This is my absolute favorite of all the King Lears I’ve seen. Jones nails the blind rage and puffed-up pride of Lear, while also being absolutely clear in his delivery. Unlike a lot of other Lears I’ve seen, you get the sense that, although this man is a bad dad and probably a bad king, he wasn’t always like this, that he was very respected and magnanimous.
In addition, the supporting cast is incredible- Raul Julia (famous for playing M. Bison and Gomez Adams), brings a delicious slimy charm as Edmund and Rene Aberjounois as Edgar brings every bit of his chameleon-like acting to Edgar, Poor Tom, the guy on the cliff, and the guy who fights Oswald. It’s simply astonishing to see Rene play so many different characters and do so many different voices in one performance.
The cast’s excellence doesn’t stop there- Rosalind Cash, Ellen Holly and Lee Chamberlain are all excellent as Lear’s daughters. Cash in particular has the bearing of a queen, and she isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with her father, even though he’s played with such might by Jones. Holly plays Regan as sort of a sniveling middle child, which I didn’t enjoy as much, but I think it’s a legitimate interpretation. And of course, Lee Chamberlain does a great job capturing the gentleness and grace of Cordelia, truly a “Kind and dear princess.”
Jones will always be my favorite performer in this version, but I have to give a special shout-out to Douglas Watson as The Earl of Kent. I’ll be honest, he really helped me understand the character, and I put elements of his portrayal into my own. First off, even with the elaborate verse that Kent has to deliver, Watson makes it sound like it was written yesterday. In addition, he does a great job of playing the ‘plain knave’ aspect of Kent. He’s gruff and loud, especially with Oswald, whom Kent can’t stand because of his simpering sycophantic ways. I hope I remain true to the spirit of the character, while, also giving it my own spin.
Hopefully watching all these great performances will get you interested to watch the humble little radio play, (though please don’t measure our performance against these masterpieces). Hope to see you tomorrow to watch the show!
This list is not about skill or the talent of the actor. This is to honor the contributions of Shakespearean actors who also appeared in one of my favorite film series of all time: Star Wars
#10: Daisy Ridley
I should say at the outset, that I am judging these actors for their cumulative contributions to Shakespeare, so unfortunately that means the older actors have an advantage. This is very apparent with Daisy Ridley here. She has a fantastic voice and her acting is top-notch, so I have absolutely no doubt that if she chooses, she could become the next Helena Bonham Carter in a few decades. But for now, her most notable Shakespearean contribution is this film, Ophelia, which is a retelling of Hamlet, from the perspective of his long-suffering girlfriend:
#9: Ewan McGreggor
The Scottish actor, (and in my opinion, best part of the prequels), is a multi-talented star of stage and screen. Ewan actually complained that the script for Episode I was: “Not exactly Shakespeare.” He first came to prominence on stage playing Mark Renton in the dark comedy Trainspotting (whom he also played for the film). Like Daisy Ridley, however, aside from playing Iago to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Othello, McGreggor hasn’t done much Shakespeare… at least for now.
#8: Andy Serkis
We normally associate the English actor Andy Serkis with physical acting and motion capture, after his roles as Snoke in Last Jedi, Caesar in Planet of the Apes, Kong in King Kong, and of course, Gollum in Lord of the Rings. However, before he became a one-man advocate for the art of motion capture, Mr. Serkis toured in a number of Shakespeare productions including The Winter’s Tale, King Lear (as the Fool), and like Ewan McGregor, Mr. Serkis has played the role of Iago (fitting for a man who played a treacherous hobbit, consumed by unnatural desire). The breadth of his film, theater, and digital work is why I placed him this high on the list.
#7: Peter Cushing
Most fans of Peter Cushing think of him as a horror icon, playing multiple roles for the famous Hammer Studios, with his classic portrayals of Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula, and Sherlock Holmes among others. However, Mr. Cushing has a place in Shakespearean history for his performance in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, playing OSRIC! I kind of lost my mind when I realized that Cushing isn’t playing the Ghost, or the smiling, damned Claudius, or even the fiery Laertes, but Osric, the foppish sycophant who sucks up so hard to Hamlet, that the prince convinces him that it’s hot, and cold at the same time! Goes to show you how much range Cushing had, (even before he rose from the dead in Rogue One). He truly was, “Charming, to the last.”
#6 Christopher LEe
Like his longtime friend, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee was also a horror star at the Hammer Studio, and his performances as Dracula are the stuff of legend. With his powerful deep voice, I was not surprised to learn Lee was a trained Shakespearean actor, and he was also in Olivier’s Hamlet, though as an uncredited spear-carrier. By the way, to those people who criticized his swordplay in Attack Of the Clones, I offer this contrary evidence:
#5 Max Von Sydow
The Sweedish-born actor is less known for Star Wars than for his classic roles in The Exorcist, Minority Report, Judge Dredd, and others, but he was in Force Awakens, so he still counts.
I wanted to talk about him here because Von Sydow has given many performances in Shakespeare and Shakespeare adjacent movies. First off, he played the Claudius figure in the atrocious Canadian Hamlet ‘comedy’ Strange Brew, one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, but Von Sydow’s performance is one of the few watchable parts of the film.
More importantly, Von Sydow has specialized in playing wise, sage-like characters who stare into brave new worlds. First off, in Star Wars, he was the catalyst that helped start the rebellion against the First Order in The Force Awakens.
Von Sydow previously played a powerful sage as Shakespeare’s Prospero at the Old Vic in London in 1988, directed by Jonathan Miller:
‘Miller … used a mixed cast made up of white actors as the humans and black actors playing the spirits and creatures of the island. According to Michael Billington, “von Sydow’s Prospero became a white overlord manipulating a mutinous black Caliban and a collaborative Ariel keenly mimicking the gestures of the island’s invaders. The colonial metaphor was pushed through to its logical conclusion so that finally Ariel gathered up the pieces of Prospero’s abandoned staff and, watched by awe-struck tribesmen, fitted them back together to hold his wand of office aloft before an immobilized Caliban. The Tempest suddenly acquired a new political dimension unforeseen by Shakespeare’. Source: http://bufvc.ac.uk/shakespeare/index.php/title/av70946
In addition to playing Prospero onstage, Von Sydow has influenced many stage and screen productions of Hamlet due to his iconic portrayal of the knight Antonius Block in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal:
The whole movie is sort of a Hamlet spin-off, in that the title character has seen the pain and suffering of the world and is pondering the meaning of life, while constantly aware that Death is watching him and waiting to take him. The gothic atmosphere has influenced hundreds of productions from Olivier to Zefirelli. The film has even inspired parodies like Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, and Last Action Hero, which of course is a deconstruction of the action movie genre that acknowledges that its roots lie in Hamlet:
Arguably what Bergmen and Von Sydow did with “Seventh Seal” was outline the courses of action that Hamlet considers in “To Be Or Not To Be,” namely whether to sit inactive, or to actively choose murder. Action heroes are basically men who deal with the fear of death, by inflicting death on ‘bad guys,’ yet however they try, Death gets them all in the end. Even Luke Skywalker, who escapes death many times, and begs his father and his master Yoda not to die, cannot change the inevitability of death.
#4: Julian Glover
One of the smaller bit part actors in Star Wars is actually a very distinguished Shakespearean actor. Julian Glover, who played General Maximillian Veers in The Empire Strikes Back, (and later played Walter Donovan in Indiana Jones), spent many years at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and turned out some wonderful performances. If you watch this clip from the documentary In Search Of Shakespeare, you can see him perform as King Lear, and the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father.
To be honest, I don’t care much for Alec Guinness’ acting. He has a great presence and a subtle but clear delivery, (what do you expect for someone whose name is an anagram for “Genuine Class)? That said, I feel he’s never having any fun in his roles. It might also surprise you to learn that he didn’t like playing his most famous role:
ir Alec Guinness regretted playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy. He called the dialogue “lamentable.” n fact, in his autobiography, he recounted a story in which a fan asked for an autograph and told Guinness that he had seen Star Wars more than 100 times. Guinness claims he gave the autograph on the condition that the fan never watch the movie again.
Buzzfeed- “6 Actors Who Regretted Taking A Role And 6 More Who Regretted NOT Taking One”
Even though I don’t enjoy Sir Alec Guinness in Star Wars or in Shakespeare, for the purposes of this list, he has done decades of work on stage and he has helped shaped modern Shakespearean acting, (for good or ill). But, don’t take my word for it, judge for yourself:
#2: Ian McDiarmid
Not only is this actor essential to the Star Wars universe, playing the diabolical Emperor Palpatine, Ian McDiarmid has made an indelible impression on the world of Shakespeare. He’s appeared onstage as Shylock, Timon Of Athens, and many others. He also served as Artistic Director for the Almeida Theater in England, helping to stage many other high profile productions of Shakespeare and other plays.
