Damian Lewis and Shakespeare

In the talk with Stacey Wilson Hunt at SAG-AFTRA Foundation last week, it is notable that Damian never had straight up formulaic answers for any of the excellent questions asked by the interviewer. He seemed to put some real thought into all his answers. Something struck out as requiring further exploration from that interview. When asked about the best advice he’d been given as an actor, Damian turned it around into a story of his biggest professional regret. Damian tells us that he was once offered a major role in a major Shakespeare production to be staged at the very major National Theatre by, as you can imagine, an appropriately superlative artistic director. In sharing this story, he provided a perfect instance of the notion that our biggest lessons come from our biggest mistakes.


It was a Shakespearean role. It was a big lead, with a big director. It was a big job, have you got that?

Damian discloses that he turned down this big role in order to do a press junket for a film and that was the biggest regret of his career to date. He alludes to there being pressure on him from the studio to push the film, but ultimately he takes all responsibility for making the decision he made. The press junket apparently had to happen in the midst of TechWeek in Paris and he couldn’t manage being in two places at the same time, so he chose to sell his film rather than perform at the National Theatre.

Damian was a bit coy about disclosing details on what sounded like a somewhat seminal event in his life. He even quipped that he expected the story to not leave the room: “I’ll tell you knowing that it won’t go beyond this room and all over the internet.” HA! Challenge accepted! We couldn’t help but to probe a little further. While I started wondering about the possibility of a search engine that could look up co-occurrence of two unnamed events, defined only by place (London and Paris) and time (early 2000’s), Damianista already had the answer stored away in her brain. She told me Damian had talked about the same event at an Emmy Roundtable in 2012.  She then confirmed her memory with some irrefutable evidence.

So we learn, the play Damian gave up was the Shakespearean comedy Love’s Labour Lost. That info was enough to send me clicking and I found that Love’s Labour Lost was staged at the National Theatre in 2002-03 and that it was the last production under the direction of Trevor Nunn at that theater. The reviews were fabulous, the set was gloriously designed, it was a well-received production all around, all the more reason for Damian’s deep regret at giving up his chance to be in it. The major role Damian spoke of must have been the hero Berowne, which ended up in the capable hands of Joseph Fiennes in his own debut at the National. And Fiennes himself got great reviews for his depiction of the vagaries of “punch-drunk love.”


As if all this wasn’t salt enough on the wound, Nunn set the play in WWI, taking flight from the word “Lost” in the title to insert grim gravitas into what would otherwise be a light-hearted comedy. He embellished the original script with an introductory scene set on the battlefield and wrote Berowne as a soldier. He then presented the romantic comedy as it was originally written, but book ended and peppered finely throughout by moments of acute pain. It sounds like an adaptation Shakespeare himself may have written specifically for Damian to play, were time machines actually a thing. Makes a feeling person really sense the sting of the “woulda coulda shoulda” Damian must have felt in giving up such an opportunity.

What did Damian choose to do instead in late 2002? His filmography tells us that, in that year, he had the lead role in a satire about Jeffrey Archer, a member of Parliament who resigned over financial scandal to become Conservative Party chairman only to resign again over another scandal. I haven’t been able to find the film in the States, but here’s a fun clip. It was a BBC production, also starring Polly Walker (Atia from Rome!) as Mrs. Archer and Greta Scacchi as Margaret Thatcher. It was intended to be a satirical take about a significant character in UK politics, but reviews were mixed, at best, albeit the project was “elevated by Damien Lewis’s sly performance as Archer.” Thus, when Trevor Nunn offered him the role of Berowne, Damian chose to go to Paris to promote this film.

PicMonkey Collage

I went looking for one word that captures the idea of “missed opportunity”. German is possibly the only language that may have such a chimera in its lexicon? I found this little gem:

Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been; I am also call’d No-more, Too-late, Farewell — Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The House of Life

Oh, well, you win some, you lose some. Generally as a pathologically optimistic person, I try not to dwell too much on mistakes and regrets, and I’ve made some doozies in my day. Likewise, it’s great to see that Damian seems to have recovered from this mistake early in his career and, indeed, learned a lasting lesson from it, helpfully transmitted to him by Trevor Dunn:

Never choose to go and sell something rather than create something.

