Steven Berkoff: Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 104

Since the 1990s, playwright and actor Steven Berkoff has been traveling the world performing a one-actor show called Shakespeare’s Villains. Berkoff promotes the show’s examination of Iago, Shylock, Richard III, the Macbeths, and others as “A Master Class in Evil”—fitting, coming from the actor perhaps best known for playing Beverly Hills Cop’s Victor Maitland.

Now, Berkoff has made a film of his performance. With additional material from Henry V, it’s called Shakespeare’s Heroes and Villains. We invited Steven Berkoff in to give us his thoughts on what Shakespeare’s villains have in common and why they hold such an enduring appeal. Berkoff is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Watch Berkoff’s Shakespeare’s Heroes and Villains with a subscription to Drama Online.

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, Spotify, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published September 4, 2018. ©Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “I Am Alone the Villain of the Earth,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California and Aidan Lyons at the Sound Company in London.

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Transcript

MICHAEL WITMORE: In real life, everyone loves the good guys. In Shakespeare, though… it seems a lot of us really love the bad guys.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Since the 1990s, playwright and actor Steven Berkoff has been traveling the world with a one-man show titled Shakespeare’s Villains. It’s fitting, coming from the actor many of you know best as Victor Maitland in Beverly Hills Cop, that Berkoff promotes the show’s examination of Iago, Shylock, Richard III, the Macbeths, and others as “A Master Class in Evil.”

A film has now been made of that performance and, with additional material from Henry V, it’s called Shakespeare’s Heroes and Villains. We invited Steven Berkoff in to give us his thoughts on why these monstrous characters hold such an appeal. We call this podcast I Am Alone the Villain of the Earth.

[CLIP of Steven Berkoff as Coriolanus in Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains:]

BERKOFF as CORIOLANUS:
You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As reek o' th' rotten fens

WITMORE: Steven Berkoff is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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[CLIP of Berkoff as Coriolanus (continuing):]

CORIOLANUS:
I banish you!

BARBARA BOGAEV: When you first started performing this piece in the 1990s, the title was Shakespeare's Villains and you primarily focus on villains throughout the film. So, why villains?

STEVEN BERKOFF: Well, I decided to make a one-man show on Shakespeare's characters, and I found, by just chance, I was leaning more towards the dark characters, and I thought "Well, why not make the program devoted to villains?" And this, I thought, might be interesting, because it gives an insight into the kind of behavior, the psychological behavior, of people not only then, but even today.

I found, as I was studying them, that they shared certain characteristics and they would be keen to express these characteristics as a means of justification for their actions. Therefore, they can be... in a way, they feel they can purge themselves from any sense of real guilt, because somebody did something to them. That's really what drew me to them.

BOGAEV: That's so interesting that you say that, because, thinking of villains, I was just going to ask how you would define a Shakespearean villain, but as you're describing what interests you about them, I'm thinking about the ways in which villains in films have... there's so much exposition, there's always this point where they, as you say, justify themselves or reveal their interior neurosis.

BERKOFF: Yes, of course, yes.

BOGAEV: So how do you define a Shakespearean villain?

BERKOFF: Well, you define him or her, really, by someone who is manifestly in pain, somehow self-righteous, suffering from a sense of entitlement.

[CLIP from Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains:]

BERKOFF: Cassio, who is Othello's lieutenant, who has been employed over me, gets blinding drunk one night, organized by me. Why? Because I can't stand him. He has taken my position. I should be the lieutenant, so I try to ruin his reputation. It's a terrible thing to lose your reputation.

BERKOFF: That's what character... They're always in a perpetual state of grief, whereas another character evolves, he develops, according to the stimulus coming into the daily life, but the villain clings to his particular obsession.

