52 Famous Actors Who Took On Shakespeare

You may or may not know that these 52 strutting actors went head-to-head with The Bard. Do they do him justice? I’ll let you decide.

1. Tom Hiddleston

Courtesy of BBC / Via thetimes.co.uk

Not only was he in the recent Hollow Crown series as Henry V, Hiddleston has been known to step up on stage and really do Shakespeare justice.

His next Shakespearean adventure will be at the Donmar Warehouse as Coriolanus, starting in December 2013.

2. Billy Boyd

Lord of the Rings star Billy Boyd is currently at the Globe, as Banquo in a very good production of Macbeth.

3. Russell Brand

Courtesy of Touchstone Films

The comedian was Trinculo in the 2010 film version of The Tempest.

4. Alex Kingston

Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth is wonderful opposite Kenneth Branagh. Try catching a broadcast of the play at your local theatre - it’s really good.

5. James McAvoy

Courtesy of BBC, Johan Persson / Trafalgar Studios

The Scottish actor took on the Scottish play twice in the last few years, first as Joe Macbeth in Shakespeare Re-told (2005 ) and then the lead in a post-apocolyptic vision of Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios in 2013 (which WAS AWESOME btw).

6. Ralph Fiennes

Courtesy of Weinstein Company

From the English Patient to Harry Potter to Shakespeare, Fiennes has proven to be both versatile and generally awesome. He directed and starred in this well-received version of Coriolanus in 2011.

7. Helena Bonham-Carter

Courtesy of Warner Brothers, Courtesy of Fine Line

This famous actress played Olivia in the film version of Twelfth Night and Ophelia in Hamlet (opposite Mel Gibson).

8. Anne Hathaway

Courtesy of Brigitte Lacombe / Shakespeare in the Park / Via tumblr.com

Hathaway took on the role of cross-dressing Viola of Twelfth Night in the 2009 Shakespeare in the Park season.

9. Keanu Reeves

Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films / Via wordpress.com

Before he was Neo, he was Don John, the bastard villain in Much Ado About Nothing. He didn’t have a sandwich but he was pretty sad - as his character says in act 1, scene 3: “… the sadness is without limit… I cannot hide what I am: I must be sad when I have cause and smile at no man’s jests.”


10. Laurence Fishburne

Courtesy of Columbia / Via upload.wikimedia.org

Pre-Morpheus, Fishburne was Othello, a dude with major jealousy issues and a tendency to smother wives.

11. Anthony Hopkins

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Film Corp. / Via blog.soton.ac.uk

Cannibalism, lol.

But actually, yeah, Hopkins played titular role in the film Titus (Titus Andronicus), further cementing my life rule, “NEVER TRUST MEAT PIES.”

12. Kate Winslet

Courtesy of Sony Pictures / Via mmimageslarge.moviemail-online.co.uk

Ophelia, in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film version of Hamlet.

13. Kate Beckinsale and Robert Sean Leonard

Courtesy of BBC/Renaissance Films/Samuel Goldwyn Films / Via movieforum.com

Before she was off being a vampire, Beckinsale played Hero in Much Ado and before he was chasing House around Princeton, Leonard took on Claudio.

14. Jonathan Rhys Meyers

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Film Corp. / Via media.irishcentral.com

He plays Chiron in the film Titus and…well, let’s just say he’s not the nicest character and doesn’t get the nicest fate. Go read the play or watch the movie, yeah?

15. Ben Whishaw

Courtesy of Neal Street Productions / NBCUniversal, Courtesy of Touchstone Films

The last few years have been rather Shakespearean for Whishaw, who played an intriguing version of Ariel in The Tempest and a splendid Richard II for the Hallow Crown series. He was also bloody amazing as Hamlet in 2004.

16. Billie Piper and Catherine Tate

Courtesy of BBC

Johan Persson


Companions vs. Shakespeare: Fight!

Piper played the unfortunate Hero in Shakespeare Re-told’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Catherine Tate was glorious as Beatrice opposed David Tennant as Benedick at the Wyndham Theatre in 2011. You can catch it at DigitalTheatre.com- totally worth it.

17. David Tennant

Alastair Muir / Via blogger.com


Continuing the Doctor Who theme, the 10th Doctor’s most famous Shakespearean roles are probably Hamlet (with Patrick Stewart as Claudius) and Benedick (with Catherine Tate) BUT he’s actually done quite a lot of Shakespeare in the last 20 odd years AND is set to take on Richard II later this year.

Much Ado Clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcBIGT70JG4&noredirect=1

18. Rory Kinnear

Geraint Lewis / Via i.telegraph.co.uk

“My name is Hamlet and I am unimpressed with this skull.”

You might remember Kinnear from Skyfall but I’ll always remember him as a particularly good Hamlet and earlier on, a likewise excellent Laertes. Last year, he joined Whishaw and Hiddleston in the BBC’s Hollow Crown series as Bolingbroke (Richard II).

If you’re in London and can get a hold of tickets, he’s currently at the National Theatre, playing the evil-no-good-baddie Iago from Othello.

19. Colin Morgan

Marc Brenner / facebook.com / Via tumblr.com

The Merlin star is currently at the Globe, playing Ariel in the Tempest, alongside actor Roger Allam.

20. Denzel Washington

Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn / Via wordpress.com

As the Prince, Don Pedro, in Much Ado About Nothing. He also took to the stage for Richard III in 1990.

21. Stephen Fry

Simon Annand / Via london-theatreland.co.uk

Stephen Fry is bloody amazing in everything he puts his mind to.

Shakespeare is no exception.

