The top British Shakespeare actors
There's nothing quite like seeing a Shakespeare show. Integral to the canon of British literature, William Shakespeare’s works really have stood the test of time. His plays went on to change the English language as we know it. Idioms like “heart of gold” and “green-eyed monster” originally derive from the Bard himself.
From tragedies like Romeo and Juliet, comedies like Measure for Measure, and histories like King John, everyone’s got their favourite Shakespeare play. But, do you have a favourite modern-day Shakespeare actor? We’re rounding up some of the top portrayals of Shakespearean characters in recent years. Once you’ve read them, watch some Shakespeare online too, and get in touch with us to tell us your favourite.
Quickly after his professional training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in the 1980s, Ralph Fiennes found himself in a string of Shakespeare productions: Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet to name a few. Shortly after, he headed to the cultural home of Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon, to star in multiple productions, continuing this trend into the new millennium. In 2000, he took on titular roles including Coriolanus and Richard II both in London and New York, later starring in The Tempest at Theatre Royal Haymarket.
His last Shakespeare performance was in Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre. Playing Antony opposite Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra, audiences and critics went wild for this revival. For his theatrical legacy alone, Fiennes had to feature in our list, and we’re looking forward to seeing Fiennes take on even more roles.
Thrust into the spotlight as a runner-up on the musical theatre reality show I’d Do Anything, Jessie Buckley’s early career saw her stick to her musical roots. After competing, she returned to education, graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 2013. That same summer, Buckley made her Shakespeare debut in a production of The Tempest as Miranda.
It really was no rest for Buckley, as she set out on continuing the Bard-themed trend. She appeared in Henry V at the Noel Coward, opposite Jude Law. Two years later, she became part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, starring in The Winter’s Tale as Perdita. In 2020, she was due to star as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at the National. While that production may no longer be happening in person, the production will now be filmed exclusively for television at the Lyttelton Theatre and we can’t wait.
Growing up, Benedict Cumberbatch showed a keen interest in Shakespeare plays. In fact, his stage debut was at school, playing Titania in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Feeding his passion, he later trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where he went to enjoy a glittering career across film and television. But his iconic Shakespeare performance is nothing to scoff at. In 2015, he played the lead role in Hamlet, which ran at the Barbican for just 12 weeks and saw him earn an Olivier Award nomination. A sell-out show, Dom O’Hanlon for London Theatre said: “Cumberbatch gives a masterful and controlled performance… he downplays the character within the ensemble that allows the dynamics to continually shine, taking his moments at the appropriate times but never clouding the production as a whole.”
He’s more than just the Hot Priest in Fleabag. Yes, Andrew Scott finds himself on our list thanks to his career-defining performance in Hamlet at the Almeida Theatre. The limited engagement only played from 17 February - 26 Apr. 2017, with Dom O’Hanlon saying Scott “rises to the challenge succeeding primarily at the intellectual and haunted side of the Danish Prince. He's an actor that rarely feels spontaneous or off the cuff; instead you're made to see every cog turn in motion and the inner workings so deeply considered that it sometimes stifles the soliloquies, all played centre stage with a yearning look outwards that manages to reach deep into your soul and hit you on the inside.” After impressing audiences, Hamlet later transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre for three months, earning an Olivier Award nomination for Best Actor.
Making her professional theatre debut in 1952 in a production of Twelfth Night, Smith is arguably one of the most famous actresses of all time. Ending the 1950s with appearances in Richard II and The Merry Wives of Windsor, she continued to appear in works by Shakespeare through the decades, including early productions that starred the National Theatre Company. Smith has also portrayed Shakespearean characters worldwide, with character credits including Queen Elizabeth, Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth.
Sadly, Smith hasn’t been in a Shakespeare play on stage for over three decades. But, you can catch her in film, notably as Cecily Neville in Richard III starring Ian McKellen. Relive her performances for yourself with an excerpt from Much Ado About Nothing.
Tallying up 17 shows at Shakespeare’s Globe, it’s no surprise that Mark Rylance is on this list. He’s no stranger to playing typically female roles, including Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra and Olivia in Twelfth Night. Rylance has also been a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, joining in the 1980s, and he served as the first artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe.
His appearances in Shakespeare plays clearly impressed those in charge of the country. In 2017, Rylance was knighted for his services to theatre. Recently, he played Iago in Othello, but we’re hoping he returns to the West End soon.
Introduced to Shakespeare’s writings while at school, Patrick Stewart’s early theatre career saw him star in numerous Royal Shakespeare Company productions. His performance as Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra certainly put him on the map, winning the Best Actor in a Supporting Role Olivier Award. He also impressed critics in Othello; the only white man in an otherwise all-Black production. More recently, his West End credits include the eponymous role in Macbeth and King Claudius in Hamlet.
In 2020, Patrick Stewart’s been igniting a love of Shakespeare for younger audiences, thanks to performing a sonnet a day in lockdown.
Radio plays, film adaptations, and stage appearances? Kenneth Branagh really has ticked everything off the list. Making his Royal Shakespeare Company debut in Henry V, he went on to found his own company: the Renaissance Theatre Company which solely focused on classic texts. In 2015, Branagh formed another company, starring and managing productions including star-studded shows of The Winter’s Tale and Romeo and Juliet.
If you’ve never seen him on stage, there’s plenty of opportunities to see him on screen. Notably, you’ll want to check out the 1989 film of Henry V and the 1996 film of Hamlet. Watch his performance in Hamlet above.
Making her professional debut in the late '50s, Judi Dench found her acting feet with Shakespeare plays. Her London debut was as Ophelia in Hamlet, making her Broadway debut in 1958. Through the following years, she regularly appeared in Shakespeare revivals. Dench is the most awarded female British actor of all time, with seven Oliviers, kickstarted with an Olivier Award-winning appearance as Lady Macbeth in 1977.
Even in her sixties and seventies, Dench added to her mighty theatre CV. Recently, she’s starred in All’s Well That Ends Well at the Gielgud Theatre and The Winter’s Tale at the Garrick Theatre. Add these to her long list of film and television appearances, and Dench has definitely secured her place in the history books.
Ian McKellen's impressive performance as King Lear at the Duke of York’s must go down as one of the greatest theatre events of the century, with “Each line is spoken with an elderly wisdom, even in the depths of his palpable madness. It’s tormenting and triumphant.” Having performed in Shakespeare plays for over 50 years, he’s finessed roles like King John, Macbeth, and Coriolanus like a true master. In 2019, he shared anecdotes, stories and performed monologues in an octogenarian celebration, that had a four month residency at the Harold Pinter Theatre.
Photo credit: Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon (Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash)