Being part of a Shakespeare production is a rite of passing for many—and the ability to perform his works well can take an actor’s career to the next level. Here are 14 Shakespearean actors who did the Bard proud and will inspire generations to come.
Famous Shakespearean actors
Sir Mark Rylance
Shakespeare lovers cheered when Rylance took home an Oscar in 2016 for portraying accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies.” The role marked a departure from his usual fare. For many, the great Shakespearean scholar is best known as the original artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London; he also playfully undertook lead roles in historically authentic, all-male productions, including “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night”—the latter of which earned Rylance his third Tony Award for playing wealthy countess Olivia.
Watch his comedic chops in “Twelfth Night”:
Sir Ian McKellen
Long before he played Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” films, McKellen made his name as one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of all time. A graduate of Cambridge University (and its famed Marlowe Society), McKellen has performed the Bard’s works all over the world with esteemed companies including the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal National Theatre. His onscreen performances as Iago in the BBC’s “Theatre Night” adaptation of “Othello” and as Richard Gloucester in Richard Loncraine’s reimagined “Richard III” are remarkable; and his film “Ian McKellen: Acting Shakespeare,” in which he performs monologues and speaks about the playwright’s works, is a master class for all levels of actor.
Watch McKellen take on Macbeth to see the extent (and longevity) of his talent:
Dame Judi Dench
This legendary talent won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in John Madden’s 1998 film “Shakespeare in Love,” but Dench’s own passion for Shakespeare goes back much farther. A graduate of London’s Central School of Speech and Drama (alongside renowned actor Vanessa Redgrave), Dench made her professional stage debut as Ophelia in the Old Vic company’s 1957 production of “Hamlet.” Since then, she has performed in countless Shakespearean productions on stage and screen, including Ophelia in “Hamlet,” Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet,” and Lady Macbeth in “Macbeth.”
In this video, she reads from “Antony and Cleopatra”:
Sir Patrick Stewart
Stewart has enjoyed a long career as a film and television star, but it all started with a turn at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s. Stewart then made his Broadway debut playing Tom Snout in Peter Brooks’ 1971 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and worked with the Royal National Theatre for many years. Though he took time off for the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” he returned to the stage in such famous roles as Prospero in “The Tempest,” Othello in Jude Kelly’s controversial race-reversed production, and Macbeth.
He recreated Macbeth for Rupert Goold’s 2010 contemporary take seen here:
Another performer who got his start with the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, Fiennes is an award-winning Shakespearean actor with an astonishing body of work to his name. He has portrayed Romeo, Hamlet, and Claudio in “Much Ado About Nothing” in productions in London and on Broadway. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Fiennes is also well-known for his layered performances in mainstream movies, including “Schindler’s List” and the “Harry Potter” franchise. He brought the Bard’s work to life on film in 2011 as the director, producer, and star of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Coriolanus.”
Here, he is portraying Richard III:
Sir Kenneth Branagh
One of the most prolific adaptors of Shakespeare for the screen, Branagh made his name first as a performer, and then as a screenwriter and director of great classical works. A graduate of RADA, who later became its president in 2015, Branagh performed Shakespeare all over London early in his career and co-founded the Renaissance Theatre Company in 1987. He directed 1993’s acclaimed “Much Ado About Nothing,” in which he plays Benedick; 1996’s “Hamlet,” in which he takes on the titular role; and 2006’s “As You Like It.”
His nuanced performance of Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy is sure to send chills down your spine:
Dame Maggie Smith
This wildly inventive actor is famous across generations, from a stage career spanning over 50 years to her roles as Professor McGonagall in the “Harry Potter” franchise and Violet Crawley in “Downton Abbey.” Smith was once a fixture at Canada’s Stratford Festival, where she performed numerous Shakespeare roles, and she received the first of six Academy Award nominations for her work in Stuart Burge’s 1965 film “Othello,” in which she played Desdemona.
Smith created much ado about something as Beatrice in the 1967 TV movie “Much Ado About Nothing”:
James Earl Jones
One of this country’s most beloved theater and film actors, Jones made his Shakespearean debut in “Othello” over 60 years ago after training at the University of Michigan, and later studied at New York’s American Theatre Wing. Darth Vader in iambic pentameter? Yes please. His career has covered many more of the Bard’s works (in addition to great American classics), including “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Hamlet,” and “King Lear.”
This video depicts his powerful performance as King Lear:
Sir Derek Jacobi
A Cambridge graduate (like his friend McKellen and the longtime director Sir Trevor Nunn), this Shakespearean actor honed his skills from a young age as a member of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. When Laurence Olivier became the first director of the Royal National Theatre, he invited Jacobi to be a part of its company, along with Smith. His career has included countless Shakespearean productions on stage and screen, including “Twelfth Night,” “The Tempest,” and “King Lear”—along with mainstream films such as “Gladiator” (he plays Senator Gracchus) and “The King’s Speech.”
His 1980 performance as Hamlet was widely lauded, and it’s easy to see why:
A founding member of what is now the touring theater troupe known as The Acting Company, Kline has been performing Shakespeare since his days as a Juilliard student. The actor spent a decade working onstage in New York before breaking into film with “Sophie’s Choice,” and was in several productions as part of Shakespeare in the Park throughout the 1980s, including “Richard III” and “Hamlet.”
Here’s Kline performance as the prince of Denmark at the 1990 Tony Awards:
Part of the great Redgrave theatrical family, the actor trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama (with Dench) and has had an epic career with roles spanning film and television, classical and contemporary. She starred in the Fiennes’ film “Coriolanus,” and co-starred with Fiennes again in “Richard III” at London’s Almeida Theatre.
In this recording, Redgrave performs Rosalind in “As You Like It”:
Sir Ian Holm
This British performer began his incredible half-a-century long career with 13 years at Stratford in what would become the Royal Shakespeare Company. Perhaps known best as Bilbo Baggins in Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings,” Holm played countless Shakespearean roles with the RSC and starred in many Shakespeare movie adaptations including 1989’s “Henry V,” 1990’s “Hamlet,” and 1998’s “King Lear” (part of BBC’s anthology series “Performance.”)
Watch Holm as Polonius in Franco Zeffirelli’s “Hamlet” (1990):
The original Captain Georg von Trapp in 1965’s “The Sound of Music,” Plummer was a highly respected Shakespearean actor boasting a 60-year history with Canada’s Stratford Festival. Plummer earned a Tony Award nomination for his Iago (opposite Jones’ Othello) and was again nominated 20 years later for a brilliant King Lear.
His performance in 1964’s “Hamlet at Elsinore” won him an Emmy nod:
This four-time Tony Award–winning Australian actor performed Shakespeare for most of her very long career, captivating audiences in England (with the Royal Shakespeare Company), Canada (at the Stratford Festival) and the U.S. (at the Guthrie Theatre and on Broadway). Her 2001 memoir “I Will Be Cleopatra: An Actress’s Journey” is a must-read for any thespian looking for inspiration.
Watch her portray Lady Macbeth opposite Sean Connery: