English playwright William Shakespeare is the most adapted author in the history of cinema, with hundreds of major productions of his works produced since the very beginning of filmmaking. His plays have also inspired plenty of original films by other creators.
With so many movies out there based on his works, there’s plenty of famous actors who have appeared in them that. For one reason or another, cinema fans may not know about these appearances themselves, or the movies in which they happen entirely. Here are some of the most notable.
Laurence Fishburne (Othello, 1995)
We begin with 1995’s Othello, a Kenneth Branagh adaptation of the Shakespeare play which saw Laurence Fishburne star as the titular character, Branagh himself playing Iago. By this point Fishburne had several notable roles and was far from a strange face to filmgoers.
However, his career hadn’t yet hit the stratosphere it would once The Matrix released in 1999, and so many filmgoers these days may forget, or even not know at all, about this stellar performance. It’s also the first cinematic adaptation of Othello to note use blackface for the character, which is disappointing only because it should’ve been that way from the beginning. Better late than never, though.
Mekhi Phifer (He, 2001)
The 2001 movie HE IS is a disguised teen movie Shakespeare adaptation of Othello, and followed on the trend of ’90s teen films lifting directly from Shakespeare. In this version, Mekhi Phifer plays Odin James, star of the high-school basketball team, as his best friend Hugo tries to ruin his life out of jealousy.
Directed by Tim Blake Nelson, the movie was a modest success at the time, even if mostly forgotten today. It’s a very dark movie for its setting, however, and is nothing like the Shakespeare teen rom-coms that preceded it in pop culture.
Ian McKellen (Richard III, 1995)
Even though he is perhaps most known for X-Men and Lord of the RingsThe Sir Ian McKellen has been an established Shakespeare actor for half a century, with an acclaimed stage run as Macbeth alongside Dame Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth in the 1970s.
No surprise, then, that he actually has two Shakespeare movie adaptations to speak of, but the theatrical release of 1995’s Richard III is one of his all-time best roles, and co-stars Annette Bening, Robert Downey Jr., and Dame Maggie Smith. He does an absolutely remarkable job, and both are definitely worth watching for Shakespeare film buffs.
Patrick Stewart (Hamlet, 2008)
Ian McKellen’s X-Men colleague Sir Patrick Stewart, reprising his role as Professor X in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, is also no stranger to Shakespeare. In fact, he’s so closely associated with the writer that Shakespeare references in Star Trek: The Next Generation abound
His turn as Hamlet‘s villain, Claudius, in a 2008 BBC adaptation is one for the history books. In this version, Prince Hamlet is portrayed by Doctor Who‘s David Tennant, and while he gives a star turn as Shakespeare’s most iconic character, it’s Stewart who steals the show.
Kate Winslet (Hamlet, 1996)
Kenneth Branagh loves his Shakespeare, and his 1996 adaptation of Hamlet is the one most faithful to the play… which means it’s more than four hours long. This definitely impacted its poor box office performance, and can be discouraging for potential viewers.
However, for Kate Winslet it was seemingly preparation for the also-long, also-epic Titanic a year later. She plays Ophelia across Branagh’s own performance as Prince Hamlet, even though the age gap between the actors is nearly 15 years. Each Titanic role may have eclipsed this one, but it’s still a noteworthy outing for the actress.
Ethan Hawke (Hamlet, 2000)
This is the last Hamlet, promise, but it seems plenty of Marvel actors have also had an affinity for portraying Shakespeare characters, and Ethan Hawke is no different. In 2000, long before he appeared in Moon KnightThe Hawke portrayed Prince Hamlet in an unusual take on the story.
In this version, Denmark is a corporation that has been taken over by Claudius, as opposed to a kingdom. The adaptation is very of-the-times in terms of the technology it deals with, but its idea of technological surveillance being a large part of society has only become more relevant as this century has progressed.
Keanu Reeves (Much Ado About Nothing, 1993)
another matrix actor who had a Shakespeare role many years before that movie, Keanu Reeves found himself playing Don John, the evil half-brother of Don Pedro, in 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the movie was also directed by, and co-stars, Kenneth Branagh.
Seeing Reeves as a Shakespearean villain is quite a unique turn for the actor, and the film was a box-office success. Emma Thompson, Michael Keaton, and Denzel Washington are other notable big names who appear in the film.
Orson Welles (Chimes at Midnight, 1966)
Like Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, Orson Welles first made a Shakespearean splash in the theater, as he set his adaptation of Julius Caesar in then-contemporary fascist Germany, which made it headline-grabbing and controversial.
Perhaps the least well-known of his Shakespeare films is Chimes at Midnight, the story of John Falstaff compiled from all his play appearances. Think of it as Netflix’s The Kingbut if it instead focused on Joel Edgerton’s character, rather than Timothée Chalamet’s. Citizen Kane may be his masterpiece, but this film is another of Welles’ top productions.
Heath Ledger (10 Things I Hate About You, 1999)
While it may be a loose movie adaptation of Shakespeare, 10 Things I Hate About You managed to become a teen-movie classic when it was released in 1999, and any one of the main cast members could justifiably be put here.
Heath Ledger is perhaps the most notable only because it was his breakout role, without which he perhaps would never have landed his roles as Ennis in Brokeback Mountain and the Joker in The Dark Knight. For someone who died so young, he had a versatile career, and it really began here.
Natalie Wood (West Side Story, 1961)
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story brought the Stephen Sondheim musical back into public consciousness when it released at the end of 2021, but the musical got its first big break in 1961 when it was turned to movie and Natalie Wood played Maria.
The original musical was based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and that makes Natalie Wood the stand-in for Juliet, as she falls in love with Tony, the Romeo of this production. Like Heath Ledger, Wood tragically died young, but left an impressive film legacy behind, including this classic movie.
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