylock, I was way too young. I would have been in my mid-twenties, maybe 26 or 27, and Shylock is an old man. I spent most of my time trying to be an old man and trying to do something that was alien in my nature, which was to be a Jew, because I had so little experience and I didn’t quite know what it meant. And I thought, “Ooh, maybe I should play with a foreign accent or something.” It was all banal and, in a sense, of course, truly prejudicial.
Then, I was cast in the role again. And I totally modernized him and made him a man of today, a clever, brilliant man of today who had been taken wrongly and abused and mistreated. And it made sense to me, finally.
I don’t think I shall play Shylock again. But to explore a role like that at different times in your life—because this is the wonderful thing about Shakespeare—is that you can, every time you pick up a copy of one of his plays, you know you’re going to find something new, something different.
I’ve been reading King Lear quite a lot recently. Not because I’m going to do it. But because I’ve got to be sure that I have a vision of what it might be that would be new. Not just to me, but to anyone who saw it.
That’s what has become essential for me. Because I know Shakespeare will support it.
BOGAEV: You’re reminding me that you did perform in Lear, but as Cornwall, with Trevor Nunn directing in his first season as artistic director. What was your approach to Cornwall and his viciousness?
STEWART: Vicious and violent and cruel. Shakespeare gives him that amazing line, “Out, out vile jelly,” as he puts his finger into Gloucester’s eyes and pulls the eyeballs out. I mean, that’s as horrifying as almost anything that appears in any drama I’m aware of.
BOGAEV: And it sounds like Nunn really made it that horrifying. In fact, didn’t people get sick watching it? Or is that just a story?
STEWART: We—more than once I heard people vomiting in the audience, suddenly. You know, because we set it up in such a way that—and the actor who was playing Gloucester was an elderly actor whom I loved and admired so much. His name was Sebastian Shaw. Trevor set it up in such a way that in every sense it seemed real that I was plucking out his eyes. And, in fact, I managed to actually palm an eyeball, so I would have it in my palm of my hand. That was when the vomiting would begin.
Actually, I think Trevor, in time, made me tone it down a little bit because he said, “There are people having to leave the auditorium.”
BARBARA BOGAEV: Well, one of your leading roles was King Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. At first you turned it down. Why?
STEWART: I read it and I struggled with it. It was very… it was a late play and it was very complicated and I didn’t understand it. And I saw the great Dame Peggy Ashcroft sitting in the green room of the theatre. She was the number one actress, the senior actress in England at that time.
I asked her if I could just join her for a moment and ask her a question of advice. She was lovely and said, “Yes, sit down,” and she got me a cup of tea.
I said, “Look, I’ve been offered this role of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. I’m wondering…” and she said, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it! He’s a horrible person. Just with no good qualities. He’s cruel. He kills his wife. He harms his children. Don’t do it. It’ll just make you unhappy. Because nobody likes him.”
I said, “Well, I kind of felt that. Thank you very much, Dame Peggy.”
I called the director who had offered me the role and said, “Look, I’m sorry. This isn’t for me. I’m very sorry.”
And he said, “Well, can we just meet and talk about it?” So we did.
And he listened to me saying, “This is such an unspeakable character. I can’t, and I don’t want to identify with him,” and he said. “Patrick, this man lives inside you already.” He did know something about my background, by the way. “All you have to do to play this role is let him out.”
BOGAEV: Well, what did it mean to you? Because I know you discovered in yourself, not that maybe that character lives in you, but given your childhood and your father, as I understand it from your memoir was very… he was a very tough man, very rough.
STEWART: Yes, yes.
[00:19:16] BOGAEV: Yeah. Tell me about that. What did it mean to you? Was it more about your complicated feelings about your childhood and your fatherhood and where you came from.
STEWART: I’d experienced cruelty. Psychological cruelty, physical cruelty. Not often directed at me, but directed at my mother.
BOGAEV: He was abusive.
STEWART: Yes. He was a weekend alcoholic, and when he was drunk, he could be very abusive. At one time, on the other hand, he could be very entertaining. When he was coming home from the pub or the working men’s club, we would hear him singing coming up the lane. Depending on what he was singing, we knew whether we were in for a fun night or a challenging night. And we wouldn’t know until we heard the song. Then we’d know what was going to arrive through our front door. And often it wasn’t good.
So, when the director of Winter’s Tale said, “He’s inside you.” He also went on to say, “You must understand that I will be at your side for the whole experience. And if even when we’ve opened the production you have problems you simply call me and I’m available 24/7. Because I believe that this role was made for you to play.” And I agreed.
STEWART: So I took it.
BOGAEV: How perceptive. But what was that like for you to use those memories or access those complicated feelings?
STEWART: This will sound shallow, but it was exciting. There was satisfaction and excitement to be got out of it.
