Derek Jacobi: Playing Hamlet

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 91

Renowned actor Derek Jacobi talks about the Shakespearean role for which he is best known, Hamlet. Beginning at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1957, Jacobi has acted this role on stage nearly 400 times, and as you can imagine, he’s devoted hours to thinking about Hamlet’s words, Hamlet’s motivations, and the best way to play the role. Derek Jacobi was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. 
This is the first of a two-part interview. In part two, Derek Jacobi talks about his career more broadly, including sharing the stage with Laurence Olivier, performing King Lear in 2010, and a struggle with paralyzing stage fright that drove him away from the theater for two years in the 1980s.
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published February 20, 2018. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Do not saw the air with your hands, thus,” 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. Special thanks to Janet Alexander Griffin, the Folger’s Director of Public Programs and Artistic Producer. We had production help from Michelle Morton at the Royal Shakespeare Company, James Ranahan and Paul Taylor from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Cathy Devlin at The Sound Company in London. 

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MICHAEL WITMORE: When it comes to performing Shakespeare, some people just know how to do it right.

[CLIP of Sir Derek Jacobi in Hamlet, 1980]


My father’s spirit—in arms! All is not well.
I doubt some foul play. Would the night were come!
Till then, sit still, my soul. Foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes.

WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s Director. The actor you just heard was, of course, the remarkable Derek Jacobi. For 75 of his 80 years on Earth, give-or-take, Jacobi has been performing Shakespeare. And for more than 60 of those years, he’s been sharing his passion and his talent with the public.

We had the pleasure of sitting down for an extended conversation with Jacobi at the end of 2017. In this, the first of a two-part presentation of that interview, he talks about the Shakespearean role for which he is best known: Hamlet. Beginning at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1957, Jacobi has acted this role on stage nearly 400 times, and as you can imagine, he’s devoted hours to thinking about Hamlet’s words, Hamlet’s motivations, and the best way to play the role. He brings us the benefit of all that thought now, in what we think will be a treat for theater lovers, Shakespeare lovers, and lovers of great acting. We call this podcast:

[CLIP of Sir Derek Jacobi in Hamlet, 1980]

           JACOBI as HAMLET: Do not saw the air with your hands, thus.

WITMORE: Derek Jacobi is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: I wanted to start with the voice, because you are so known for how effortlessly, it seems, and how naturally you speak Shakespearean verse. I was thinking that we lucked out recently, and had the director of the San Diego Old Globe Theatre on our podcast, and he gave us a masterclass in Shakespearean acting. He said, among other things, and, you know, this is rather beginner level, I guess, “Pound the verbs,” that Shakespeare is all about the verbs. And he also did an exercise where he has the actors pause after each line, and quickly inserts a question, that each line answers a question. I wondered if there are some of these techniques that you have made your own, or if you have your own techniques, to preserving spontaneity, and to deliver poetry so naturally.

SIR DEREK JACOBI: I think spontaneity is the key word. I think whenever you're doing any play, be it contemporary or Shakespearean indeed, you have to believe that what you are saying is an expression of what you're thinking, so that it is spoken thought. It's the way you phrase things. So, the Shakespearean dialogue comes out, actually, in a real and accessible way. It is all to do with attitude. It's, in a sense, not what you say; it's the way you say it.

[CLIP of Sir Derek in Richard II:]


For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings—
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed,
All murdered. For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be feared, and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable;

JACOBI: An audience often have a problem grasping the meaning of everything. It is archaic in many respects; it is poetic. But, I think a healthy disrespect for punctuation is essential. It has been lasted 400 years, and if you want to put a full stop where there wasn't a full stop, or a comma where there wasn't a comma, you put it there. The basic word for me is attitude. As long as your attitude is right, the audience can, from your attitude, understand what you're saying, why you're saying it. Actors do this quite naturally in contemporary plays, quite naturally. But as soon as a lot them come to Shakespeare, they still see the page in their heads. And it's to get that page out on the stage. Forget the page, put it on the stage. That, for me, is essential; it's not easy. And I think, again, a healthy disrespect for the verse, as such—in that there is a bloom on all of Shakespeare's phrases. There is a bloom of poetry which is indestructible.

