Ian McKellen on Playing Hamlet

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Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 194

He played Hamlet in his thirties… and again in his eighties. In between? Edgar, Romeo, Leontes, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Iago, Richard III, Prospero, and King Lear. Plus, of course, Magneto and Gandalf.

On this episode, we talk with Sir Ian McKellen. Last year, he played Hamlet in an age-blind production of the play at the Theatre Royal Windsor, returning to the role for the first time since 1971. Then, at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, McKellen played Hamlet again, speaking the part alongside a ballet dancer in a production directed by Peter Schaufuss. Now, he’s is appearing as King Hamlet’s ghost in an essay film about the play called Hamlet Within.

McKellen joined us from his home in East London for an extended conversation with Barbara Bogaev. In part 1 of our interview, we discuss the age-, gender-, and color-blind stage production of Hamlet he starred in last year, directed by Sean Mathias.

Listen to Part 2.

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published October 11, 2022. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Rob Double at London Broadcast and Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

Previous: How Shakespeare Thought About the Mind, with Helen Hackett

Next: Ian McKellen on Richard III, Macbeth, and Gandalf


Related

The Folger Shakespeare: Hamlet
Read Shakespeare's play for free online with The Folger Shakespeare.

Shakespeare Unlimited: Derek Jacobi on Playing Hamlet
We talk to McKellen's Cambridge classmate, friend, and occasional co-star Sir Derek Jacobi about his many performances of Hamlet.

"Not of an age: The history behind Ian McKellen’s Hamlet"
Sir Ian is in good company, Daniel Blank writes for our Shakespeare and Beyond blog. There's a long tradition of older actors playing Hamlet, including Thomas Betterton and David Garrick.

Transcript

MICHAEL WITMORE: Here’s a riddle: What actor played Hamlet in his 30s and then again in his 80s?

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

The unusual distinction of playing Shakespeare’s Danish prince in productions separated by half a century belongs to Sir Ian McKellen. He was a rising star of the British stage in 1971, when he first played Hamlet. In the years since, he’s taken on a number of Shakespearean roles: Edgar, Romeo, Leontes, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Iago, Richard III, Prospero, and King Lear. Not to mention playing Magneto in four X-Men films and Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings.

The second time he played Hamlet, onstage in 2021 at the Theatre Royal Windsor, he was in his eighties, and one of the most beloved stage actors working.

Then, at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, McKellen played Hamlet again. This time he split the role, speaking the part alongside a ballet dancer in a production directed by Peter Schaufuss.

Now, McKellen is appearing as King Hamlet’s ghost in an essay film about the play called Hamlet Within.

[CLIP from Hamlet Within, directed and written by Ken McMullen. Ian McKellen is Ghost]

GHOST:
If thou didst ever thy dear father love—

HAMLET: O Heavens!

GHOST:
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
Murder most foul, as in the best it is,
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.


WITMORE: Sir Ian McKellen joined us from his home in East London for an extended conversation with Barbara Bogaev. In part one of our interview, he begins by describing the age, gender, and color-blind stage production of Hamlet he starred in last year, directed by Sean Mathias.

-------------

IAN
MCKELLEN: When we were preparing to do Hamlet, COVID arrived and we weren't allowed to open the theater, but we had a cast. So, what we did is we went to the theater— the Theatre Royal Windsor, which is just in the shadow of the Windsor Castle—and we filmed Hamlet. Not on the stage, most of the time. We were in the corridors, front of house, in the cellar underneath the stage, above the stage in the flies, on the roof. That's where I met the ghost, played by Francesca Annis, who had been Juliet when I played Romeo in 1976.

But the point is, in the background was a real castle, Windsor castle, and the queen gave her permission, first to light it up at midnight. And you see it standing in for the castle of Elsinor.

Well, that film was completed before we ever put the production on the stage. It was our sort of rehearsal period. That will be coming out during the next few months. I don't quite know when.

BARBARA BOGAEV: So, have you gotten Hamlet out of your system for the time being? I mean, you've done a play, a ballet, and a film. Maybe you could do it as a musical?