Thankfully that play was not the last opportunity Damian would have of doing Shakespeare. He had one such opportunity recently reading Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech from Julius Caesar for The Guardian’s video series Shakespeare Solos.  And what a rich two and a half minutes of perfection is Damian as Antony!


The short clips provided by the series are a great delivery mechanism for what would otherwise be too much to manage, both in the huge investment to stage and for audiences who are increasingly determined to get their entertainment in bits and pieces, clicks here and there, and impatient with big art that makes you think. And what a wonder that clipping up Shakespeare as The Guardian does in these performance videos actually works! Would it work as well with other drama, you have to wonder? Shakespeare, I think, is unique. In Shakespeare, we get so much of our emotional life writ on paper, put on stage, sent to film, to our screens, making absolute sense that it be transmitted now to our desks and to our pockets. All for the purpose of giving us a window into our own emotional lives. These people, these words, are a vehicle to ourselves, the catalyst to our empathy. Watching them, really watching and listening, brings us more awareness of ourselves and allows us to better know our neighbors, near and far.

On to the speech, with, first, some context from my own memory of reading the play, knowing the story, and more recently, from the excellent HBO series, Rome. 🙂 In this speech Antony is speaking before the man who first drew the blow to murder Caesar, sent the dagger into his belly, and to the rest of the Roman Senate who joined in, mob style, to strike their own blows on the dying Caesar. All of this while Antony was powerless to stop it and obligated to resolve himself to the inevitability of what had to happen. So he speaks, not taking sides, a part of him understanding why the Senate did what it did to finally oust and destroy a ruler who was getting too big. (Caesar had become a dictator, dictator perpetuo, and the Senate was afraid the Republic would fall. Never mind that the Republic would fall anyway, Caesar or no Caesar.)

Antony was Caesar’s closest friend, he was his go-to guy. On the one hand, Antony wants to protect his own ass in this speech by not angering the Senate with too passionate a defense of the man they just ousted by murder. On the other hand, he wants to honor and mourn his friend.

Damian starts Antony’s speech with a mild smile, conciliatory, apologetic even, showing empathy for the murderers. Whenever I read Shakespeare I sort of translate in my head to colloquial language. Indulge me please as I do so to translate this speech: I’ll leave Shakespeare’s actual words in quotes, and everything else is my paraphrasing.

Antony starts: Caesar was evil, they all know, and his evil will live on, but whatever goodness he had will be buried with him. That’s the way of the world. “So let it be with Caesar.” Subtext (which we won’t know till the end of the speech): Yes, I’ll agree with what you did, but not before I remind ya’ll that the guy wasn’t all that bad.

The noble Brutus hath told you that Caesar was ambitious.

Yep, he was, and that sucked. But, sure, fine.

Brutus is an honorable man, so are they all honorable men.

Pause and tone switch.

He was my friend, faithful and just to me.

Damian shows us Antony’s love for Caesar with his eyes. Ironic, perhaps, because Shakespeare, as it’s often on stage, is usually not played with the eyes. But Damian can’t really help it. His voice and his eyes are inextricably bound. He repeats:

But Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man.

Here, Damian’s voice and eyes have become just a touch colder. He goes on: Caesar filled your coffers with loot, assuring all members of this nation wealth and prosperity. He wept for the poor and tried to assure that they’d be fed.

Ambition should be made of sterner stuff, but Brutus said he was ambitious and Brutus is an honorable man.

Anger is rising to the surface. Antony says: You all remember me trying to present him with a crown, right? Three times? And he refused it? All three times.

Was this ambition? Yet Brutus says he was ambitious, and, sure, he is an honorable man.

This is the fourth time he’s repeated the same phrase. Good old Willy Shakes loved patterns and symmetry, didn’t he? Anger has now reached the surface. There’s rage in the eyes, and the lines are delivered through gritted teeth. But let me check the anger, his face says. I’m not here to argue against what Brutus said or doubt his inherent honor. But, let me tell ya’ll what I “do know.” You all are the ones who named him leader in perpetuity. You all are the ones who wanted to crown him king.