My favorite performance of his though, has got to be as the Porter in Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth. Since McDiarmid is actually Scottish, he was allowed to use his natural accent. He’s funny as the drunken comic relief, but there’s a wicked gleam in his eye. After seeing him as Palpitine, I wondered if he was actually Satan, coming up from Hell to greet King Duncan (since Macbeth is murdering him upstairs). Perhaps this is the real Devilish porter, ready to carry away the king’s soul. What do you think?
#1: James Earl Jones
You probably saw this coming. Maybe this is some cultural bias since I’m American, but James Earl Jones is the pinnacle of American Shakespeareans, and we owe a lot to him and he himself owes a lot of his career to Shakespeare. Jones’ first ever film role in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, came about after he and George C. Scott were both acting in “The Merchant Of Venice.” Kubrick saw the show and hired them both (Source: The Wall Street Journal).
Since then, in addition to playing the voice of one of the most iconic villains of all time, (and the lion equivalent of Hamlet’s father), Jones has become one of the most beloved and acclaimed actors of our day, and his Shakespeare work is truly incredible. If you watch the documentary above, Mr. Jones talks about how he created his performances as King Lear and Othello, which were truly magnificent. In my opinion, James Earl Jones gave the best performance as Lear in the 2nd half of the 20th century, and his Othello was one for the ages.
Not only has his work onstage advanced the craft of acting, Jones has freely shared his knowledge and experience at colleges and universities around the country, including my own. I heard him talk plainly but eloquently about Shakespeare’s characters, his approach to race, and his insight into the plays that could only come from many years inhabiting some of Shakespeare’s most iconic characters. If you ever read this Mr. Jones, Thank you for being an inspiration on film, on stage, and in the classroom!
It’s not hard to see why so many actors have been drawn to Shakespeare and Star Wars. They are both drawn from epic myths that examine what it means to be human, to be part of a family, and to fight for what we believe in. Every actor on this list used their experience with Shakespeare to help bring these iconic Star Wars characters to life, and today I honor their contributions to The Great Globe, and A Galaxy Far Far Away.
If you read my blog for an extended period of time, or if you listen to my podcasts, or if you’ve taken any of my classes online, then I probably told you the notion that I believe that you could find Shakespearean roots in just about every single work of Western and quite a few of Eastern literature. Shakespeare is ingrained in our culture and therefore a lot of his influence can be felt in almost every bit of media we take in. One of my favorite ways to illustrate this, is by looking at Disney movies, trying to prove that every Disney story is at least a little bit inspired by a Shakespeare play as you’ve seen from my comedy series if Shakespeare wrote for Disney:
I had an enormous challenge on my hands when Disney came out with the new film Encanto. Previously I’ve found it very easy to deconstruct Disney film plots and spot their Shakespearean roots: Pocahontas is Romeo and Juliet by Disney’s own admission, Aladdin is basically the Tempest, Mulan is Twelfth Night, and the Lion King is Hamlet, as many people have pointed out.
Encanto was really really hard because it is such a fresh and original story. It is deeply rooted in Columbian culture, so trying to defend the notion that it has anything in common with the works of a 400 year old English male playwright is a tough claim. I don’t mean to suggest that this movie is a deliberate reinterpretation of Shakespeare. That would be insulting and limiting to the breadth of the story. My main purpose with this post is to show how universal and powerful these two stories are- to pay Encanto the compliment that, like Shakespeare, the story transcends cultural and historical boundaries and tells a story we can all relate to, and this is why I am making this bold claim, that Encanto resembles King Lear, albeit with a happy ending.
It was hard for me to realize that Encanto resembles Lear because the Lear character is not the focus of the movie; the focus of the movie is the Cordelia character Mirabelle if you’ve read King Lear or then you know that Cordelia is vital to the first 2 scenes of the play, and then goes offstage until Act 4 when where she is reunited with her father in prison, then cures his madness just long enough for her to be hanged. Her death is the darkest, grimmest, bleakest moment that Shakespeare ever wrote. She is the heart of the play and Lear’s failure to listen to her forms the heart of the play’s message; when an older generation clings to power and power or money or status or anything else besides their family, ultimately they suffer tremendously.