MCKELLEN: It's never really been in my system. It’s not a favorite play of mine. It's a puzzle of a play, particularly when you're in it. There seem to be so many alternatives and it’s difficult to decide what you should do. But I did come back to it after 50 years, after I first played it at the… a very good age. I was 31 or something when I first played it.

[CLIP from Hamlet. Hamlet is Ian McKellen.]

HAMLET:
Together with all forms, modes, shapes of grief
That can denote me truly. These indeed “seem”
For these are actions that a man might play.

MCKELLEN: And 83 when I got to do it for the second time. But I had learned quite a lot about acting in the intervening half century and was able to apply a more relaxed attitude.

When I first played it, I rather demonstrated to the audience what they should note about Hamlet and so and so on. I was in constantly interpreting the part. When I more recently played it, I let the text speak for itself. I was much less concerned to come up with any psychological explanation for what he does or trying to put labels on him. I just did the text and found the audience was just as gripped as would've been had I been peddling some new interpretation.

But out of my system, yes. I don't think I should be doing Hamlet again. But of course, there are other parts than Hamlet worth playing. The old joke is that you start your career, if you're lucky, playing Bernardo in the first scene with a few lines, and then you might progress to play Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. And if you're any good, you might get to play Horatio or Laertes, and then may be Hamlet himself. But then don't despair because as you get older, you can still play the King, Claudius, and then his elder, Polonius. And after that you could play Yorick.

BOGAEV: I suppose with age-blind productions you can play anything. But one quote from way back in your past, I think, that really leapt out at me when I was reading about you and Hamlet was that you once said of Hamlet that, “Peter O’Toole was right when he said it was just one long wank from beginning to end. Just pure self-indulgence. And any actor more than 30 is dreary.”

MCKELLEN: Yes. Well, it would be for my—the age I was when I wrote that. I used to be bewildered when, as a teenager, I saw people old enough to be my parents, if not grandparents, playing juvenile parts. It was a bewilderment to me. Now I'm 83. Everyone's young, so it doesn't bother me anymore.

BOGAEV: When you said earlier, “Hamlet is so hard. It's full of puzzles.” What’s the biggest puzzle for you?

MCKELLEN: Well, the text. It's… Kenneth Branagh did a film of Hamlet in which he did the full text. That's all the versions that we have of the play. And notoriously the quarto version, the play printed while Shakespeare is alive, is at odds with the version of Hamlet in the First Folio published after his death.

And it's not enough to say that, “Oh, that the printers got it wrong or made some changes.” No, it's quite clear that there were an awful lot of Hamlets that Shakespeare wrote and an awful lot of cutting of that version which found its way onto the stage.

When you read the whole text, there are so many contributions and blind alleys that you attempted to go down but don't really lead anywhere. And playing for an audience, the fear is that they would frankly get bored as well as confused.

So that's your first problem. What are you actually going to say? In deciding that, you and the director will begin to create your own play out of Shakespeare’s.

Now this wouldn't apply to Macbeth, which is a short play. You can rattle it off in just two hours. Hamlet, rattled off, in the full version, would take at least twice that. Macbeth is sort of faultless in its construction.

BOGAEV: Yeah, it's so lean.

MCKELLEN: Yes, [it] has a terrifying effect on the audience. So, Hamlet is a play that you've got to gather into yourself and then deliver on your own terms? That makes a lot of demands.

And then, of course, for a young actor, that the weight of history and the number of actors who've been wildly acclaimed in the part is more than any other dramatic character that I can think of.

BOGAEV: Well, I do want to ask you about this ballet Hamlet that you just did at Edinburgh.

MCKELLEN: Yes

BOGAEV: And people who don't know about it, the Danish dancer Johan Christensen had performed this before using an audio recording of John Gielgud as Hamlet.

MCKELLEN: Yes.

BOGAVE: And then they invited you to be there in the flesh. What kinds of conversations did you have with the director, Peter Schaufuss, and Christiansen, about how this production would differ given that it's you and you're there?

MCKELLEN: People of my generation remember that Peter Schaufuss, the Danish classical ballet dancer was considered on a par with Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Well, he's still working and he has a school in Edinburgh. During the festival—Edinburgh Festival—this year, he remounted his 75-minute version of Hamlet, danced. And I was invited to come in and supply words—some of the “words, which words.”

So at an initial 10 days in London, Peter and Johan, the Hamlet—the dancing Hamlet—and I began to imagine how involved I might be physically in the production. Whether I should stand to one side or even risk getting involved. And when I went back for the final rehearsals, in the meantime, music had been written and dances choreographed.

Then I became part-director, part-actor, part-ensemble really. And there were a couple of moments when actually we discovered something. For example, when Hamlet has inadvertently slain Polonius, thinking him to be the murderer Claudius, Hamlet is initially distraught and angry, and in the play, immediately turns to his mother and berates her, and they get on with the scene. Then Hamlet picks up the dead body and lugs the guts into the neighbor room.

Well, in the ballet version, I watch the dancing Hamlet kill Polonius. As he falls to the ground, I realize who it is. I look up at the dancing Hamlet who comes back. He sees what he's done, has a moment of despair and then rushes back to continue with his mother, leaving me—the other part of his brain, his mind, his feelings—still crouched over the dead body, trying to cope with having killed a man for the first time.

So, the dual nature of Hamlet was something we could play on. Often Hamlet is in two minds: “To be or not to be,” so it was a help actually, sometimes, to have two actors playing one part.

BOGAEV: That is so interesting because I was going to ask you how you share a Hamlet now. Now I get it.

Getting back to the modern day and your age-, and color-, and gender-blind production of Hamlet last year. What struck you differently than when you were younger embodying this role? Were you drawn to different aspects of the character or the play? I noticed one critic appreciated how you slowed down and you savored the lesser-known speeches and the meditative moments.

MCKELLEN: Well, as I was saying, I tried not to put on a dramatic version of a university lecture. I increasingly think that acting is not about explaining but just presenting. You present the character; you say the words clearly. You are alert to all their subtleties. And, if there is contradiction within a speech or a scene or an act or the play itself, I don't think it's the actor’s responsibility to explain and solve the problem. I think that's what an audience does. An audience has to work when they see a masterpiece like Hamlet and get involved.

And, of course, Hamlet is constantly inviting them to be involved in the soliloquys, which he speaks when nobody else is present. Then, who else can he be talking to, than the audience? So, they're drawn into the action, and made to think, and feel, and come up with answers as to perhaps what the play is all about.

Now, that contrasts with what I was trying to do as a young man, which was saying, “I knew all the answers,” and therefore probably presented a rather partial view of the play. I’ve found this idea of not forcing anything onto the character, but letting the character rest likely on the words that he speaks, as it were.

When I was doing King Lear—a man who contradicts himself, doesn't seem to know what he's saying at one minute, and then is very alert and percept at another point—to start explaining that psychologically, it would be a bit unfair because psychology was something that Shakespeare didn't anticipate.

BOGAEV: I'm having a kind of very Los Angeles flashback as you're speaking to… it sounds more like you're letting the words or the play play you, rather than you impose yourself on the text.

MCKELLEN: Yes. Well, that's the nice way of putting it. I'm just saying, the words do speak for themselves. I'm just talking about Shakespeare. This wouldn't apply to, I think, any other playwright. These words are so immaculate, so open to interpretation.

BOGAEV: That's the other thing I'm flashing back to; another guest that we've had on this podcast, Emma Smith, who has this theory; she's coined a word for about Shakespeare called “gappiness.” That Shakespeare leaves gaps for the audience, for a reader to interpret things in a myriad of different ways to enter into the text themselves.

MCKELLEN: Yes. I don't think Shakespeare would've thought that his plays would be read. They were rarely published and in small editions. Plays existed in speeches distributed to the different actors. So, there wasn't really the book, the Bible, the complete play as people study at school and college.

My view is that the ideal is for the actors and directors and designers to present the play, try and not get in its way, and let the words go zinging through into the audience’s ears and hearts.

BOGAEV: Well, we've been talking about Hamlet and you're talking also about Lear. Maybe I'm swerving this into a different direction, but I was thinking, as I was having my Ian McKellen film festival the last few days, that you've often said how much you regret that you never came out to your parents. And that your mother died when you were very young, so you didn't have, of course, time to do it then. But you could have, perhaps, to your father when you were in your twenties.

I wondered how you think it has influenced how you play a role like Hamlet or Lear, which is so wrapped up with relationships between parent and child?

MCKELLEN: Well, you know, you—yes, you do use your own experience, but just as much and probably more you use your own imagination.

I mean, the actors are lively observers of other people. We all share the fascination of imagining that we are another person and then convincing a group of strangers that we are the other person whilst remaining resolutely oneself. How could it be in any other way? You couldn't be in the state of, sort of, ecstatic possession for three and a half hours.

BOGAEV: I suppose I was thinking it because you said everything changed when you came out.

MCKELLEN: Yes, it did, but the way my acting changed was that because my whole life I was encouraged by the laws of the land and the culture of the ‘50s to lie about myself in order to fit in. It seemed appropriate to me that my acting should be all about disguise, you know? Putting on wigs and changing my looks and not being me.

What changed when I became out was that I was happy to delve into all aspects of myself. My acting became more about revelation than disguise or lying.

Because I had a good time with my parents, but feel I let them down by not being able to be open with them, doesn't mean to say that you can't play a young man who is absolutely the opposite. You know, it's…

BOGAEV: This is reminding me of what is universally considered your finest screen performance, which is of course in Ricky Gervais's Extras.

[CLIP from the show Extras, created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.]

MCKELLEN: How do I act so well? What I do is I pretend to be the person I'm portraying in the film or play.

RICKY GERVAIS: Yeah.

MCKELLEN: You're confused.

GERVAIS: No.

MCKELLEN: It’s perfectly simple. Case in point: Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson comes from New Zealand, says to me, “Sir Ian, I want you to be Gandalf the wizard.” And I say to him, “You are aware that I am not really a wizard.” And he said, “Yes, I am aware of that. What I want you to do is to use your acting skills to portray the wizard for the duration of the film.” So I said, “Okay.”

And then I said to myself, “Mm, how would I do that?” And this is what I did. I imagined what it would be like to be a wizard, and then I pretended, and acted in that way on the day.

GERVAIS: Yeah.

MCKELLEN: And how did I know what to say? [Whispering] The words were written down for me in a script.

BOGAEV: Did you ad lib that?

MCKELLEN: Well, the way it works is you get a phone call out of the blue from Ricky Gervais, and he flatters you by saying he and Steven Merchant, his co-writer, would like to dedicate a whole episode of his program Extras, with you as the central character. If you agree to the proposition, then they would go ahead and write a script.

It was a sight unseen, I agreed to be in it. But the script they came up with was the script that I spoke. I didn't make up any of that, that was exactly as it was written. And the infuriating thing was that, as I said, admittedly very funny lines to Rick Gervais, who had written them, opposite me. He would hoot with laughter. Not once, not twice, but many, many times.

In the end I said, “Rick, you—please, will you not laugh? Let me just get it out because otherwise, one time I'll say these lines and they won't be funny and you won't laugh and that will be the take that you'll have to use.” He said, “Exactly, it’s my job to make you look rubbish so that I win the Emmy.” And he did. He did win the Emmy.  

BOGAEV: He is an imp. It's interesting because you're talking about this duality of being honest while you're on stage, while also playing a part. And that fascinates me, and it reminds me of a wonderful scene in your one-man play Acting Shakespeare, in which you break down that final soliloquy from Macbeth, the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”

MCKELLEN: Oh yes.

BOGAEV: You say in this scene, that the more you say the word, the less meaning it has. You explain how, as you say the lines, “you have to both believe what Macbeth believes, about the meaningless of existence, but also feel them with the corner of your own heart, which knows all acting is playing the fool.” Well done!

MCKELLEN: I can't improve on that.

BOGAEV: Tell me more about that, because embodying that duality seems to be what separates good acting from great acting.

MCKELLEN: Well, we're talking about Shakespeare, and acting Shakespeare is very different from any other script because of its verbal perfection.

