Antony Sher

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 94

What does it take to be a great Shakespearean? For Antony Sher, the answer is preparation. On this podcast episode, Sher talks about his experiences with the Royal Shakespeare Company and his roles as Lear in 2016, Falstaff in 2014, and Richard III in 1984. In preparing for these roles, Sher kept meticulous diaries, which he later published as books— Year of the King for Richard, Year of the Fat Knight for Falstaff, and now Year of the Mad King, which chronicles his doubts, his fears, his marriage proposal, his illnesses, and all of the life – and death – that swirled around him as he prepared for the most grueling role Shakespeare ever wrote for an older actor.
Year of the Mad King was published by Nick Hern Books in 2018. Read an excerpt on the Shakespeare & Beyond blog.
Sher is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published April 3, 2018. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, Go Get It Ready, was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Armani Ur-Rub and Philippa Harland at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Jon Barton at Nick Hern Books. We had technical help from Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Dan Stirling and Cathy Devlin at The Sound Company in London. 

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MICHAEL WITMORE: What does it take to be a great Shakespearean? Well, many of them will give you many different answers. For one though, it seems that the key – above all else – is preparation.

[CLIP of Antony Sher as Lear in King Lear]

LEAR: Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones! / Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so / That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever. I know when one is dead and when one lives.


From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. That was Antony Sher in the 2016 Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear. As he prepared for Lear – just as he did getting ready for Richard III in 1984 and Falstaff in 2014 – Sir Antony kept a meticulous diary, focusing – above all else – on his preparation. All three of those diaries have been published – Year of the King for Richard, Year of the Fat Knight for Falstaff, and now Year of the Mad King, which chronicles his doubts, his fears, his marriage proposal, his illnesses, and all of the life – and death – that swirled around him as he prepared for the most grueling role Shakespeare ever wrote for an older actor.

Sher came in recently to talk to us in detail about just how he prepares. We call this podcast Go Get It Ready. Sher is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

BOGAEV: You have such a long association with Lear. Not only did you play The Fool twice, you write in your book that Lear happened to be the very first play you ever saw performed by the RSC, and that was when you came to England from South Africa with your mother, I think. Is that right?

SHER: That’s right. On the very first weekend of being in the UK—this is in 1968—I implored my mother to come with me to a place that I regarded as kind of a mythic place, Stratford-upon-Avon. And so we traveled up on that Saturday and had booked a ticket for the matinee, and it happened to be King Lear. And it was absolutely extraordinary because back in South Africa there hadn’t been much Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: Well, Shakespeare wasn’t such a big part of your schooling or your life in South Africa. Why were you so wild to go to Stratford-upon-Avon?

SHER: There was a magazine, a British magazine, called Plays and Players, which I, sort of, pored over at home in Cape Town, and it was absolutely gold dust to me. So I knew all about the RSC; I knew all about their legendary productions. And it was part of the whole, sort of, fantasy, if you like, of coming to England, was that I was going to finally see these theaters that I had read so much about.

BOGAEV: And then you went on to experience this play, Lear, day after day as The Fool in two different productions. I imagine just hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of hours of Lear. So, finally, when you set about to preparing to play the role itself, how were you able to approach the play with fresh eyes and fresh ears? How do you shake off what you know already?

SHER: Well, it’s not a bad thing to know a Shakespeare play well because, you know, they take an awful lot of getting acquainted to. And over those previous productions where I’d been The Fool, I’d certainly developed ideas about Lear. But you sort of learn from seeing great actors play a part. You know, you have seen it work, you know it works, and yet, you have your own instincts about playing it. So I found that kind of helpful really.

BOGAEV: Well one of the things, and I suppose one of the instincts you had about it when you read the first act of Lear again, was just how much happens in that first scene. And that always strikes me too, as an audience member. There’s just such speed to the action. It’s almost comical.

[CLIP of Antony Sher as Lear in King Lear]

Give me the map there.
Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom, and ’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburdened crawl toward death. Our son of

BOGAEV: You noticed that, and you got the idea to go with the comedy, to get the audience to see that it’s absurdist theater, rather than tragedy. Tell me more about that and whether that initial insight survived all the way to opening night.

SHER: Well, you know, when Peter Brook did his legendary production of Lear, he was much influenced by an essay called Lear or End Game. And he reckoned that somehow kind of the spirit of Samuel Beckett was alive in Lear, which makes the play all the more poignant in the moments where it has to be. So it seemed like a very good way of looking at the piece. And, of course, The Fool is key to that. You know, that Shakespeare has chosen to put into the middle of this tragedy a character called The Fool.