In his first line of the play King Lear, the king says that he wants to give up his kingdom, conferring it to his daughters and their husbands, but what he is really trying to do is to get his daughters to say they love him and to give them the kingdom as a reward.
This deal also has more strings attached; Lear basically says: “Now that I’ve given you my kingdom, you have to house me in your castle with a retinue of a 100 knights.” And the only child who really loves Lear and has his best interest in hearts is Cordelia, and Lear violently disclaims yet disclaims her and and renounces his permit his parental claims on her and yeah and since and since her and banishes her from the kingdom along with her husband the king of France.
So who is the king Lear figure in the Encanto? Abuela Alma! Think about it, she is a woman who is spending the whole play clinging and holding on to the power that the Magic Candle gives to her. she spends the whole movie trying to protect the Encanto, and when she mistakenly believes that Mirabelle is a threat, she pushes her away. Her other children Papa, Julietta, and Bruno she rules with an iron fist, and she flies into panics and rages whenever anything seems to threaten the safety of the candle. For example, when Bruno gets the magic prophecy that Mirabelle might destroy the house and destroy the Encanto, Abuela refuses to let Mirabelle talk to anybody ever and generally acts in a cruel controlling way.
Look at this passage when Lear rejects his loving daughter Cordellia. Given what I’ve mentioned- the fists of rage, the clinging to supernatural powers, and the controlling demands for loyalty and obedience from his children, who does King Lear sound like?
Lear: For, by the sacred radiance of the sun, The mysteries of Hecate and the night; By all the operation of the orbs115 From whom we do exist and cease to be; Here I disclaim all my paternal care, Propinquity and property of blood, And as a stranger to my heart and me Hold thee from this for ever. The barbarous Scythian,120 Or he that makes his generation messes To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom Be as well neighbour'd, pitied, and reliev'd, As thou my sometime daughter. King Lear, Act I, Scene i.
As Ian McKellen explains in this interview, like Abuella, Lear clings to power, which he derives from supernatural forces, ignores people who care about him, and believes that his authority is absolute:
Power and violence in Encanto and King Lear
Marxist critics believe that Lear’s power s is based on violence like most medieval kings and violence is actually connected to abuela as well. Let’s not forget that the candle was forged after the faceless Men with machetes attempted to murder abuela and her whole village. The candle is Abuela’s power, but it is also a constant reminder of the violence that she escaped. It is also therefore a symbol of her trauma. Perhaps these characters became so controlling and distant and cold because of the trauma they endured. Lear is supposed to be a king of Britain back in the pre Christian era of the Anglo Saxos; he must have seen countless invasions:
The former king says himself that he’s fought in wars with his good biting falchion (a kind of sword). Whether they’ve seen falchions or machetes, these characters have seen violence and want to protect themselves against seeing the pain of it again, and ultimately it is their children that suffer because of it.
In King lear the kingdom is ripped apart between the 3 daughters and in Encanto, the house is literally ripped apart by the rift between the family and Abuela. Lear foolishly tries to bribe his daughters into flattering him; promising them the kingdom if they demonstrate how much they love him. Therefore Lear demands obedience and love and expects his family to fawn on him as if they were his subjects, not his family.
Lear’s favorite daughter Cordelia refuses to take the bribe and cannot put her love into words, so she says nothing. Lear is enraged and treats this small disobedience like an act of treason:
Arguably Abuella makes the same mistake. She treats her children as her subjects too and exploits their gifts in order to keep the community happy. Her fear of losing her home is the reason she pushes them all to be indispensable to the community. Think of the psychological and physical pressure Louisa mentions in her song:
Much like Lear and Cordelia, Mirabelle and Abuela argue about how her clinging to the past is hurting her family and how the pressure she puts on them is literally ripping their home and family apart:
Perhaps the biggest connective motif between Encanto and King Lear is the the motif of sight and sightlessness. Both Lear and Lord Gloucester are blind to the danger that they’re in and blind to who their real friends and enemies are. Lear trusts his 2 elder daughters because they flatter him, he trusts his drunken Knights who only succeed in getting him forced out of the cold. Conversely, Lear ignores Cordelia. who really loves him, as well as Kent, who is a loyal nobleman to the very end, and he ignores the Fool because he’s a fool. If he had heeded any of their advice he would not have died alone and powerless. Therefore his sightlessness is a deadly weakness.
