Romeo, Henry V and Hamlet are three of Shakespeare's greatest characters. Loads of actors have tried them on for size. Here are eight who made our list of hits and misses.
To be or not to be in a Shakespeare production, that is the question. The answer, for actors looking for a little respect, some credibility and maybe critical acclaim, the answer is yes, yes, and by my throth, yes! Just ask Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hiddleston, Kenneth Banagh, Jude Law, Orlando Bloom, David Tennant and, by my troth, even Mel Gibson.
Whether it's playing a character inspired by Shakespeare, or adapted from his plays, or flat out taking on the Bard of Avon's plays word for word, there's a shed load of A-list actors who have signed on for anything with Shakespeare's name attached to the project, be it big screen movies, small indie films, TV specials or theatre shows.
Let's see, there's Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice, Michelle Pfeiffer and Christian Bale in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing, Helen Mirren in The Tempest, Helena Bonham Carter in Twelfth Night, Patrick Stewart in Macbeth, Ian McKellen in Othello – and these are just the "hardcore" productions.
Other actors have paid homage to Shakespeare by doing parts or movies loosely based on the author or his work – 10 Things I Hate About You, Shakespeare In Love, My Own Private Idaho, West Side Story. Check out our other story on this.
Yes, arguably it's easier to play a contemporary Shakespearean role script-wise, but some say the true test of an actor's craft is taking on Shakespeare in its original form. Just like other writers, though, there are a handful of characters from Shakespeare that really hit home with the acting community. There's the eloquent and powerful Othello, and the
materialistic and angry Shylock, but really, we're talking about Romeo, Henry V and Hamlet.
So, in celebration of Shakespeare, who would have turned 450 years old today, here's a list of the actors who given life to the Bard's most beloved characters.
The Guardian had nothing but praise for Tennant’s Prince of Denmark in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2008 film production of Hamlet. The review said: “Sardonic and volatile, David Tennant’s Hamlet was so graceful that at times he seemed almost to dance across the stage.” The review added that Tennant’s Hamlet was “a young man sunk in a
melancholy dream and a prince of parody, a compulsive mimic who kept
becoming someone other than himself. This was a Hamlet who continually
played with the idea that wit can look like witlessness. And vice
Having come off five years of Doctor Who, Tennant's Hamlet cemented him as one of the great Shakespeare actors of our time. He followed that up with two more stunning performances, playing Benedict in a 2011 production of Much Ado About Nothing, and then returning to the RSC as the critically acclaimed Richard II in 2013.
Jude Law had a pretty dry run of films after 2003's Cold Mountain before Hamlet came along in 2009. Not to mention, his love-life sucked and it played out in public like a soap opera. So taking on a disturbed Shakespeare character was exactly what he needed – and it worked. Law's Hamlet ran to rave reviews in the West End – "Electrifying!" the critics exclaimed – and Broadway ate it up right after that.
The New Yorker waxed lyrical over Law’s performance: “Law is swift of foot and of speech. He has a sharp critical intelligence. He dexterously parses and shades Shakespeare’s poetry, making the words as clear, crisp, and compelling as his profile. For his soliloquies, Law comes downstage and, with his piercing almond eyes, draws us into his turbulent consciousness. It’s big magic.” And then in December 2009, Sherlock Holmes premièred.
The legendary film critic Roger Egbert gave 4.5/5 stars to the 1991 movie, Hamlet starring Gibson, Glenn Close, Alan Bates, Paul Scofield and more. Egbert said, of Gibson’s performance in the movie, that: “This Hamlet finally stands or falls on Mel Gibson’s performance, and I think it will surprise some viewers with its strength and appeal.
"He has not been overawed by Shakespeare, has not fallen into a trap of taking this role too solemnly and lugubriously. He has observed the young man of the earlier and less troubled scenes, and started his performance from there, instead of letting every nuance be a foreshadow of what is to come. It’s a strong, intelligent performance, filled with life, and it makes this into a surprisingly robust Hamlet.”
Tom Hiddleston is no theatre slouch, oh no. Prior to Loki, he was a West End star, challenging audiences in Shakespeare's Cymbeline and Othello, two plays that really aren't for weak-hearted Bard fans. Then Thor came along and suddenly – boom! – he's a Hollywood star. But as soon as The Avengers was done, Hiddleston went right back to Shakespeare, starring in The Hollow Crown, a BBC production of Shakespeare historical tetralogy, the Henriad: Richard II, Henry IV, Part I, Henry IV, Part II and Henry V.
The Los Angeles Times praised Hiddleston’s young Prince Hal – and later King Henry V – saying the actor “fits himself admirably to his character’s stages and turns of mind, resolving his coldness with his warmth, his cruelty with his generosity”. Then in December last year, right after The Dark World, Hiddleston returned to the stage again for another Shakespeare production, Coriolanus, and earning the same scores as Tennant's Richard II and Law's Henry V.
Kenneth Branagh was only 21 when he made his cocky directorial debut in 1989, taking on the titular role AND writing the screenplay for Henry V, a film that boasted a whole cast of seasoned and award-winning actors including Brian Blessed, Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench. This was also Emma Thompson's movie debut and there's a young Christian Bale in it, too.
Branagh was compared to Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Alec Guinness, three of England's greatest actors of all time. Empire magazine said: “Add a star if you’re not distracted by the ‘spot the thesp’ cast. This is a cracking interpretation of the material, and one destined to be included on syllabuses for years to come. Branagh has done two things Olivier never really managed – made it accessible, and more importantly, made it cinematic." The Oscars agreed with two nominations, for his acting and his directing, while the Baftas went one further and gave him the Best Director award.
Branagh would make Shakespeare a big part of his career, doing Much Ado About Nothing, Othello and Love's Labour's Lost to varying degrees of success. But it was his 1996 portrayal of Hamlet, considered among the best adaptations ever, that made him the king of Shakespeare.
It was unfortunate that the actor’s divorce from supermodel wife Miranda Kerr overshadowed his Broadway performance in Romeo and Juliet last year. Bloom starred opposite two time Tony award nominee Condola Rashad in David Leveaux’ multi-racial production of one of Shakespeare’s most well-known work, and received a mixed review from critics.
“We don’t get many revivals of the classic on professional stages, so it’s safe to say that Bloom’s swaggering, matinee-idol Romeo will be the most engaging you’ll see in years,” said Time Out’s David Cote. “But this is also the least erotically charged or sexually frank Romeo and Juliet I’ve ever attended.” Maybe Bloom should just stick to playing golden-haired elfs in the future.
Before Titanic, Inception and The Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio set teenage hearts aflutter with his performance as the baby-faced romantic Romeo in Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet. The movie, although “updated” and given a modern-day injection, stood true to Shakespeare’s work with its original dialogues – which many viewers found confusing and unnecessary.
The movie received mixed reviews with some critics calling it “A monumental disaster” and others say that it's “a fantastic introduction to Shakespeare for the novice and the young.” But one thing for sure, people took notice of DiCaprio’s performance and saw the potential the Oscar-nominee even at that age.
This 21-year-old English actor is set to become the next big thing in Hollywood. His lacklustre take on the famous role doesn’t have that intensity to make the lovestruck Romeo stand out from the crowd, in this pairing against Oscar-nominee Hailee Steinfeld.
The Telegraph UK wrote “Douglas Booth’s Romeo is such an impossibly good-looking, ultra-competent dreamboat, he unbalances the film – next to him, Steinfeld looks more like a needy little sister than a soulmate. If their passion doesn’t convince, all the business with secret vows, coma-inducing potions, and tardy letters just becomes so much clattering artifice.” Ouch.