[CLIP of Graham Turner in King Lear]

Mark it, nuncle:
Have more than thou showest.
Speak less than thou knowest,
Lend less than thou owest,
Ride more than thou goest,
Learn more than thou trowest,
Leave thy drink and thy whore
And keep in-a-door,
And thou shalt have more
Than two tens to a score.

SHER: He’s not called Touchstone like the clown in As You Like It, he’s called The Fool.

BOGAEV: Yeah, he’s an archetype.

SHER: Yeah. And he’s there in the middle of the action. So, Shakespeare clearly has this idea that there’s a kind of touch of absurdity to what’s happening. And it’s a very good way of approaching the play.

BOGAEV: Oh, that’s wonderful. You have so many influences in your work on Lear, and you write about reading John Gielgud’s anthology of wit, wisdom and infamous gaffs, called Gielgoodies!, while you were preparing Lear. And Gielgud of course played Lear way back in 1955, in a costume designed by the furniture designer, Isamu Noguchi. Gielgud said he was terribly worried because it made him look like a Gruyere cheese, right?

SHER: That’s right. And if you look at the photographs, that’s absolutely accurate. There’s this strange costume with big, kind of, holes in it. What I found strange about the story, and slightly worrying, is that it was Gielgud’s fourth Lear, and he was co-directing it with George Devine. So he was completely in control of what was happening. So you have to ask how such a very experienced actor-director could end up looking quite so foolish. But there you are, you see. That happens in theater. Sometimes good ideas are close to bad ideas, and it’s your job to try to figure out which one it is.

BOGAEV: I can see how you would be worried. I mean, here your partner is Greg Doran, he’s directing this Lear. It could all go wrong, just in very basic ways.

SHER: Well, any Shakespeare can go wrong ‘cause they’re such great plays. You know, each time you come to do one of the great ones, you’re pitting yourself against this masterpiece. You know, how are you going to fulfill the challenge that it throws you? It’s incredibly stimulating of course, ‘cause you’re working on the best plays that exist in the English language. But it’s also quite scary.

BOGAEV: Well there are so many things that can go wrong. And one of the biggest hurdles, of course, in working on Lear, is what to make of his madness. And you write about this a lot. And, in fact, you asked a number of people about this over the course of the year that you spent preparing. So what answers did you get, and which of them finally clicked for you into something you could use?

[CLIP of Antony Sher in King Lear]

No, they cannot touch me for coining. I am the
King himself.

SHER: It’s become perversely fashionable in recent years to say that Lear has Alzheimer’s. Both me and my partner, Greg, had very painful close-up views of the real thing because my mother and Greg’s father both had Alzheimer’s. I couldn’t reconcile the way Lear behaves with Alzheimer’s.

[CLIP of Antony Sher in King Lear]

Draw me a clothier’s yard. Look, look,
a mouse! Peace, peace! This piece of toasted cheese
will do ’t.

SHER: I ended up interviewing a professor of psychology, and I was immediately encouraged at the beginning of our meeting when he sat down and he said, “Now, look. Let me just make it clear, I do not believe that Lear has dementia.” And I thought, “Right. That’s interesting.” So what did he believe? Well he said, “The reason why I rule out dementia is there are three things. First of all, at the beginning of the play Lear is making big plans for the future. Planning is not something that someone with dementia is really capable of doing. The second thing is that he’s in very robust health for an 80 year old.” And then the third thing was that in the last section of the play Lear is saner, and gentler, and more loving than we’ve seen throughout the piece, and again this was simply not consistent with somehow waking up out of Alzheimer’s or dementia. So the professor’s theory was that the condition is delusional, rather than dementia.

 [CLIP of Antony Sher in King Lear]

Bring up the brown bills. O, well flown, bird!
I’ th’ clout, i’ th’ clout! Hewgh!

SHER: He’s out in a wild storm. The script says that he tears off the outer layer of clothing. And so he would catch a chill; this would turn into a fever, which would go into the brain. And at that exact point in the play he starts to hallucinate and starts to see all sorts of things that aren’t there.

[CLIP of Antony Sher in King Lear]

When the rain came to wet me
once and the wind to make me chatter, when the
thunder would not peace at my bidding, there I
found ’em, there I smelt ’em out. Go to. They are
not men o’ their words; they told me I was everything.

SHER: So that just made complete sense to me. I love it when we can apply, sort of, modern thinking about medicine to Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: It does seem though that the madness is like a key to moderating, for instance, your rage throughout the play, Lear’s rage. There’s rage in the beginning and then there’s rage during the storm.

SHER: Yeah.