Malvolio, Twelfth Night, 2012.

22. Morgan Freeman

Courtesy of Martha Swope / The New York Public Library / Via playbill.com

Freeman was Petruchio in the 1991 season of Shakespeare in the Park, featuring a Western-themed Taming of the Shrew. It wasn’t his first performance there - he was also in Coriolanus in 1979.

23. Robin Williams

Courtesy of Columbia / Via mimg.ugo.com

Robin Williams took on the minor role of Osric in Branagh’s Hammy.

24. William Shatner

Courtesy of Group W Productions / Westinghouse Broadcasting Company / Via youtube.com

Shatner actually trained and started out his career as a Shakespearean actor. Makes you look at the TOS episode “The Conscience of the King” a bit differently!

Not sure if I agree with his interpretation of the ever famous “2Brnot2B” speech but it’s interesting. (starts about 50 seconds in)

25. Michelle Pfeiffer

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight / Via a69.g.akamai.net

As Titania, Queen of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She falls in love with an ass, played by Kevin Kline, another very, very good Shakespearean actor. (1999)

26. Christian Bale

Before he was Batman, he was Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And before that…well, you’ll see later in the list ; “)

27. Al Pacino

Pictured here as Shylock in the 2004 film version of Merchant of Venice.

28. Dame Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren was excellent in the 2010 film version of the Tempest, playing badass wizard ‘Prospera’ and it certainly wasn’t the first time she took on Shakespeare.

29. James Earl Jones

You might know him as the voice of one of the greatest baddies of film history but he’s far, far more than that. James Earl Jones has done quite a lot of Shakespeare and is teaming up with Vanessa Redgrave in Sept. 2013 to star in Much Ado, which will likely blow lots of socks out of the water. Wait, was that a mixed metaphor?


30. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton

Their most famous dalliance with Shakespeare was the film version of Taming of the Shrew, which is rather violent and not exactly fun to watch. (1967)

31. Mel Gibson

“Yorick? *poke, poke* That u bro?”

As Hamlet, 1990.

32. Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum

Does this count? Yeah, I think it counts.
She’s The Man (2005) is technically based off of Twelfth Night: Amanda Bynes as Viola and Channing Tatum as “Duke.”

33. Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

In that same line of thought, this is technically Taming of the Shrew (1999)…
Stiles as Kate (Kat Stratford), Ledger as Petruchio (Patrick Verona), Gordon-Lewitt as Lucentio (Cameron James).

34. Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes

As Romeo and Juliet in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.

35. Nathan Fillion and Clark Gregg (plus the rest of Whedon-verse)

If you haven’t seen Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, STOP READING THIS LIST AND GET THEE TO A CINEMA, YESTERDAY. It’s fantastic and peopled with your favorite actors from Firefly, Buffy, and the rest of the Whedon-verse. Fillion played Dogberry and Gregg took on Leonato.

If you’re a geek and love Shakespeare (yes, yes, my hand is raised) you might just weep tears of happiness.

36. Dame Maggie Smith

You might know her from Downton Abbey or as Professor McGonagall, but she’s also famous for her performances in Shakespeare’s plays. Her 1965 role as Desdemona (Othello) had her in the running for an Oscar and she’s been in numerous stage adaptations. (Yes, that is Laurence Olivier in blackface. Sigh.)

37. Sir Patrick Stewart

I adore Patrick Stewart for lots of reasons; his role as Captain of the Enterprise, his role as Professor X, his words against domestic violence, his twitter adventures in New York, his awesome Shakespearean work, and of course, this cameo on Sesame Street. B OR NOT A B. ZOUNDS!

38. Sir Ian McKellen

Likewise, Ian McKellen is amaze-balls, from his pro-LGBTQ work to his prodigous acting ability, as awesome a villain (Magneto) as a wise and guardian-like wizard (Gandalf). He also has a history of being a badass Shakespearean actor (check out his creepy Richard III or his Macbeth opposite Dame Judi Dench).

39. Dame Judi Dench

Judi Dench has such a vibrant stage presence - she’s one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of her generation. Pictured as Juliet, 1960, Old Vic.

40. Emma Thompson

Forget Trelawney or Nanny McPhee - Emma Thompson is FIERCE as Beatrice, among other Shakespearean roles.

41. Sir Laurence Olivier

“Yay, cuddle with skulls time!”

Ain’t no Shakespeare list gonna avoid Olivier. He and Shakespeare go together like, I don’t know, Joss Whedon and awesomeness? He’s pictured here as Hamlet, in 1948.

42. Natalie Portman and Michael Fassbender

Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images, Stuart Wilson / Getty Images / Via independent.co.uk

Ok, this hasn’t happened yet BUT I’M TOO EXCITED NOT TO ADD IT.
In 2014, Portman and Fassbender will be coming together as Lady Macbeth and her hubby. Too cool.

43. Sir Kenneth Branagh

If there’s a name you should connect with Shakespeare nowadays, it’s probably Kenneth Branagh, who made movies based on Shakespeare profitable for pretty much the first time in modern film history.

He’s also a damn fine actor, starring in some of the most famous of Shakespeare’s heroes and villains. Gilderoy Lockhart he’s not - he’s basically spent the last 30 years being active and awesome in the world of theatre and film. ’

This speech is from Henry V (if you look closely, you might find a baby Batman).

His latest project is starring in and co-directing Macbeth - it will be rebroadcasting across the world soon, it’s really good, and you should try to catch it!

There’s no list in the world that could do justice to 400 years of actors taking on Shakespeare… But if you have a suggestion for a name that’s missing, leave it in the comments!

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