[CLIP from Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains:]

BERKOFF: Schadenfreude. Sounds a little like Chardonnay, Iago's favorite wine. Anyway, Cassio comes to me. "Iago, what can I do? I got blinding drunk last night. I've lost my reputation in front of Othello, in front of the force. Oh God, I'm so humiliated." "Hey, Cassio, chill out. There's a solution. All we have to do, is go to Desdemona. She has the ear, amongst other things, of Othello and she will plead your case."

BERKOFF: And so that's interesting, they all have something to say about the fact that they haven't been included. Now, not to be included in society means you're a perpetual outsider, so that's why I chose to do the villains, because they all had something very much in common.

BOGAEV: Yes, and you explain that and talk about that in such a vivid way in the film that it would seem that you can break villains down into a whole slew of categories, as you do, clever and stupid and mad...

[CLIP from Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains:]

BERKOFF: Clever villains, stupid villains, mad villains, banal villains, insane villains, psychotic villains, comical villains, surrealistic villains...

BOGAEV: But the one thing that they all seem to have in common is that they are unlovable.

[CLIP from Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains:]

BERKOFF: Bitter love, sour love, sweet and sour love, crazy love, insane love, psychotic love, passionate love, jealous love, love, love, love...

BOGAEV: So they all have this in common, but how did you choose who made the cut among Shakespeare's villains for your show? Because some of them, like Iago and Shylock and Richard III, that's all predictable, but at one point in your stage show, you also included Hamlet.

BERKOFF: Well, I had played Hamlet many years ago and I thought "This gives me a kind of a little bit of an easy journey, I know the speech," and I do a commentary after each speech. I found I was finding, in fact, villainy even in the heroes, that they all have a little touch, a twist somewhere, and Hamlet certainly does, because his abuse of Ophelia goes beyond what might be, say, justified. And you see later how he loves death.

BOGAEV: So how does that infatuation or this fascination with death, that moment, play into your theme of villainy? Because you also point out that Shakespeare places sex and death very close together in Macbeth as well.

[CLIP from Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains:]

BERKOFF: As if sex and death occupy the same motel, with only a very thin wall between them.

BOGAEV: So what does that mean to you? How does it inform Macbeth's villainy?

BERKOFF: Well, Shakespeare's a very, very acute, perceptive analyst, but he does this unconsciously, because he is a genius. He is able to take from the raw material to find that vein of gold and he does this, and we find that when even Macbeth says to his wife Lady Macbeth:

[CLIP of Berkoff as Lady Macbeth and Macbeth in Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains:]

BERKOFF as LADY MACBETH:
Such I account thy love. Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valor
As thou art in desire? Would thou have that
Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting "I dare not" wait upon "I would,"
Like the poor cat i' th' adage?

BERKOFF as MACBETH:
                                    Prithee, peace.
I dare do all that may become a man.
Who dares do more is none.

BERKOFF: Immediately after, he starts talking about love and sex, quite unconsciously, as a kind of metaphor.

[CLIP of Berkoff as Macbeth in Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains:]

MACBETH:
                        Bring forth men-children only,
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males. Will it not be received...

BERKOFF: Within 60 seconds of agreeing to murder the king, he's talking about bringing forth men-children and being a wonderful, proud mother. No less than Hamlet does mention this. It's after he's killed Polonius and his mother Gertrude is momentarily distraught, but then, because this is a reflex action in Shakespeare, he is suddenly talking about sex. He says,"Go not to my uncle's bed. Assume a virtue if you have it not. Refrain tonight, and that will lend ease to another night, and the next more easy." So there is this curious feature in the characters, how the sex and murder are often so close together.

What she is... his wife, Lady Macbeth, is, as Shakespeare always has, she is a catalyst. And it's also quite interesting how she uses sex to drive Macbeth to the goals that she has set for him, and she says, "Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thought, unsex me," interesting use of words.

[CLIP of Berkoff as Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains:]

LADY MACBETH:
                        ...unsex me here
and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty.