BOGAEV: And I found it really interesting in your book that you decided that you needed to create a scale of rage as a performer. What kind of scale did you come up with? Is this, you know, on a scale of one to 10? And how did you use it?

SHER: Well, you know, it’s one of those things that you, sort of, plan to do beforehand when you’re thinking very calmly about the part. So, you know, you think, “Well, he’s got so many tantrums in the first part of the play that I’d better hold back a bit in this scene and just do his rage up to the level of six.”

[CLIP of Antony Sher in King Lear]

Peace, Kent.
Come not between the dragon and his wrath.
I loved her most and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery. Hence and avoid
my sight!—

SHER: So that I can go to seven in the next scene, and keep some in reserve, so that in the storm it can be a 10. But, actually, when the part is really flowing through you and the whole production is at top gear and galloping along, you no longer think in those terms, you just commit yourself to every scene. It’s one of those parts that you really do just have to absolutely go with it.

[CLIP of Antony Sher in King Lear]

Hear me, recreant; on thine allegiance, hear me!
That thou hast sought to make us break our vows—
Which we durst never yet—and with strained pride
To come betwixt our sentence and our power,
Which nor our nature nor our place can bear,
Our potency made good, take thy reward…

BOGAEV: But I do think it’s so interesting in prep that you spent a good amount of time, at least in your book, talking about how hard it was to deal with Lear’s famous lines where he’s arguing with the storm. So what was giving you such a hard time? Can you give us a insight into that line and your solution?

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

BOGAEV: You came up with an ingenious backstory though to this scene, that maybe it’s about the winds aren’t blowing yet, and the speech is a desperate plea.

SHER: Yes.

BOGAEV: Which is a different motivation. You could of come up with something else that gives different velocity.

SHER: It helped me, that, because it’s a difficult scene to rehearse because the other character is the storm.

[CLIP of Antony Sher in King Lear]

LEAR: Blow winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks.
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head. And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world.

BOGAEV: Well, Lear, of course, is not the only king in your repertoire. You’ve played so many roles in Shakespeare and so many of them, of course, are kings. One of the kings that you played was Leontes in The Winter’s Tale.

SHER: Yes.

BOGAEV: And I loved your story about a key bit of insight that you gained on a chance visit to Buckingham Palace where you saw the real thing in action, which is what you guys in England get that we can’t get here. So tell us about that 50th birthday party. What did you learn about kings that you were able to use?

SHER: Well, the audience sees Leontes cracking up badly with a condition, that again through talking to psychiatrists, I discovered there’s something called morbid jealousy or sexual jealousy, where someone becomes obsessed that their partner is being unfaithful to them when they’re not. And yet, he has to carry on being the king, trying to put a, sort of, normal face on things. And in that visit to Buckingham Palace, I was just struck by how royalty is protected by a small army of attendants round them at all time. That if you were experiencing what Leontes is experiencing, there’s kind of like these attendants that act like a buffer, a cushion, that, kind of, protect you, so that it would be possible to both be carrying on your duties and suffering this, kind of, inner trauma.

BOGAEV: Well, King Leontes, King Lear. Your first role, your breakthrough role, also a king. A king and a villain.

SHER: Yeah.

BOGAEV: And you also wrote a book about the year that you spent working on Richard III, The Year of the King.

SHER: Yeah.

BOGAEV: And Richard, of course, it’s very different kind of king, very different kind of man. Every role is different. I understand that. But looking back, do you see any through-line in, particularly, these three portrayals of royalty, and Shakespeare’s insight into what that entailed?

SHER: But, you see, I think that Shakespeare’s genius is that he writes those three kings completely differently. Richard III is fighting to become king, is fighting for the crown, and indeed, murdering people along the way in order to get it. You know, he’s ruthlessly ambitious for the crown. Leontes, he has the crown but he’s cracking up within it and having to deal with that tension. Lear begins the play by giving away the crown. He wants to retire. And then all those disasters ensue from him giving away power. So they’re three completely different and completely fascinating studies of kingship.

BOGAEV: Yeah. You very clearly explained it in terms of the three ages of humankind, right? You are acquiring as a youth, you’re trying to get to your place. And then you have it, but it’s not working out. And then at the end, the end life stage all about giving things away.

SHER: Yeah.


SHER: Yeah, yeah.

BOGAEV: Can we talk about physical presence on stage and, particularly, obviously, as Richard III, dealing with Richard III’s physicality, what was your process to find the right way to move as Richard? What choices did you make or how did it follow, flow, through your interpretation of the play? And I notice, just small things, the director, Terry Hands, and this is a quote, warned you off “sustaining a crippled position all evening.” Not a PC way to say it, but anyway. He said, “Alternate legs for God’s sakes, or you’ll go lame.”