[CLIP of Sir Derek in Richard II continues:]

… and humored thus,
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell, king!

JACOBI: And I think if you're playing a king, for instance, you must play the man inside the king, and if you're playing a man, play the king inside the man.

[CLIP continues:]

Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence. Throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends. Subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?

BOGAEV: I want to pick up on what you were saying about punctuation, because we dug up, at the Folger, an old interview that you did for Shakespeare Quarterly back in 1985, and you talked about exactly this. That you said you were playing Much Ado

[CLIP of Sir Derek in Much Ado About Nothing:]

BENEDICK: This can be no trick!

BOGAEV: …and you gave an example of how you can just change the punctuation—

JACOBI: Oh, yes, I remember that.

BOGAEV: —and get a totally different meaning. And this was at the end of the gulling scene.

JACOBI: That's right. That's right.

BOGAEV: Where Benedick comes out of hiding.

JACOBI: That's right. And he's heard that Beatrice is in love with him.

[CLIP continues:]

The conference was sadly borne; they have the truth of this from Hero. They seem to pity the lady.

JACOBI: And if I can remember correctly, he says, "Love me? Why, it must be requited." That’s the obvious way to say it, but I am cheap. I wanted a laugh.

[CLIP continues:]

            Love me? Why? It must be requited! I hear how I am censured.

So I said, "Love me? Why? It must be requited.” And the "why?" got a big laugh.

BOGAEV: [LAUGHS] Why did you want a laugh there, though?

JACOBI: I wanted a laugh all the time. It's a comedy.


JACOBI: I told you, I'm cheap.

BOGAEV: [LAUGHS] I remember someone—didn't someone give you, or someone is known—is it Dame Edith Evans, for giving the advice how to get a laugh—

JACOBI: Oh, yes.

BOGAEV: —is just to always read the line as if it's dirty.

JACOBI: That's right. Yes. I was there when she said it. She played my mother in a production, directed by Noël Coward, of his play Hay Fever, and Edith played my mum, and that was one of the things she said.

BOGAEV: Well, you also, in this interview, said something very interesting about playing Prospero.

[CLIP of Sir Derek in The Tempest:]


Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?

BOGAEV: You'd found a line in Act IV where he talks about "my old brain.” First of all, how does that change your Prospero? What did you do?

JACOBI: Not really, really. What I think—not change my Prospero, but what something it was based on was… I reckoned that he was young enough to be sexually active. I put him at about 45, because he refers to Miranda as being a third of his life, and in the text, she is 15. So, I thought, when he says, "She's a third of my life," he either means that the trio is Prospero, Miranda, and Ariel, or, indeed, Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban. But I took it as being numerical, which actually explains a lot of his treatment of Ferdinand, which I thought maybe comes from jealousy.

[CLIP continues:]


And ’twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up
The pine and cedar; graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art.

BOGAEV: Is this what you mean when you said in that interview that what makes playing Shakespeare so marvelous for you is detective work. Is this what you meant by detective work?

JACOBI: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely, yes, because, you know, the fact that we're still playing Shakespeare 400 years later, and it's still alive and exciting and viable and true is because every actor who plays these parts finds something else, finds a nugget of truth for them, which really makes the plays live. It all goes back to that word I keep using: attitude. An audience immediately responds to attitude. And in the theater particularly, it can be expressed vocally, physically, And the combination of the two, I think, makes Shakespeare accessible. It must sound like spoken thought, not regurgitated verse. Spoken thought that has a reason that it is expressed. It has a journey to make. It asks for a response. When it's mere recitation, it is the most boring thing in the theater.

BOGAEV: So, for you, it does come back to that kernel of meaning for you, that you follow your detective work, and you follow that thread. Because there's a cliché about American actors versus British actors, which I imagine you've heard, when it comes to Shakespeare, that goes back to the 1950s and the creation of the Actor's Studio, and this idea that—it's always been that American actors will explore the character first and put the language second. But British actors put the language first, and put the character second. But it sounds as if everything you're saying here about you suggests that you take this approach, this American approach, of thinking through the character first, and motivation first.