BERKOFF: What does she mean by this? Shakespeare seldom uses any words that aren't absolutely vital and functional. So what does he mean when he says, "unsex me here"? Well, it means, take away my sex, take away my womanhood, take away my fragility, take away my femininity, take away my softness, take away my weakness, take away that which men perceive in women to be their highest feature, their nurturing, their nourishing, their protecting. Take it away, rip it out, tear it all out of you. And what are you left with? A male.

BERKOFF: She has driven away any of those finer sensitive feelings of the female, which might just deter her passion to have the king killed, might just give her a little too much awareness. But then I say, of course, Macbeth has become the female.

[CLIP of Berkoff from Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains:]

BERKOFF: Uncertain, not knowing what to do, what decision to make. Can he or can't he do it? He doesn't know and it's terrible. Because when you have a dilemma, you have a decision to make, and you don't know what to do, the more you wait, the more that virus of uncertainty curdles within you and poisons you. So if you have a decision to make, even if it's the wrong one, it doesn't matter, make the decision. Perhaps you can amend it, but if you don't make any decision, you just slowly but surely decay.

BOGAEV: Well, you draw up these really provocative ideas in the midst of your beautiful performances, and one of them is that you say that people are drawn to villains because we almost all have an unfulfilled villain within us. Tell me more about that, because we all certainly have the capacity for evil, but for true villainy, when I think about it, the absence of empathy? I don't know if I believe that.

BERKOFF: Well, we are a combination of characters. We are in our modern world, with all the stimulus we have, we're an amalgam of many, many things, and parts of us... we're lovers and we're villains and we're philosophers, and we're greedy and we're generous. We're mixtures of so many different things, and we can be moved in so many different ways. And when we see a villain and he's doing something completely obnoxious, but if he does it wittily, then we think, "Oh, it's funny."

But when Richard III goes on his murdering rampage, he does it with such wit that we like him. The audience alll laugh. There's something about the villain which touches something deep in us, we have deep in us a form of villainy. It is a cancer which we all have a cell of. There's, maybe in the back, there's a tiny germ that can be provoked and it is often easily provoked in times of anger, conflict. And this little cell, when it sees someone like Iago, or Macbeth, or Richard, that little cell starts to beep. It starts to light up a bit, it can be stimulated, the same way a cell could be stimulated by a noxious drug, a noxious substance. And so I think we all have this ability to be villains, yes.

BOGAEV: It's infectious, and you say that in your section about Richard, who you seem to really relish. You say in the film that Richard is the favorite villain for actors to play, that Richard gets inside your blood, it infects you. Is that your personal experience from performing Richard?

BERKOFF: Well, I think it is.

[CLIP of Berkoff as Richard III in Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains:]

BERKOFF as RICHARD III:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York,
And all the clouds that loured upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our bruisèd arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barbèd steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

BOGAEV: Well, from the point of view of an actor, you say of Richard, he's the clever villain, with a mind like a laptop computer, and that he can say "Off with his head" with the same feeling as "Another lump of sugar, please."

BERKOFF: That's correct.

BOGAEV: When you are inhabiting Richard, is that the key to bringing him to life, or to any psychopath, is utter lack of conscience, is being offhand about depravity?

BERKOFF: Oh, you're absolutely right when you say that. It's the lack of conscience, it is like being born without a sense of hearing or being color blind or lacking taste buds. It's a most severe and terrible handicap. How can people do certain things? How can they say certain things? You know, if you see a little animal, you know, you might pick up a little kitten that looks like it's distressed and meowing and it'll break your heart, but there are some people who just kick it out of the way. It's a very severe world at the moment, and I think we should be teaching people, by illustrations of drama or film, that promotes a sense of "Let's be aware, let's be compassionate."

[CLIP of Berkoff as Richard III in Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains:]

RICHARD III:
I, that am rudely stamped and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs do bark at me as I halt by them—
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
Why, Love forswore me in my mother's womb

BOGAEV: And this idea that Richard is infectious, Richard infects you as an actor, what does that mean for you? I mean, do you need a buffer period after a performance as an actor?