SHER: Well, you know, the part is famous for crippling the actors that play it because it’s the third largest part in Shakespeare, and he’s very much driving the action throughout. So it’s a part that has to be played with extra energy.

[CLIP from Richard III]

Villains, set down the corse or, by Saint Paul,
I’ll make a corse of him that disobeys.

My lord, stand back and let the coffin pass.

Unmannered dog, stand thou when I command!—

SHER: And to do that with a part that size while holding your body in some kind of twisted position, which, you know, his opening speech he describes himself in very graphic terms. So, in fact, together with a physiotherapist, I worked on ways that we could play his disability in a way that wouldn’t hurt me. And at the same time in rehearsals, I was noticing that whenever people curse him, particularly when the women curse him, they use animal imagery.

[CLIP from Richard III]

Never hung poison on a fouler toad.
Out of my sight! Thou dost infect mine eyes.

Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine.

Would they were basilisks’ to strike thee dead.

SHER: And most interestingly, he’s called a bottled spider. So I began to wonder if there was a way of giving the illusion of him having more than two legs. And so the idea came about of playing him on crutches. And then the designer said that he could add extra limbs, if you like, to the image. The costume could have these long pieces coming from the elbows that almost touch the ground.

BOGAEV: This is fascinating. And so productive for that production. But that makes it even more interesting that you say in your introduction to your book about playing Richard that all the worrying about the physical challenges was partly to compensate for your feelings of inadequacy with Shakespeare’s language.

SHER: Yes. Yes.

[CLIP from Richard III]

Lady, you know no rules of charity,
Which renders good for bad, blessings for curses.

Villain, thou know’st nor law of God nor man.
No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.

But I know none, and therefore am no beast.

O, wonderful, when devils tell the truth!

More wonderful, when angels are so angry.
Vouchsafe, divine perfection of a woman,
Of these supposèd crimes to give me leave
By circumstance but to acquit myself.

Vouchsafe, defused infection of a man,
Of these known evils but to give me leave
By circumstance to curse thy cursèd self.

Fairer than tongue can name thee, let me have
Some patient leisure to excuse myself.

SHER: Being brought up in South Africa without a lot of Shakespeare around me, so that when I arrived in this country, I felt disadvantaged. I felt I was several steps behind. And I’m just eternally grateful that I’ve spent most of my career at the Royal Shakespeare Company. When I joined the RSC I kept thinking, you know, I’m being paid to be in this company. I should be paying them. I’m getting these master classes in Shakespeare. And it has served me well.

BOGAEV: But coming to Shakespeare as an outsider, and you’re a triple threat as an outsider—you’re from South Africa, you’re Jewish, you’re gay.

SHER: Yeah. Yeah.

BOGAEV: Wasn’t that paradoxically a way into Richard III for you?

SHER: Oh yeah.

BOGAEV: I mean, a help for getting over your insecurity about the language?

SHER: Sure. Yes. No, I’ve played a lot of outsiders. And my own personal life experience of being an outsider has, you know, helped enormously. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that when you’re growing up these things that differentiate you from everybody else you’re self-conscious about, and you wish you were like everyone else. And then, if you’re lucky enough to be in one of the arts, you learn that those very same things, you know, give you a different insight.

[CLIP from Richard III]

These eyes, which never shed remorseful tear—
Not when thy warlike father, like a child
Told the sad story of my father’s death
And twenty times made pause to sob and weep,
That all the standers-by had wet their cheeks
Like trees bedashed with rain—in that sad time,
My manly eyes did scorn an humble tear;
And what these sorrows could not thence exhale
Thy beauty hath, and made them blind with weeping.
Teach not thy lip such scorn, for it was made
For kissing, lady, not for such contempt.
If thy revengeful heart cannot forgive,
Lo, here I lend thee this sharp-pointed sword,
Which if thou please to hide in this true breast
And let the soul forth that adoreth thee,
I humbly beg the death upon my knee.

BOGAEV: I don’t know if this exactly applies, but you do talk about using your life experience in relation to playing Falstaff, who—we were talking about kings—I don’t know, Falstaff is a kind of anti-king, I think, in my mind.

SHER: Lord of Misrule. He is, yes.

BOGAEV: Right. And you write about using your struggle with serious dependency on cocaine to inform your role. And you play Falstaff as a serious alcoholic. That was your take on him.

SHER: Yeah.

BOGAEV: So how did that shape your performance?