You all did love him once. Not without cause.

You all had reason to love him and to support him. So why not cry now that he is gone? Why not mourn for him now? You all have become animals wanting to tear him limb from limb and to defend his murderers!


You’re not thinking!

Men have lost their reason.

Damian takes the anger to the very edge. Then: Hold on, let me pull this back. Damian’s smiling non-smile says: Sorry to lose my cool there for a hot minute.

Bear with me. My heart is in the coffin. There with Caesar. And I must pause till it come back to me.

My friend is dead and it hurts deeply. I need a minute. Antony out.

Granted, this is one of Shakespeare’s simpler speeches. Quite easy to dissect and understand the words and see the patterns: The repetitions, the counterpoint of the murderers’ “reason” vs Antony’s “heart”. Even the subtext is pretty obvious if you know the relationships and the story. And, many actors have spoken these words. (The internet tells me 11 actors have played Antony on film alone) There is no doubt of the structural soundness of the words. So, it’s solely the emotion behind the words which has varied from actor to actor. Some actors have bellowed the anger, letting their thunderous lungs do all the work. Some have twitched their mouths or shed a tear at the grief.

Damian neither bellowed nor cried. You see what he did here, right? He used the closeness of the camera to great effect to deliver the anger in increments. He took the repetitions and scaled his release of the anger accordingly. Sort of like a chemical titration, where one liquid is slowly, drop by drop, added to another, until just the perfect moment when the indicator liquid changes color and the reaction has reached an endpoint. Okay, that maybe a stretchy metaphor but it’s the thing that comes to mind when describing such a delivery. I guess I mean to say, he played the anger quite scientifically, governed by “reason”. Then for the grief, the “heart” part of the speech, he plays it as the undercurrent flowing beneath all the words, with his eyes and by letting his voice go soft.

Hell, yes, Damian Lewis needs to do more Shakespeare. On stage, on screen, or even a succession of little bites such as this one speech from Julius Caesar. He needs to do anything and everything, where he is afforded the space to play the full spectrum of emotional truths Shakespeare wrote for us.

We saw a taste of Damian playing Richard Burton playing Antony at a reading of Lawrence Wright’s yet-to-be-staged Cleo. Not much Shakespeare in that story, but, still, a connection, however tangential, between Damian and the Bard.

In the Guardian‘s series of Shakespeare Solos, I have to also call out Riz Ahmed’s excellent rendition of Edmund’s speech from King Lear, where he conveys so precisely the bitterness of being rejected as a bastard and the villiany he’s conjured to undermine the golden legitimate child Edgar. Love this:

Fine word, legitimate. Oh, am I legit, mate?

Indeed, Damian can do romance, comedy, he can do drama, and let’s not even think about him rocking a kilt as Macbeth. Here’s to the lot of us being around in 40 years time or however long it is until Damian eventually plays my absolute favorite of the canon, King Lear, as every great actor must.


11 thoughts on “Damian Lewis and Shakespeare”

  1. I watched this last night, as a friend posted it. I only managed to watch it with sound off, captions on, as I was in a room with other folks. I plan to watch it, sound on, over lunch today.

    Even with the sound off, his tremendous talent for body language was shining through. I didn’t even need to HEAR the words, I saw them on his face, even before I read them. I felt them. I understood them(as much as I love Willie, I have a hard time comprehending what he’s saying, at times). Wow.

    I love the nuance allowed in performing this on a tight close up. It truly is a unique way to see the actor interpret the words.

