The Best Shakespeare Monologues (or The Bard on Youtube)
"All the World's a Stage"
Okay, so I have this kind of unusual hobby: I enjoy roaming around Youtube looking for videos by unknown actors who have posted themselves performing Shakespearean monologues. Don't ask me why this is, but I like doing it. Obviously, a lot of them are not very good, but every now and then I find one that I really enjoy. Perhaps I'm hoping that someday one of these unknowns will become the next great actor and I can then say, "I knew that would happen way back when I saw their crappily shot little Youtube video." I suppose that could happen. At any rate I have a ton of bookmarks on the subject, sorted by whether I think that they deliver the goods or no.
But as part of my hobby, I also bookmark the performances by the great actors. So this is where I'm going to start. Hopefully, we'll get to the talented unknowns at some point down the road, but let's start off with some of the greats. Shall we?
"Friends, Romans, Countrymen" performed by Marlon Brando
The late, great Marlon Brando is often credited by cinephiles as the person most responsible for changing the way that actors act in film. He was also certainly one of the first to debunk the common (and still somewhat-persistent) notion that Americans can't do Shakespeare.
Dramatically, Shakespeare does a really interesting thing at the point in which this monologue appears: up until this point in Julius Caesar, it has been clear that Caesar is the villain and Brutus, though tortured by indecision, is clearly the one acting justly. Then, in the famous "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech by Mark Antony at the memorial of Julius Caesar, Antony, who up until now had been just a minor character, surprises everyone and turns things completely around. After which, well, basically all hell breaks loose.
It is a pivotal moment, wherein the actor playing Antony must wrench the entire production in another direction or the whole rest of the piece doesn't work. And Brando does it by sheer force, as he brings that same raw power and magnetism that shot him to stardom in A Streetcar Named Desire, and uses it to tear Rome apart. ~•~
"To be or not to be" performed by David Tennant
Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy is one of those speeches that is so famous that pretty much everyone in the English-speaking world knows at least that first line. Certainly, every great actor--as well as any male who has ever aspired to be a great actor--has taken a stab at it. There is a very good reason why: this speech--one man's tortured internal debate as to whether he should commit suicide--has to be one of the most beautifully written pieces of poetry in the English language. This whispered version by David Tennant really makes you feel that you are watching a man at the very, very end of his rope. ~•~
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"To be or not to be" performed by Kenneth Branagh
In the late 1980s, Kenneth Branagh single-handedly revived interest in turning Shakespeare into feature films. After his stellar version of Henry V hit movie screens, studios all competed to crank out Shakespeare the way that they are all currently competing to crank out superhero movies. Branagh took advantage of his new stature to direct and act in the most ambitious Hamlet film adaptation ever. Not only did he shoot it in the beautiful and insanely expensive 70mm film format, he also eschewed the common practice of cutting Shakespeare down to standard feature film length, instead he did the whole thing, 4 hours 2 minutes and every word that The Bard had intended.
He also took a slightly different approach to the character than most Hamlets you will see. Most actors will play Hamlet as a depressive, which makes sense since his most famous speech is about suicide. But Branagh's Hamlet is pissed off, which also makes sense since his uncle has not only killed his father, but married his mother, and screwed Hamlet out of a crown.
Branagh also makes a very interesting choice in the staging of his version of "To be or not to be:" not only are the other characters hidden and actually see him talking about killing himself, but Branagh suggests that Hamlet knows that they are watching him, which leads to the question of whether he is just messing with them. ~•~
"Now is the winter of our discontent" performed by Ian McKellan
Obviously I'm not telling anyone anything new when I say that Ian McKellan is one of the best actors around. He's always great in everything. But in this version of Richard III, he is phenomenal. Shakespeare's Richard--the hunchbacked, scheming usurper who becomes king--is a nasty, nasty character and McKellan portrays him as being as completely unlikeable as we can assume was originally intended.
The great thing about this version of this Shakespeare monologue is that it takes advantage of one of the key differences between stage and film: namely, the cut. This famous speech is basically Richard sarcastically making fun of the current king. But the staging of this version is brilliant and uses film technique to perfectly show Richard's 2-facedness.~•~
"Out,damned spot" performed by Judi Dench
It's often been lamented that Juliet and Beatrice aside, most of the really good parts in Shakespeare are for men. But certainly one of the best female roles has to be that of Lady Macbeth, the woman-behind-the-man who pushes her husband into greatness (though this does turn out to not be the best move).
It's a pretty good bet that at some point or another, the fantastic Judi Dench has played every female character in Shakespeare. It's also a pretty good bet that she did every single one of them really, really well. This scene, from the 1979 television version with Ian McKellan, is where the audience gets to see that Lady Macbeth, who seems hard and ambitious, is actually coming apart at the seams due to the strain of the atrocities she has persuaded her husband to commit.~•~
"If you prick us do we not bleed?" performed by Al Pacino
The famous "if you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech has always been considered one of The Bard's best. It was also certainly cutting-edge in its day. In a time when anti-semitism was right out in the open, and it was certainly considered socially acceptable for a playwright to portray Jews in a demeaning and stereotypical manner, this scene has the character of Shylock fighting back and pointing out the stupidity of bigotry.
In this version, Al Pacino really pulls this off. The way it is staged--at several points he starts to walk away, then turns back to face his tormenters--gives the feel that great acting is supposed to give: namely that the words coming out of the actor's mouth have just been formed in the character's head. This is particularly tricky with the poetic beauty of Shakespeare's words, but Pacino makes those brilliant words with their cutting incisiveness seem impromptu, rather than something written down hundreds of years ago and spoken by countless actors before him.~•~
"Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow performed by Ian McKellan
One of the greatest speeches ever written, performed by one of the best film actors around. Gosh, there's really not that much more to be said about this one. ~•~
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"Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow performed by Patrick Stewart
"Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow" is an eloquent few lines expressing the futility of life. A beautiful speech, which when delivered properly, can make even the most hardened person feel something. In this version, the great Patrick Stewart does just that: Macbeth is so mentally crushed that his wife's death is mere detail in the grand scheme of nothingness, and you can read that all over Stewart's face even in the long pauses in which he is not speaking a word. ~•~
Hugh Laurie & Rowan Atkinson as
William Shakespeare and the producer of
the first run of Hamlet.
They say that you shouldn't always take yourself so seriously. So here's one that's great at just that. ~•~