SHER: Well, you know, he’s clearly drinking a lot, and there’s a way of playing him just as a jolly old chap who likes his drink. But because of my own experience with dependency that was cocaine, I just started to recognize patterns of his behavior. There are a couple of scenes, and he hasn’t had a drink, and he’s very irritable and very aggressive. And then, at a certain point in those scenes, he gets given a drink, and he changes, his personality changes.

[CLIP from Henry IV, Part 1]

Give me a cup of
sack to make my eyes look red, that it may be
thought I have wept, for I must speak in passion,
and I will do it in King Cambyses’ vein.

Well, here is my leg.

And here is my speech. Stand aside, nobility.

SHER: What I liked it about it, it kind of took... You know, the role is known as a great comic role, which I found intimidating because I’m not specifically a comic actor. But I am a character actor. And by making him an alcoholic and various other things, I was able to just see him as this fantastically rich character, and getting the laughs was simply an added bonus.

BOGAEV: That makes so much sense. Because I’ve seen so many actors do Falstaff and play him more like a kind of clown. And in contrast, your Falstaff has a dignity.

[CLIP from Henry IV, Part 1]

Shall the son of England
prove a thief and take purses? A question to be

O Jesu, he doth it as like one of these harlotry
players as ever I see.

Peace, good pint-pot. Peace, good tickle-brain.—
There is a thing, Harry, which thou hast
often heard of, and it is known to many in our land
by the name of pitch.

SHER: The great American Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom says that Falstaff, along with Hamlet, are two of Shakespeare’s greatest creations. It’s because Shakespeare does give him three dimensions. And there’s his fear of aging, his fear of dying, and then of course the whole play builds up towards that very poignant last scene where he is rejected by his best buddy, a pal who has now become King Henry V and cannot have the Lord of Misrule at his side anymore. And it’s a very powerful and very sad scene. But the whole play’s been building to that. It is in the writing. So I think actors who don’t play all his dimensions are simply losing out because it’s so fantastically well written.

BOGAEV: I want to step back for a moment from specific roles to just the more general observation about Shakespeare’s language. And you’ve written about how Shakespeare’s language feels very different in your mouth as an actor from Marlowe’s words or other writers of the period, their language. Tell me more about that. How so?

SHER: Well, it’s something that, as an actor, you simply can sort of taste them, almost like food. And there’s something absolutely particular to the taste of Shakespeare’s language. Now I happen to have played not only Marlowe, but several of the other Jacobean playwrights, Massinger, Marston. And it’s so interesting how they almost struggle with the iambic pentameter—Marlowe by making it very regular. You know, that da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum beat.

BOGAEV: Yeah. They call it Marlowe’s mighty lines.

SHER: Marlowe’s mighty lines, which can become mightily monotonous after several hours. But the other ones, their use of the verse structure becomes quite awkward and jagged. And it’s not that they don’t write terrific plays and terrific characters, but when you’ve played them and you come back to Shakespeare, it’s simply remarkable.

BOGAEV: I know I have to let you go, but just one more question. You’ve done Prospero, Leontes, Richard, Lear, Macbeth, Falstaff. What’s left in the repertoire that you would be burning to do?

SHER: [LAUGH] Well, there isn’t. Because, you know, Shakespeare wrote three great roles for older actors, and I have done them now. So there’s nothing left in the Shakespeare canon. I don’t know. Maybe some terrific modern play will come along and I’ll do that, or maybe I’ll just start to take things a bit easier and write more books and paint more paintings.

BOGAEV: Is that freeing then?

SHER: Well, it’s been such a rich experience. I’ve been very, very lucky. But I think it has sort of come to a natural end.

BOGAEV: Well, sadly, so has our conversation. Thank you so much.

SHER: Oh, well, thank you.

BOGAEV: It was a pleasure talking with you and getting to hear about your work. Thanks so much.

SHER: Thank you very much.

WITMORE: Antony Sher is a painter, an author, and a member of the Royal Shakespeare company. His newest book, detailing how he prepared for the RSC production of King Lear, is called Year of the Mad King. It was published by Nick Hern Books in 2018. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Go Get It Ready was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Armani Ur-Rub and Philippa Harland at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Jon Barton at Nick Hern Books. We had technical help from Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Dan Stirling and Cathy Devlin at The Sound Company in London.

If you’re enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited, we hope you’ll do us a favor. Please consider rating and reviewing the podcasts on whatever platform you get the podcast from. When you do that, it helps us get the word out to people who haven’t heard it yet. Thank you.

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.  You can find more about the Folger at our website,  For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.