Whether it's prose or verse—and the actor must know whether it's prose or verse. And if it's verse, there will be all sorts of hints, instructions in the rhythm, and which word comes at the end of the blank verse line, and the way one thought leads on to another and one line leads onto the next.

If you get all those technicalities and you understand the devices that Shakespeare’s used, then just to speak the line will be enough because it is so rich. You don't want to force foie gras down people's mouth.

BOGAEV: But even each “tomorrow” is a different tone and intonation than...

MCKELLEN: Well yes, because I generally played it that there would've been a time for such a word. What time? I'm thinking “tomorrow.” The rhythm of the line puts the stress on the “and”: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” So that “and” is—and the stress of the line is more important than “tomorrow.” So it’s, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”

And then you've had three “tomorrows” and you've been—it does begin to seem like a strange word, to mean “the next day.” And my point was that, maybe the repetition of the word began to rob it of its immediate meaning as life itself is losing meaning. Now that's a long explanation, but it just means that you put the stress on the “and.”

BOGAEV: Well, that's great. And the “and” makes you feel the weight, just the weight of time.

MCKELLEN: Yes, it does, doesn’t it?

BOGAEV: I'm also thinking, you've said often that you learned so much from playing Macbeth in Trevor Nunn's production. Way back in 1979, with Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth.

[CLIP from the 1979 product of Macbeth, directed by Trevor Nunn. Macbeth is Ian McKellen and Lady Macbeth is Judi Dench.]

MACBETH: If we should fail—

LADY MACBETH:
We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking place
And we'll not fail. When Duncan is asleep.
Whereto the rather his day’s hard journey
Soundly invite him, his two chamberlains
Will lie with wine and wassail so convinced
That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
A limbeck only. When in swinish sleep
Their drenched natures lie as in a death,
What cannot you and I perform upon
Th’ unguarded Duncan? What not put upon
His spongy officers, who shall bear the guilt
Of our great quell?

MACBETH:
Bring forth men-children only,
For thy undaunted metal should compose
Nothing but males. Will it not be received,
When we have marked with blood those sleepy two
Of his own chamber and used their very daggers
That they have done ‘t?

LADY MACBETH:
Who dares receive it other,
As wish shall make our grief and clamor roar
Upon his death.

MACBETH: I am settled and bend up
Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.
Away, and mock the time with fairest show.
False face must hide what the false hearts doth know.

BOGAEV: One thing in particular you’ve learned, you said, was how to direct a soliloquy into the eyes of everyone in the audience. So, what did you learn about that—how to do that?

MCKELLEN: Well, it hasn't always been the case that actors will speak these soliloquies. These monologues, these thoughts spoken out loud, were often spoken as if there were an internal dialogue. And you see that in, of course, Olivier's black and white movie of Hamlet. The soliloquy are recorded in voiceover and you'll just look at Olivier's troubled face.

When Kenneth Branagh played Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing—his own film—he spoke his soliloquy, comic soliloquy, to no one in particular, as if he were talking to himself. Well, I think Benedick becomes much funnier if he's actually talking to someone and the people he's talking to are present: the audience. And if you're talking to people, you like to catch their eye, don't you? And make sure that they're listening.

In the very small theater where we did Macbeth, in Stratford, just 120 people scattered around a circular stage. It was possible for me, not necessarily in one soliloquy, but certainly during the evening to look every single person in the audience in the eye.

And I now do that if I'm speaking a soliloquy in a larger theater; I try and give the illusion that, although I can't always see the faces, they're too far away and then the dark, it will feel to the audience that I'm talking directly to them.

People have said, “I felt you were talking to me,” when I was. And if you're talking to people, then you are surely sometimes expecting them to speak and reply, “To be or not to be. That's the question. Does anyone here know the answer?” And I think it would be a great compliment to an actor speaking that or others soliloquies to have the audience shout out an answer that would be real audience participation.

BOGAEV: I would love to see that in your next Hamlet.

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WITMORE:
We’ll continue with part two of Sir Ian McKellen’s conversation with Barbara Bogaev in our next episode.

This episode was produced by Matt Fraseca. 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 Rob Double at London Broadcast 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 positive review on podcast platform of choice.

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, folger.edu.

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

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