Judi Dench writes of her career in Shakespeare roles : Consider This from NPR Dame Judi Dench has played everyone from the writer Iris Murdoch to M in the James Bond films. But among the roles the actress is most closely associated, are Shakespeare's heroines and some of his villians.

Amongst those roles are the star-crossed lover Juliet, the comical Titania and the tragic Lady Macbeth. Now she's reflecting on that work, and Shakespeare's work in Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays The Rent.

The book is comprised of Dench's conversations with her friend, the actor and director Brendan O'Hea.

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Judi Dench reflects on a career built around Shakespeare

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GWYNETH PALTROW: (As Viola de Lesseps) Your Majesty.

JUDI DENCH: (As Queen Elizabeth I) I've seen you. You are the one who comes to all the plays at Whitehall, at Richmond.

PALTROW: (As Viola de Lesseps) Your Majesty.


That is Dame Judi Dench and Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1998 movie "Shakespeare In Love."


DENCH: (As Queen Elizabeth I) Playwrights teach us nothing about love. They make it pretty, they make it comical or they make it lust. They cannot make it true.

PALTROW: (As Viola de Lesseps) Oh, but they can. I mean, Your Majesty, they do not. They have not. But I believe there is one who can.

KELLY: The one who Paltrow is referring to is William Shakespeare. In that scene, Dench plays a skeptical Queen Elizabeth I. And I will say her performance is brilliant for a bunch of reasons. Among them, I don't think Dench believes a word of what her character is saying. She built her career around Shakespeare's work, playing everyone from star-crossed lover Juliet.


DENCH: (As Juliet) Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near the day. It was the nightingale and not the lark that pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.

KELLY: Also, the tragic Lady Macbeth.


DENCH: (As Lady Macbeth) Here's a spot.

IAN MCKELLEN: (As Macbeth) She speaks.

DENCH: (As Lady Macbeth) Out, damned spot. Out, I say.

KELLY: To the comical Titania in "A Midsummer Night's Dream".


DENCH: (As Titania) What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?

KELLY: Just a few of Shakespeare's leading ladies who Dench has played over the decades. She reflects on all of them in the new book, "Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays The Rent." It chronicles a series of conversations over four years between Dench and her friend, the actor and director Brendan O'Hea.


KELLY: CONSIDER THIS - we know the news can be a lot. That is why we're taking a break today to listen to actress Dame Judi Dench as she reflects on the role Shakespeare's work has played in her career.


KELLY: I'm Mary Louise Kelly.


KELLY: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Here's my conversation with Judi Dench and her friend, the actor and director Brendan O'Hea, about their new book, "Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays The Rent."

When you learn these lines for these iconic characters, how long do they stay with you? I'm not going to force you to do it. I'm not putting you on the spot, but if you had to recite these lines again, could you do them all?

DENCH: I could do the whole of "Twelfth Night" for you and the whole of "The Dream." I could do a lot of "Antony and Cleopatra" (laughter). You won't want any of this (laughter). And I - it's the only thing I can remember. I can't remember where I put my shirt yesterday or a pair of shoes. I can't remember what's happening tomorrow, and I can't remember what happened last week. Sonnets and Shakespeare I can remember.

KELLY: Why is that - something to do with the way you learned them or lived them?

DENCH: Something to do with the fact that the way he writes is like the beat of your heart. It's in iambic pentameter, so it's (vocalizing) da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da. And therefore, it's something that stays with you, I think.

KELLY: Brendan O'Hea, jump in here. The title of y'all's book is "The Man Who Pays The Rent." And I know that is because Judi Dench and your husband, Michael Williams - you worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company steadily over many, many years. But Brendan O'Hea, you say you considered a different title for the book - "Herding Eels."


BRENDAN O'HEA: Yeah. Yes. Oh, God. I'm going to be - she's sitting there right next to me. She might just smack me in the head in a minute. But it's impossible to pin Jude down, especially when talking about her craft. But because of - although, of course, so many people had a ghastly time during lockdown, it just allowed us to - just to go through all the plays, and it just gave us a focus. And Jude will - likes to muck about. I mean, any opportunity to muck about. So I'd have to say, well, look, there's some Butterkist in the other room, or there's a glass of champagne waiting for you. Let's just do five minutes. I know your game, she'd say. So yes, it took a lot of coaxing. She's very, very slippery. She doesn't like talking about her craft, but we got there in the end.

DENCH: Do you know my daughter sent my grandson to me, who taught me about TikTok? And Brendan rang and said, I'm going to come down and like a tartar would make me work all the time (laughter).

O'HEA: But it's also true to say it was never meant to be a book. It was just going to be recordings for the Shakespeare Globe for the archive department, and I just said, look, let me just go through all the plays with you, and we'll just chat about it, and I'll ask you questions. But because of Jude's potty mouth, I mean, there was quite a few swear words and then talk of ex-lovers. I thought, well, I can't hand this over. Of which there were quite a few, honestly.

DENCH: Brendan.

O'HEA: All right, I'm sorry.

DENCH: Brendan.

O'HEA: I'm sorry. Well, it's as long as Gibbon's...

DENCH: Brendan.

O'HEA: ..."Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire." I won't - right, we won't get into that. But it meant that I would have had to kind of edit so much, so I just - yes, I thought it's best to write this down and just do the juiciest bits. So it's distilled conversation.

