It is true that there are few plays of Shakespeare I haven't done.
—Dame Judi Dench
As in "classically trained Shakespearian
actor". These actors (male and female), usually Brits, have had some serious
training—often a stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company
—and so have developed redoubtable acting skills.
Of course, they won't necessarily limit themselves to Shakespeare — or even to theater. It's entirely possible for these people to do comedy, appear in major action movies and even enter Large Ham
territory at times (see, for instance, BRIAN BLESSED
Used intelligently, Shakespearian Actors can raise everyone
's game, or turn a blah character into a Breakout Character
. But beware: being cast alongside one or more Shakespearian Actors makes it painfully clear if someone can't act (see, for instance, Teaching Mrs. Tingle
, in which Helen Mirren
out-acts all of her co-stars combined
with her hands quite literally tied behind her back). Think of them as the acting equivalent of Spandex: they make good things better, and bad things much, much worse.
Because these actors will be critically acclaimed (they can be popular as well), they are more likely than most actors, if they're British, to succumb to the K-strain of Knight Fever
, i.e. getting a knighthood.
One of the litmus tests for being a Shakespearian actor is to have played a major/lead role for the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Royal National Theatre. These two theatres are the most prominent and prestigious theatres in Great Britain with the globally-known RSC catering (almost) exclusively Shakespeare's plays. (RSC's closest North American equivalents are probably the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.) Even better, see the YouTube
entries for the old educational series, Playing Shakespeare
, featuring the RSC players of its day, now in retrospect stock-full of future movie stars like Patrick Stewart
, Dame Judi Dench
, Ben Kingsley
, and Sir Ian McKellen
Shakespearian Actors in fiction
As we've just seen, real-life Shakespearian Actors take a variety of roles for a variety of reasons, and few jobbing actors—even among this exceptionally talented bunch—can afford to be picky about the sorts of roles they accept. In fiction, though, the Shakespearian Actor tends to be a particular subtype of the high-maintenance diva archetype: one who constantly laments his decision to give up theater and who has nothing but contempt for the tripe he's being asked to deliver. This version is the Classically-Trained Extra
- Jenny Agutter: Veteran of both the RSC and the National Theatre, including the title role in Hedda Gabler among many others.
- Roger Allam: Old hand at the RSC, has turned his hand to film, musicals, television and radio.
- Cate Blanchett: While not a member of the RSC, is a classically trained theatre actress with a Shakespeare background who has her name mentioned in the same breath as the most famous RSC alums.
- BRIAN BLESSED
- Hugh Bonneville, aka the Earl of Grantham.
- Kenneth Branagh: Almost singlehandedly revived the Shakespeare film genre with a string of hits in the Nineties.
- Jeremy Brett
- Sir Richard Burton
- Brian Cox.
- Benedict Cumberbatch has not yet played for the RSC, but has played lead roles in Royal National Theatre productions; he has twice been nominated for an Olivier Award (winning for Frankenstein in 2012).
- Timothy Dalton: the fourth cinematic James Bond, and his background can be seen in the way he played 007. He also appears in Flash Gordon, a Nazi spy in Disney's The Rocketeer, and as a medium-sized ham in Hot Fuzz. Is also the last Lord President of the Time Lords. Also Mr. Pricklepants.
- Daniel Davis has reportedly been in all but six of Shakespeare's plays, presumably thanks to his ridiculously good English accent. (He's from Arkansas.) Also performed with both the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
- Dame Judi Dench: M in the last half-dozen or so James Bond films. Also stole Shakespeare in Love as Queen Elizabeth I with roughly nine total minutes of screen time. She picked up an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for the performance.
- Chiwetel Ejiofor, the Operative from Serenity. Has played Othello and Orsino from Twelfth Night.
- Both Ralph Fiennes and Joseph Fiennes (the latter played the title role in Shakespeare in Love).
- Kate Fleetwood
- Sir John Gielgud
- Sir Alec Guinness aka Obi-Wan Kenobi: Spoke the very first lines at the Stratford Festival (namely, "Now is the winter of our discontent").
- Tom Hiddleston, in cahoots with Kenneth Branagh, turned Loki into a sympathetic/tragic Shakespearean villain in the first Thor film. He has yet to star in an RSC or RNT production but portrayed Prince Hal/Henry V for a BBC TV series. A character famously played by... Kenneth.
- Jeremy Irons
- Sir Derek Jacobi: Has entered the Large Ham zone by playing The Master in Doctor Who on two occasions (although one is non-Canon).
- James Earl Jones
- Raul Julia
- Ben Kingsley
- Alex Kingston of ER and Doctor Who fame.
- Dan Lauria, the father on The Wonder Years.
- Adrian Lester of Hustle
- John Lithgow.
- Sir Ian McKellen
- Dame Helen Mirren
- Eve Myles
- Jason Narvy, Skull from Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers to Power Rangers in Space, has a doctorate in the craft.
- Also Olivia Tennet (Dr. K) from Power Rangers RPM. Shortly after her stint on the show, she left for the Globe Theatre in London to participate in workshops with the Young Shakespeare Company as a prize for winning a national Shakespeare competition in New Zealand.
- Peter O'Toole: Trained at RADA and began his acting career on stage at the Bristol Old Vic before doing a stint the RSC.
- Sir Laurence Olivier, Lord Olivier: the Shakesperian actor.
- Nathaniel Parker of The Inspector Lynley Mysteries fame began his career at the RSC.
- Christopher Plummer
- Ian Richardson, worked for the RSC for fifteen years before making glorious infamy as on of fiction's most Magnificent Bastards ala Francis Urquhart.
- Sir Ralph Richardson
- Alan Rickman
- Liev Schreiber is one of the more prominent Americans of this type.
- William Shatner performed at the Stratford Festival in the 1960s. He repeated some of his roles on TV as well.
- Sharon Small has played for both the Royal National Theatre and the Donmar Warehouse.
- Sir Patrick Stewart: his classical training has allowed him to dodge being type cast by either Star Trek or X-Men, and he's returned to the RSC since (most recently, as Claudius to David Tennant's Hamlet).
- Catherine Tate did small parts in her youth for the RSC, and in 2011 played Beatrice opposite David Tennant's Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.
- David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who, was an RSC man (including a well-regarded Romeo) before his stint in the TARDIS, and moonlighted as a critically-acclaimed Hamlet between filming the 2009 specials. He then played Benedick opposite real-life best friend and former Who co-star Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing.
- Emma Thompson: Oddly has never played for either the RSC or the RNTnote , but starred on film as Queen Catherine in Henry V and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (both opposite Kenneth Branagh), as well as Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Fool in King Lear onstage.
- In addition to Fiennes, Rickman, and Thompson, many Harry Potter actors:
- Polly Walker (Atia of the Julii of Rome fame).
- David Warner
- Orson Welles
- Ben Whishaw
- Penelope Wilton (aka Harriet Jones, Prime Minister and Isobel Crawley) is a Royal National Theatre veteran many times over with a CV that includes Chekhov and Shakespeare. (Yes, we know who she is.)