BERKOFF: Oh, I think so. Yes, yes, you do. If you're an actor and you've totally absorbed the character... It's a funny thing about actors, an actor can really absorb the character and he, in fact, manifestly has to, to do justice to it.

[CLIP of Berkoff as Richard in Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains:]      

RICHARD, while DUKE OF GLOUCESTER:
Can I do this and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it further off, I'll pluck it down.

BERKOFF: Playing Richard has such an effect on me, it gets inside your blood. Playing those extraordinary roles does not exactly contaminate you, but infects you. So that when you finish those great roles, it takes you some time to, in a way, get out of the character. You can't wash it off like makeup. It can be rather distressing if you go to a restaurant immediately after the show, [passionately] "A table for four!" [calm reply] "Excuse me, sir, do you have a reservation?" [passionately] "Yes!" Well, that can be rather embarrassing.

BOGAEV: In this film you say when you take on the great roles, you're competing with the great performers of the past and they're on the stage with you. That made me wonder how you experience that as an actor. Is it in the rehearsal as you're getting into the role that it plagues you, those voices from the past in your ears, and is it something you have to exorcise?

BERKOFF: Well, I was saying it, not so much for the actor, as the audience. For example, I can't see many other Richards, because the hallmark is Olivier. And so that's what I mean, you're on the stage acting, dancing with the ghosts of the past, they're sharing the stage with you, and you have to blow them away.

BOGAEV: Well, your Shylock really stands out.

[CLIP of Berkoff as Shylock in Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains:]

SHYLOCK:
Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have berated me
For my money and my usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug
(For suff'rance is the badge of all our tribe).
You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,
And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,
All for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help.
Go to, then.

BOGAEV: How did you decide on that voice for him? Where did that come from?

BERKOFF: Well, I thought part of the reason was that Shylock today has been, and I mention in the piece, homogenized, deodorized, cleaned up, because we don't like to, you know, infer that we are supporting him, so even some directors cut one or two lines. He says, "I hate him for he is a Christian," they'll cut that, they're so dumb. So I wanted to go the reverse way.

[CLIP of Berkoff as Shylock in Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains:]

SHYLOCK:
            Moneys is your suit.
What should I say to you?
"Hath a dog money? Is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?" Or
Shall I bend low, and in a bondman's key,
With bated breath and whisp'red humbleness,
Say: "Sir, you spet upon me Wednesday last;
You spurned me such a day; another day
You called me "dog"; and for these much courtesies
I should lend you much moneys"?

BERKOFF: I didn't want to, although I could have done, played him as a heroic Jew, they're the current fashion. The philosophical Jew, the noble Jew, the Fiddler on the Roof Jew, I thought, "I want to play him as the Bard, as Shakespeare, wrote him, as disgusting, rancid, angry, filthy, dangerous." And I remember in the East End of my youth in Petticoat Lane, the Jewish stallholders, you know, the market dealers, and they had such voices, you know, they could melt you, they could set fires to their stall with their anger in their voices if they were provoked.

[CLIP of Berkoff as Shylock in Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains:]

BERKOFF as SHYLOCK:
            Look at how you storm!
I would be friends with you and have your love,
Forget the shames that you have stained me with,
Supply your present wants, and take no doit
Of interest for my pain, and you'll not hear me!
This is kind I offer.

BERKOFF as BASSANIO:

This were kindness!

SHYLOCK:

                        This kindness will I show.
Go with me to a notary, seal me there
Your present bond; and in a merry sport,
If you repay me not on such a day,
At such a time, such sum or sums as are
Expressed in the agreement, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.

BERKOFF: He has got some noble lines, Shylock, and his compassion is overwhelming when he feels that he's lost his dear wife, and that the villains who have cheated him have even taken her jewels, he is more upset that it was something he had given to her. But I do see him being somehow made too holy, and that's not why Shakespeare wrote it.

[CLIP from Shakespeare's Heroes and Villains:]

BERKOFF: No, why did he write such a damning portrait of a Jew? Well, he was merely looking for box-office success and, in any play, you need a good villain. And, furthermore, he was not offending the Jews because at the time of writing, there were virtually no Jews in England. They had been expelled from this nation in 1290. But the Jew is interesting. The public didn't know enough, but they knew enough to make them be curious. Did they wear horns? Or were there mysterious habits? Their weird language? Their fascinating, bizarre eating habits? Because just a short time before, Christopher Marlowe had written The Jew of Malta, a massive box-office hit. People were fascinated, because you need a great villain in order to demonstrate the hero, the powerful, strong, hero. So without the villain, you cannot see the virtues of heroism, the power, the dynamic of a good man or a good woman, in this case a good woman, as in Portia in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. You need a villain.

BERKOFF: The public want some excitement, they want some passion, they want some honesty, they want truth, they want anger, and that's why they like the villainy. But my own feeling is the hero makes far more impact on us. As I say, the villain may just get one or two cells, it can stimulate us, but we love the hero. So when the hero comes riding, we are happy, we are thrilled. So at the moment, I think society tilts, far more fortunately for us, towards the heroes. The lines of Othello are so much more powerful than anything that any of the villains make, brilliant as they are, are some of the speeches with Macbeth, but Othello, his speeches are just... because they're awesome, they're embracing the freedom of life and life without pain, without jealousy. These are amazing speeches.

BOGAEV: You know, the whole time I was watching the film, I was wondering what your inroad to Shakespeare's language was. And you say that you had no interest in Shakespeare when you were younger, that it seemed just fusty and hard to understand and irrelevant, so what finally made the language real for you or come alive?

BERKOFF: Well, merely by studying it and by having an ally, one of the teachers there when I first started at this little school. He was able to show me what the speeches meant, and I suddenly understood that this was a really magical writer, because he's working on two or three components simultaneously and so he showed me how each speech had further meanings.

BOGAEV: Yes, you say the language seems to go deeper inside you the more you get to know what it means and as it got deeper you felt like it was being touched, ignited, and that when it comes to playing the character that it was a kind of battle or rage. Is it a battle to express the many dimensions of the language or how the language possesses you as an actor?

BERKOFF: It's a challenge because he refines our thinking, because he sees the many channels that it's on. So when even Richard says, I lack "love's majesty to strut before a wandering ambling nymph," well, what does he mean, lack "love's majesty"? And when I knew he said, "This is what it means, it means he's impotent, he hasn't got the majesty to create a real relationship with a woman," I thought, "God, that's so clever and put in such a way that it refines our way of thinking about it." It makes us not only smarter, but also more aware. He makes us aware by purging all those trivia out of us and makes us into somebody who can think. He takes us to another dimension, and so that's why he is the real philosopher of our millennium. You can, just by studying Shakespeare and having the opportunity to play it, it is so beneficial. And actors should once more claim him, play him, and even if they don't have an opportunity to be selected by some director or another, just do it yourself.

BOGAEV: Well, this has been so inspiring. Steven Berkoff, thank you so much for coming on our podcast.

BERKOFF: Well, it's been absolutely my pleasure and thank you very much.

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WITMORE: Steven Berkoff is an actor, director, playwright, and the creator of Shakespeare’s Villains, which he has performed onstage since the 1990s. The producers of the film version, titled Shakespeare’s Heroes and Villains, are currently working on a distribution deal. In the meantime, you can view it with a subscription to the Drama Online website, a division of Bloomsbury Books. Go to drama-online.com/plays for an alphabetical listing.

I Am Alone the Villain of the Earth was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Aidan Lyons 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. And if you're visiting Washington, come visit us at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill. See a play in our Tudor theater and come face to face with a First Folio of Shakespeare's plays. We look forward to seeing you. 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, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.