  2. Learning Shakespeare is like learning another language in many ways. I guess I had great teachers and I loved anything and everything having to do with literature that, even though I only read most of the stuff only once for assignments, I got a good feel for the language. I had one teacher in high school who would assign parts to students and we would all read a play together during class…and I often found myself sort of in a zone where the words started making sense. Then, when I took a Shakespeare class in college, I’d read it all aloud to really get the feel…really amazing how the emotion is transmitted and “understood”, even when some of the language isn’t. It really needs to be read out loud.
    I hope other media outlets get a tip from The Guardian and do more of these. I’m afraid there are generations who won’t even bother with Shakespeare and offering him up in little bites like this may play a huge role in getting young people to read and understand the material. Filming it at a close-up, well, it’s just a brilliantly new way to “see” Shakespeare done. We need more! And, my personal bias, of course, is that we get more of it specifically from Damian!

  3. I remember as a child young actors coming into schools and performing acts from different Shakespeare plays. This was to help them but also try and promote and encourage acting among youngsters.

    I enjoyed reading this and your thoughts on it. It is amazing how important to the art of acting Shakespeare’s works are. Endurance!

    Wonderful to note Damian talking about his regret at not doing the play. I believe there is a line from a famous song that goes “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again too few too mention.” Reflection is good, but it is also good he has just gotten on with his career and not allowed a bad decision to hold him back.

  4. Wonderful post!

    “Bear with me. My heart is in the coffin. There with Caesar. And I must pause till it come back to me.” gives me goosebumps every time I hear it! How is he doing that? I’d say Holliedazzle should write a post just on this one video. The way he uses his face and of course the camera to show us the anger he feels very very deeply is just incredible. I’d say this is certainly a TOP Damian Lewis moment in 2016 – taking note for end of the year posts! 😀

    Love it that you talk about how Shakespeare uses “Brutus is an honorable man” repeatedly in the speech. It’s fantastic — every time Damian says it you feel differently. As the anger comes out bit by bit, “Brutus is an honorable man” goes from positive to negative over the course of the speech. Just love it!

    Fingers crossed we all live long and see Damian doing Lear on stage. First row center. Tickets are on me! <3

    1. Thanks for the suggestion! JaniaJania did a lovely job speaking about much of the physicality that he used in this. I love that I have seen a turn toward more talk of how Damian creates his craft, from everyone who is writing and also those commenting. I’ll make Delsarteans of you all! If I feel like, on re-watch, that there is still more to say, I might just have to do so, though! 🙂

      1. Oh that is one BRILLIANT post. I love all the micro-analysis JaniaJania does and she is, as always, so spot-on! I just love it how you guys make me (and probably others, too) notice things that I have not before.

        And, hey, the moment you make a Delsartean of Damian — maybe you include him in “all” too 😀 — then it’s Mission Accomplished! <3

      2. Haha, I’ve been talking about his physicality for months…from the ram-rod posture of Brody, to the stodgy hunker of Soames, to the regal stance of Henry VIII, to the swagger of kingpin Bobby Axelrod. 🙂

        So glad that we are all now partners is our close watching of this maestro at work!! <3

  5. Ok, so I finally watched it with the sound on.


    I knew, from the synopsis, and from watching it soundless, that it would be intense. And I also knew, from the amazing word-for-word breakdown of the lines, that it was about mourning and defending a complicated person, and trying to love a complicated person. It got me right in the feels.

    I’ve been trying to find something that represents my feelings toward my late father. Our relationship was complicated, as was his relationships with so many. It has been hard to mourn and also reconcile the anger and the frustrations of many parts of him. This speech and the delivery of it really touches me. Wow. Cathartic.

    1. So great to hear this! See the power of Shakespearean language? So many are touched deeply by it, despite not understanding every single word.

      In Antony’s speech he starts off saying he hasn’t come to praise Caesar, yet he ends up doing that very thing. And he starts off praising Brutus, but ends up reviling him and his followers as beasts. The very idea of irony was invented on the Shakespearean stage, methinks.

      This comment from you and one tweet I saw from someone who’d never read Shakespeare and was inspired to after seeing Damian deliver this speech….well, it’s just so SO rewarding when that happens!!! I’m guessing Damian would feel the same way were he reading this now.

  6. He is one, and he just doesn’t know it. If he became aware of it….wow. I’ve seen amazing performers in my life tap into Delsarte through Three Pillars Arts with Joe….and wow. Unlocking the Matrix, as I call it.

Join the conversation!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.