For the love of actors and iambic pentameter: Some thoughts on Ian McKellen’s ‘Acting Shakespeare’

I love to watch actors have their own passionate geek-outs about playing Shakespeare, so Sir Ian McKellen’s filmed one-man-show from the early 1980’s, Acting Shakespeare (Dir. Kirk Browning), has been on my to-watch list for a long time.  With only a velvet high-backed chair, a small box that serves as both occasional stool or table, and a magenta copy of The Complete Works, McKellen offers his actorly tribute to William Shakespeare.  This tribute includes bits and pieces of McKellen’s personal acting history, interspersed with some of Shakespeare’s greatest speeches.

It is pure, Shakespeare geek-out triumph, and I loved it.

Although Acting Shakespeare is a shameless-but-delightful showcase of McKellen’s knack for the language of Renaissance drama (cue Magneto voice), the production still makes a good argument about the Bard: that, as far as we can tell from his plays, Shakespeare had a deep respect for honest and thoughtful actors.  It’s easy to forget that Shakespeare was a player before he was a playwright, and he very likely kept up with the playing until the end of his London career.  I like to imagine (and I know I’m not alone on this) that one of the reasons he was so good at writing language for the stage was because he knew what it felt like to perform himself.

Production poster for
Production poster for “Acting Shakespeare” (Fair Use)

I read a theory once (I think it may have been in Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, but I can’t find the reference now) that claimed the Elizabethans imagined iambic pentameter as the way language would sound if human beings were greater than they actually are.  You get that feeling when you watch Ian McKellen recite speeches from Henry V, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet.  It’s not just his presence as an actor that makes you notice this shift towards greatness—the language itself is the special effect.

Watching this reminded me of how great it can feel to have some Shakespeare tucked away in your brain.  While studying for prelims, I filed away bits and pieces of all the plays on my reading list, digging for “thesis lines,” greatest hits, and (admittedly/shamelessly) party tricks.  But the greatest part of that process was the triumphant feeling of having something beautiful to say, whenever you needed to say it.  Not that I was slinging around iambic pentameter whenever the opportunity presented itself.  But I did do a lot of poetry recitations to myself, alone, in the car on the way to work.  With geeky ambition, I learned the soliloquies of roles I may never (or may…?) get to play, just for the sake of learning them.  (When I saw our university’s production of Twelfth Night this week, I even caught myself reciting Viola and Olivia’s lines in my head, feeling the mental jolt whenever a line was dropped or changed.)

There’s wild and strange power in memorized lines, and I think Shakespeare respected that power.  He gave it to his actors freely and confidently by offering them language that “makes humans seem greater than they actually are”—this is what McKellen’s show highlights best.

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[IN OTHER NEWS: Today is the last day of classes for the school year, which is simply tremendous.  I celebrated by turning in chapter #1 of my dissertation, so general feelings of triumph are currently abounding in the Bailey Parker household.   I will now go read magazines and finish Parks and Recreation until it’s time to start chapter #2.  Happy May Day!]

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