Gloucester, the other old man character in Lear has another problem with sightlessness and his is much more literally. Gloucester’s bastard son Edmond deceives him into thinking that his legitimate son Edgar is plotting to kill him. The old man sends Edgar away, makes Edmund his heir, and then Edmond betrays him and gets him arrested for treason.
In the play’s most savage scene, Gloucester is tortured and his eyes are literally pulled out of his head. From this moment Gloucester finally sees Edmond’s treachery, and he laments that he stumbled when he saw. Gloucester feels like he is finally able to see clearly now that he is blind not unlike the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex.
of course nothing this gruesome can be shown in a Disney movie but the image of sight is constantly referenced in Encanto visually, and also through the lyrics of the songs. Even the name of the character; Mirabelle comes from the Spanish word ‘mira’ which means to look, and the first thing one might notice about her is her brightly painted green glasses, which constantly draw attention to her ability to see.
Mirabelle, like Cordelia is able to see that her family is in pain, she sees that her family, the Encanto, and the house is a danger while Abuela is constantly deluding herself and everybody else in thinking that nothing is yet wrong. Through the course of the movie, Mirabelle is able to fix the various problems she sees. For instance, she sees that her sister Louisa is taking on too many responsibilities and refusing to admit that she is tired and feels weak. She realizes that her sister Isabella is tired of being the perfect golden child, that her Uncle Bruno is not the monster that the family declare him to is be layer him to be, (however catchy their song about him is), and It is through her sight and her perceptiveness that Mirabelle is able to heal the wounds in her family, The last wounds that she heals, of course, are the cracks on her house, and her own Abuella’s wounds, the wounds that went deep through her and even deep through her house; she mends the problems that happened the instant that that candle came into being,
Notice how many times the words “look,” and “see” are mentioned in the lyrics. Mirabelle re-iterates how each person in her family is more than their gifts, more than just the roles Abuella put them in, and they respond by telling her to look at her own gifts and be proud of who she is. She heals them by seeing them as they are, and they heal her by seeing her too.
It was when I realized this that I understood that this movie is what would have happened if King Lear had only listened to the people who really cared about him, and did not succumb to idle flattery, if he did not let his pain and his trauma dictate the rest of his life. There’s a wonderful hopeful message here that family wounds can be healed if we take time to see and address them. If you read King Lear and then see the movie you can see both how these family wounds can be healed, and the tragic consequences if they are not.
I hope that this little post has helped you appreciate both works because they are both magnificent and they are both carefully constructed and they both tell a very simple lesson for all families. As families, we need to recognize our faults, forgive faults in others, and work together to mend the pain and suffering that we experience in our lives. Mirabell and Cordelia show that we can all be heroes if we see the truth, and speak what they feel not what they ought to say.
Gloucester and His Sons, PBS Learning Media: Shakespare Uncovered: witf.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/shak15.ela.lit.gloucester/gloucester-and-his-sons-king-lears-subplot-shakespeare-uncovered/?student=true
Just in time for October, I’m offering an online class for kids ages 13-18 about Shakespeare’s most spooky and cursed play:
If you follow this blog you know I’ve written a lot about this play before. Though this class will be more like a game where I teach the class using multimedia, games, and a digital escape room!
I’ll start by speaking to the students in character as Shakespeare, and tell them the story of Macbeth using a multimedia presentation.
I will then test the students’ knowledge with a fun quiz that was inspired by the popular mobile game Among Us. As you know, the game is similar to a scene from the play, so I thought it would be an appropriate way to test the kids’ knowledge.
The final part of the class is a digital escape room I’ve created. I don’t want to give too much away, and you can’t play it unless you sign up for the class, but let’s just say it’s fun, spooky, educational, and challenging!
If you want to sign up now, the course is available every weekend in October, and then by request after that. Register now at Outschool.com. if you take the course, please leave me a good review.
For February, I would like to give a shoutout to a wonderful article I read about famous black Shakespearean actors, and to link to a few of my old posts that detailed how Shakespeare approaches the issue of race. Enjoy: