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Shakespearian Actors

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"It is true that there are few plays of Shakespeare I haven't done."

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 or the Royal National Theatre — 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. Another drawback is the tendency to re-use Gratuitous Iambic Pentameter in stories that don't necessarily call for it, otherwise known as Shatner-speak.

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 Sir Patrick Stewart, Dame Judi Dench, Sir 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.

Real examples:

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  • 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.
  • Frances de la Tour: Madame Olympe Maxime in the Harry Potter series; she joined the RSC in 1965 and is a three-time Olivier Award winner.
  • Colleen Dewhurst: The "Queen of Off-Broadway" who appeared several times in Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival. Won two Tonys and four Emmys (two of them for playing Murphy Brown's mother).
  • Dame Edith Evans: Three-time Academy Award-nominee.

  • Helen Hayes, "First Lady of the American Theatre" and an EGOT-winner.
  • Eva Le Gallienne: Nominated for an Oscar for Resurrection, one of only three movies she made because she was so devoted to the theater. One of the women (like her idol Sarah Bernhardt) to have played Hamlet.

  • William Marshall: Blacula himself; played Othello in no less than six productions.
  • John Neville: Among other work, did a production of Othello in which he and Richard Burton alternated the roles of Othello and Iago.

  • Margaretta Scott: Best remembered as Mrs. Pumphrey on All Creatures Great And Small; she was educated at RADA and was one of the first actresses to perform Shakespeare on television (Much Ado About Nothing, way back in 1937).
  • Sam Wanamaker

Alternative Title(s): Shakespearean Actors