I had a good friend who was an English professor at UCLA. I got to know him years ago when I was doing a bit of my own amateur lecturing. He came to see The Winter’s Tale twice at Stratford-on-Avon. The second time, afterwards, having a beer in the pub, he said to me, “You know, Patrick, I think that you would have had more popular success playing this role if the audience had not felt that who you were and what you were doing should not be made public—[that] it was private.”
Well, that still remains one of the biggest compliments that I’ve ever been paid. And it excited me enormously. I never had a chance to discuss it again with Dame Peggy. Of course, now she’s gone. It was a significant time, and I was, by then, in my forties.
BOGAEV: Yeah, you call this in your memoir, your essential realization, that this is how you become like your heroes, the people you revered. Like the actor Ian Holm, for instance.
STEWART: Ah, yes, well, Ian—Sir Ian—was my hero before I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. I saw him play Henry V. I saw him play, I think, Richard III. I was astounded by the naturalness of his performance. How real, how human, how contemporary it seemed.
When I became a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, I was able to stand in the wings and watch him working. I was able to sit quietly in a corner of rehearsal room and watch him rehearsing how it was done.
I learned so much about live theater performance from watching Ian Holm. There was nothing huge and spectacular about it, but a truthfulness and a naturalness that was awesome. I simply tried to copy it.
BOGAEV: It’s so wonderful to hear some of your stories about your early times at the RSC. In fact, you played Borachio in Much Ado, and you had your sidekick, Conrad, played by Ben Kingsley, of all people. It sounds like you two got into all sorts of trouble.
STEWART: Yes, we did. Ben joined the RSC one year after I had joined. Yes, when Trevor directed Much Ado About Nothing, I was cast as Borachio, and he cast Ben. The two of us had so much fun. So much fun, in fact, that the leading actor, who was playing Benvolio, made a formal complaint to Trevor Nunn that Ben and I were messing up the production.
BOGAEV: What? Were you hamming it up?
STEWART: No, no, we weren’t hamming it up, but we were kind of improvising. We were doing things that hadn’t been rehearsed, you know.
They were comedy things, and they were going down really well. Audiences loved them. Ben and I loved doing them. Of course, when—both of us are now knights of the theater, and we don’t mess around like that.
BOGAEV: Of course not.
BOGAEV: Not Gandhi and Captain Picard.
STEWART: The two of us, Ben and myself, were finally hauled before Trevor Nunn, the director, who said, “All right, lads. You’ve got to calm down. You’ve got to stop doing what you’re doing, straighten it out. You know, get it right.”
“Okay, that’s what I have to say. But let me tell you, I love everything you’re both doing. Keep it up.”
BOGAEV: I have to ask you about Captain Picard. You write that Shakespeare helped you crack that character from Star Trek: The Next Generation. So how did Shakespeare help in that completely different setting?
STEWART: I had been lucky enough to play several leaders in Shakespeare’s plays. Henry IV, Henry V, and other smaller characters. And I didn’t understand Jean-Luc Picard. I had never been a fan of sci fi.
He was captain of the USS Enterprise. That was the primary information I had about him. Very little information about his background—all of that came out over the seven years that we did Next Generation—but that he was a leader and had several hundred people under his command and a huge responsibility. That I’d already experienced that in playing several of the Shakespeare roles I played. In that way it helped me to get a grasp of the character.
Although, I have to say I am unimpressed by the quality of some of my work in that first season. Almost immediately from the start of the second season, I began to relax and acquire different levels of character, some of which I had to make up because they weren’t in the scripts.
BOGAEV: So can we hope for a Lear from you?
STEWART: Oh, I would love to get to the point where I could feel I’m ready. And, of course, absolutely critical would be who was directing it.
Now, I have discussed, oh, a couple of years ago with one director, who would be my first choice to direct a King Lear. Because he’s free and open and very, very creative.
BOGAEV: Who is this?
STEWART: His name is Rupert Goold. He is already becoming quite famous. What worries me is that he’s directing film now. That might mean goodbye to Shakespeare. I don’t think it will. I think he loves that work too much.
I think I’ve got to be careful that I don’t agree to do it just because I like a challenge. And of course, stamina is another thing. It’s a long play, and I wouldn’t want much of it cut. But it would be, you know, it would be a great evening.
BOGAEV: It will be. I’m going to hope for it. And I want to thank you so much for the book. It is such a wonderful romp. I really enjoyed it—and it’s more than a romp. And it’s been a lovely time with you, too, today. Thank you.
STEWART: Well, thank you. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. And I’m sorry about my gravelly voice.
WITMORE: That was Sir Patrick Stewart, interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. His memoir, Making It So, is out now from Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
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 Ngofeen Mputubwele in New York and Andrew Feliciano at 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, DC has been under construction for the past three years. But we’re looking forward to fully reopening in 2024. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu.
Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.