JACOBI: I think it's a combination of both. I think, of course, you find your character; then you—and how do you find your character? You find it, really, by what you say—what you are saying indicating what you are thinking—and that makes it real. Rather than a particular character, I think situation is important. Anybody can play Hamlet. It can be fat, thin, male, female, black, white, whatever. Hamlet is the big personality role in Shakespeare. Hamlet is you: how you sound, how you look, your personality, your charisma. But what makes your Hamlet identifiably different is how you react to the situations in which Hamlet finds himself.

[CLIP of Sir Derek in Hamlet:]


O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on ’t, ah fie! ’Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this…

BOGAEV: Let's talk about your Hamlet, because there's so many people who've said that yours is one of the best performances of that role, of all time, and you've said in the past that, as you're saying now, really, that there are all of these different kinds of Hamlets, and they're political and they're emotional and they're intellectual and they're spiritual.


BOGAEV: And physical! I just saw Benedict Cumberbatch in the most physical performance of Hamlet I've ever seen. He was pouring sweat. It was like a decathlon. And that an actor must just choose one area for emphasis. So, when your big turn came, and I—because you've played, I think, Hamlet five times? Is that right?

JACOBI: Yes. I've—all together—

BOGAEV: Many times.

JACOBI: All together, nearly 400 times.

BOGAEV: Well, I mean, five different times in your life.

JACOBI: Yes. Yes. Including—

BOGAEV: And starting with your—

JACOBI: The telly.

BOGAEV: With high school.


BOGAEV: And I think your big turn might have been in your 40s.

JACOBI: Yes. I was 40 when I first played Hamlet professionally.

BOGAEV: Well, which Hamlet did you choose, and why?

JACOBI: I suppose the Hamlet that came out of me at the age of 40.

[CLIP of Sir Derek in Hamlet:]


If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?


“Seems,” madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems.”
’Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed “seem,”
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passes show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

JACOBI: I tried to be true. I know that sounds a bit po-faced, but I just tried to be true to myself, to the play, and to Shakespeare.

[CLIP of Sir Derek in Hamlet:]


(… frailty, thy name is woman!),
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears—why she, even she
(O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourned longer!), married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules.

BOGAEV: Well, your Hamlet was very vulnerable, and very emotional.

JACOBI: Very vulnerable. Yes. It kind of developed over the years. I mean, when I was a schoolboy, of course I tore “a passion to tatters.” I was very passionate and shouting and ranting all over the place.

BOGAEV: I think you said, what you lacked in technique, you made up in volume.

JACOBI: In volume. Yes. I was very loud. Yes. Very energetic, but as time went on, I calmed down. I became more thoughtful, more intellectual, and hopefully more interesting.

[CLIP of Sir Derek in Hamlet:]


Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio—a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning?

JACOBI: We talked earlier about detective work in Shakespeare. A part of my detective work on Hamlet, certainly was that—for me, I did it, and it seemed to work—I played "To be or not to be" not as a soliloquy, but as a speech to Ophelia.

[CLIP of Sir Derek in Hamlet:]


To be or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them.

JACOBI: I've played it with four different Ophelias. Each one said how much that helped her performance, because she is the one that does the things that he talks about. She goes mad. She commits suicide. And he talks about it. But could he have planted it in her head?

 [CLIP continues:]


For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?

BOGAEV: And what does it mean that you were speaking directly to her? She was there, and you turned your body towards her, and she was reacting?

JACOBI: Oh, no. I looked in her eyes. I spoke it to her, for her benefit. You have to presuppose that they are intimate. They are a couple. They are a pair. He has been wooing her. All the presents...

BOGAEV: Right. And in the scene before that, Claudius says, "affront Ophelia.” He says that, to Hamlet. Yeah.

