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Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh
Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh
Stanley Wells
Oxford University Press, 2015
288 pp., $29.95

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Brett Foster and Mark Lewis


“Inheritors of the Text”

An eminent scholar’s tribute to the great Shakespeare actors.

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There are lovely details to discover about the modern actors, too. I didn’t know Kenneth Branagh was born in Belfast, or that Paul Scofield’s first Shakespeare roles were Juliet and Rosalind! Or that Simon Russell Beale, lately regarded for his turn as Lear, played the role previously—at the age of 17! And how perfectly apt for Judi Dench, who is on the short side, to tell the great director Peter Hall, “I hope you know what you are doing. You are going to have a Cleopatra who is a menopausal dwarf.”

Finally, the literature prof in me appreciated hearing new interpretive possibilities in the plays. Some of Simon Russell Beale’s roles were of particular interest. As Ariel, the indentured spirit in The Tempest, he made a shocking exit by spitting in his master Prospero’s face. As Hamlet, he found a new dramatic moment in the intense scene when his father’s ghost appears in his mother’s chamber. The son reaches for Gertrude with one hand and his ungraspable father in the other. That proximity is intense. He is trying to bring about a family reunion that can no longer be. He is trying, as Wells nicely puts it, to bridge two worlds, this one and the “undiscovered” next. Beale seems so widely respected for his acting because of an interplay (to use that word again) of qualities that he can bring out in Shakespeare’s characters. His Richard III is both campy and murderous. His Malvolio is one of the “funniest and most heartbreaking” that Wells has ever seen.

That’s why lovers of Shakespeare do well to love the actors who give him to us, always making him and his writing new. That’s why we’re celebrating the birthday today of a certain Elizabethan actor named Shakespeare, who wasn’t too bad of a writer, either, as it turns out.

Brett Foster and Mark Lewis are professors at Wheaton College, of English and Theater respectively. They often collaborate on things Shakespearean in Wheaton's Arena Theater. They have also co-taught an intensive (theater- and literature-friendly) "Shakespearience" course at Wheaton's campus in Wisconsin's North Woods, and have participated in a "What Can Scholars Learn from Directors? What Can Directors Learn from Scholars?" seminar at the Shakespeare Association of America conference.

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