KELLY: Speaking of the juicier bits. This leads me nicely to asking about a role that we did not just hear, the role of Hamlet's mother, Gertrude - or as you call her, Dirty Gerty.

DENCH: Dirty Gerty.

KELLY: You describe her, Judi Dench, as, quote, "quite a bling person" and, quote, "obviously up to no good." Explain.

DENCH: Well, Dirty - did I call her Dirty Gerty?

O'HEA: You did. You really did call her. I've got the recording of it, so there is proof, and it's in the book.

DENCH: Well, she's not particularly. She happens to have fallen in love with somebody else and married somebody else 'cause her husband has died. I'm going to take you up on this now, Brendan.

O'HEA: Well, there's just a quick turnaround, isn't there? You know, her husband's died. And as Hamlet says, within two months, she's married his uncle.

DENCH: Yes, quite.

O'HEA: And you said she's kind of sex-driven and likes a good drink and likes to wear fancy jewelry. Certainly, the production you...

DENCH: You've made that up.

O'HEA: No, it's all there. It's in the book and...


O'HEA: ...It's in the recordings.

DENCH: Mary Louise, there's a very good story about about playing "Hamlet" at The National. When I was - during the time I was playing it, my daughter was quite little. She's at an old age, I think would have been.

O'HEA: I'm not sure.

DENCH: But - no. But under kind of 11 or 10, I think. And one day...

KELLY: A girl.

DENCH: ...Came up offstage and came upstairs, and there she was, dressed in my costume from the next scene (laughter).

O'HEA: The closet scene.

DENCH: The closet scene. So I - that's when I knew she was going to be an actress (laughter).

KELLY: Now, is this the production where Daniel Day-Lewis was playing Hamlet?

DENCH: Yes, it is.

KELLY: And in the book, you describe how much you love working with him.

DENCH: Just loved it. And he was totally engrossed - well, as he always is, in every part. And that's when he had a breakdown one evening during - quite near the beginning. I can remember going up to see Jeremy Northam, who was understudying him. And there he was, as white as the wall he was sitting against with fear. And he took over brilliantly. And alas, we didn't have Dan, then, for the rest of that run at The National.

KELLY: I understand, Judi Dench, that your eyesight is deteriorating.

DENCH: It has.

KELLY: And I'm sorry, that must be...

DENCH: It has deteriorated.

KELLY: ...incredibly frustrating.

DENCH: I'm afraid it has...


DENCH: ...Deteriorated, yes. It's hopeless.

KELLY: Yeah.

DENCH: But, you know, it's part of acting - is part of being able to pretend you can see (laughter). And apart from the fact that I can walk straight past an old friend, I can act it and it doesn't matter. In the great scheme of things, it doesn't matter.

KELLY: Does it open any pathways as an actor to see the role in a different way?

DENCH: No. No, it closes because I can't - I realize, which I never had realized, that I need to know exactly where a speech is on a page and in relation to the other speeches. Well, of course, I can't do that. Can't do that. I can be taught a part, but I have to know it - actually where it sits, and that's impossible now. I mean, Brendan and I have done a lot of - we're going to do several, and we have done a lot of book festivals with this book.

KELLY: Yeah.

DENCH: So it's not only saved our life during COVID, but saved mine during this time when I can't say yes to a part because I can't see it.

KELLY: I hadn't thought about that - yeah - how important that is to the work of memorization.

DENCH: There are pluses to be had, though, if you look for them.

KELLY: Toward the end of your book, a question is posed. And I want to put it to each of you. The question is, does Shakespeare have a future? Brendan, you first - what's your answer?

O'HEA: Yeah, definitely. We unwittingly speak Shakespeare all the time. The word assassination - you know, we didn't know the word assassination until Shakespeare coined it. And there's a whole raft of other words and phrases that Shakespeare came up with. So we use him in everyday language unwittingly. But we will because he - well, Jude will expand a bit.

DENCH: No, I mean, that's absolutely perfect. There's nobody, in my estimation, who ever wrote about the whole raft of human feelings - about love, about envy, about idolatry, about sadness, about death, about the after. There's nobody who has written like that and who still remains with us and our, as I say, everyday expressions.

O'HEA: And I suppose another thing to add as well about the book - Jude is adamant about, you know, there's no right way of doing Shakespeare. And if I may say, you know, your approach is not pointy-finger. It's not didactic. It's a palms-open approach. I think you lay a place at the table for people to come and listen into our conversation, what you have to say, and allow people to pick the bones out of it and to formulate their own opinions. You would never say that there's one way of doing it.

DENCH: No, it's true. I mean, because everybody has different experiences of every emotion. And somebody who has been in love for the first time - they may not have been in love the way that Juliet is in love. But nevertheless, they understand the emotion. And Shakespeare was able to distill that. And you get a line like, my love is all as boundless as the sea. No, my bounty. Here I go. I've misquoted already. My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite. Well, we all want to say that at some time to somebody, don't we?

KELLY: Yes, we do. Esteemed Judi Dench and her friend, the actor and director Brendan O'Hea. Together, they have written "Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays The Rent." This was gorgeous. Thanks so much to both of you.

O'HEA: Oh, bless you.

DENCH: Thank you so much.

O'HEA: It's been a pleasure, Mary Louise.

DENCH: It has been lovely.

O'HEA: Thank you to you and your team.


KELLY: This episode was produced by Elena Burnett with audio engineering by Maggie Luthar. It was edited by Courtney Dorning. Our executive producer is Sami Yenigun.


KELLY: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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