JACOBI: Yeah. That "we have closely sent for Hamlet hither, / That he, as twere by accident, may here / Affront Ophelia.” He's been sent for. He's not wandering around, thinking these thoughts in a vacuum. He's on his way to a place.

[CLIP continues:]


Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country…

JACOBI: We've also been told that lately, whenever there was a chance of them meeting, she runs away. No: she's there. There's no indication that she's going to run away. She can't. Her father and Claudius have put her there for a specific purpose, and she knows they are listening. They've got to hear her conversation with him. So, immediately, something is wrong, but from Hamlet's point of view, this is a chance to speak to somebody of whom he is very fond. “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum,” he says in the grave scene later. And this is a wonderful opportunity to say, "This is where my head is. This is where I'm at. This is what I'm thinking."

 [CLIP continues:]


Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.—Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia.

JACOBI: And then at the end, he says, "Nymph, in thy orisons, be all my sins remembered.” She's there with a prayer book, and he's saying, "Well, remember me in your prayers.” And then he goes to leave.

She then says, "How does your Honor for this many a day?” What? After what I just told you? "How does your honor for this many a day?” There's something fishy here! First, she's there: she didn't run away. Now she's—that's a non-sequitur, what she said. Oh, I've got it! We don't need arrases twitched, we don't need any of that. He knows: she's a set-up. She's a set-up.

 [CLIP continues:]


I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.  What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery. Where’s your father?

BOGAEV: I don't know if this—let me go out on a limb here. I was thinking as I was preparing this, that your Hamlet, and all the thinking that you're explaining to us now, was happening after you had had your star-turn on television as I, Claudius, for the BBC. Is that right?

JACOBI: Yes, it is, actually.

BOGAEV: And then you were—right. And then you went on to do this Hamlet at age 40, and you were billed on the marquee as Derek "I, Claudius" Jacobi in the role of Hamlet. So, I'm wondering, did I, Claudius influence your interpretation or your performance in any way? And I'm thinking that for that TV role, you had heaps of make-up on you, for the old Claudius scenes, and it's almost as if you came to Hamlet and you were practically naked on the stage, in comparison.

JACOBI: Yes. That's true. That's true. And I think it's an indication that, actually, my heart is in the theater. That's the medium that I love, and I've always felt most comfortable in. It's like that is my true element, and has been for most of my career. I like the fact that as an actor on stage, the actor is in charge. He is making all those artistic and creative decisions that are made for him when he's acting in front of a camera. On stage, you can see the actor head-to-foot all the time. He acts with his body and his mind and his soul and his spirit and his heart and his voice.

That is a skill. That is a craft. Both lovely words. Another word for it is “trick.” There's a degree of trickery in acting. It's like John Gielgud. He said when he was doing Lear eight times a week, that half the week he sent “technique” on. It's a trick. It's a trick. I'm not sure how I can explain it. But, from the audience's point-of-view, it's indistinguishable from the real thing. The real thing being when you are totally, totally immersed, and in a state where spontaneity can take place, and spontaneity is a rare, rare thing in stage acting, I think. You have to be really-have to have let yourself go, but at the same time be totally in control. But there's a little element of you that is free to fly, surrounded by this tight control. And when that happens, it's wonderful. So as far as job satisfaction goes, give me the theater every time.

BOGAEV: Well, it has just been marvelous talking with you. Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this.

JACOBI: My great pleasure. Thank you.


WITMORE: Derek Jacobi first performed the role of Hamlet publicly in 1957, and over the next 60 years has played it nearly 400 times. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. This is the first of a two-part interview with Jacobi. In part two, he talks about his career more broadly, including sharing the stage with Laurence Olivier, performing King Lear in 2010, and a struggle with paralyzing stage fright that drove him away from the theater for two years in the 1980s.

“Do Not Saw the Air with Your Hands, Thuswas 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. Special thanks to Janet Alexander Griffin, the Folger’s Director of Public Programs and Artistic Producer. We had production help from Michelle Morton at the Royal Shakespeare Company, James Ranahan and Paul Taylor from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Cathy Devlin at The Sound Company in London.

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

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.