Some of Sir Ian’s thoughts on Shakespeare’s Richard III….

The following article also deals with Sir Ian’s thoughts on other Shakespeare plays, not just Richard III, but I have only selected the Richard comments. I should add that he doesn’t express an opinion on the real Richard.:-

What happened when Sir Ian McKellen met Shakespeare? The Big Issue was there to record the words of wisdom between two theatrical giants.

Sir Ian McKellan again


“Shakespeare is more than just plays in the theatre,” says Sir Ian McKellen. “I’ve got a little collection of Shakespeare figurines at home, that’s Shakespeare to me. A walk along the Avon is Shakespeare to me. A pub with his name on the sign. Shakespeare is a hydra-headed brand… which I hope you’ll quote. I’m rather pleased with that.”

McKellen is at the launch of the BFI’s Shakespeare on Film season, timed to celebrate 400 years of the Bard’s work (which is a nice way of saying that he died 400 years ago). Although associated most with the stage – obviously – no writer has more film credits. Currently, the Internet Movie Database lists 1,120 titles based on Shakespeare’s work. Among the series of events and films being screened, the undisputed highlight of the BFI’s Bard season will be a bus tour of London locations – including Battersea Power Station and Tate Modern, both used in the 1995 film adaptation of Richard III – which its star, Sir Ian McKellen, will host.

Besides his new job as a tour guide, McKellen is one of the world’s best-loved actors, adored for playing Gandalf in The Hobbit (pictured below) and Lord of the Rings, and revelling in the role of a malevolent Magneto in the X-Men franchise. He is no stranger to the small screen either, having had an extended stint in Coronation Street and camping it up savagely alongside Derek Jacobi in the sitcom Vicious.

But it is on stage where McKellen belongs, and the words of the Bard he was born to speak. So when he sits down with The Big Issue, wearing an immaculate three-piece suit and tartan tie (which if I’m not mistaken is the colours of the Clan Macbeth), we decide to ask him some of the questions Shakespeare posed in his plays that still resonate today…

Dramatis Personae: In the following, Steven MacKenzie will be standing in for Shakespeare. Sir Ian McKellen plays himself.


SHAKESPEARE: The opening line of Richard III is, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’. Is now still a winter of discontent? Is it always?

Shakespeare is now. Not tomorrow, not yesterday – now SIR IAN MCKELLEN: What I like about that first line is the first word, now. Shakespeare is now. Not tomorrow, not yesterday – now. If you trust Shakespeare and if you’ve got good actors and a good director, it will seem now. Even if it’s set in the past, the preoccupations and the characters will seem to be still alive and still relevant. As for winter of our discontent, that was used as a constant headline in the not too distant past. Somewhere in the world it is a winter of discontent.

SHAKESPEARE: The 1995 film adaptation you co-wrote and starred in was set in a fascist version of Britain in the 1930s – that was not now…

SIR IAN MCKELLEN: Shakespeare was writing about relatively recent events but using them to create his own story, so it seemed a good modern equivalent. We’re all aware that there was not that sort of king in the 1930s – just as there wasn’t actually that sort of king in the actual period. There’s an air of fantasy about the film but it’s also real as well. In the 1930s our royal family might have sided with the fascists.


SHAKESPEARE: Also in Richard III is the line, ‘An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told’, but Shakespeare’s work isn’t always known for its simplicity.

SIR IAN MCKELLEN: It’s not the language that’s complicated. If you’ve got good acting practitioners, they’ll make you understand it. There is nothing in the opening speech of Richard III that a 10-year-old can’t understand. And I suspect when people say, ‘Oh I don’t understand Shakespeare,’ it’s because they’ve been exposed to an actor who wasn’t very good. Or they tried to read it themselves. I don’t think a child should any more read Shakespeare than they should read a Mozart opera. Leave it up to the professional musicians and professional actors


  1. This is an utterly marvellous post, full of wisdom and insight. Love Shakespeare, love Richard III (paly not man), and especially love Sir Ian’s film.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I cannot agree with the line, leave it to the actors when reading Shakespeare plays. Many of the modern ones cannot manage dialogue much above a whisper and their delivery is often incomprehensible. Give me an intelligent ten year old reader any time.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I cannot agree with the pompous comment of this actor either.He doesn’t understand Shakespeare himself.


  4. O.k.This has been the third time I tried to post this post,and it could not be.That is why now I started with only one .sentence,and when it worked after all,I type the rest. So I’d be delighted if people who never read what I have written about this unfortunate play,and who are unable to open their minds,wouldn’t treat me as if I were stupid.Not to notice.e that the character is often identified with Richard,is shortsightedness at the best.They do it at the Riii Visitor Centre,for instance.I protested,but other people also should.
    This identification is the worst,but the second worst thing is to think that someone is so smart,that she or he knows that the character is not Richard,not like stupid people,like me.The identification exist,and well-meaning people should fight against it instead of feeling smart.There is nothing smart in knowing that the identification is wrong.Even theatres put out blurbs saying ‘this is not historic truth’..
    This is as bad as the identification. It IS historic truth.And it is about Richard.It is about his tragedy,that the victorious villain did this to his memory.This actor doesn’t understand that the opening monologue makes the play a grotesque drama,absolutely true,no errors in it,it is the opposite of what it seems.Those who think that they are smart and I am stupid,should read what I wrote about Shakespeare in several articles,and even posts here on other Word press blogs.I understand Shakespeare better than this actor,who understood the symbolism of this play,but nothing else.Anyway,to interpret plays,not actors are the ones who must do it.They are only performers.Even inside showbiz,the director interprets and the actor follow his instructions.This is why every actor wants to be a director,but not every director wants to be an actor.I wouldn’t have gone into this if some people hadn’t started to treat me as if I were stupid.’The character is not Richard’ stuff.It is generally mistaken for him,yes,and with other simplistic interpretations things are made even worse.That the play is not about Richard? Then what is its title? It is about the truth in connection with him with grotesque means clearly pointing out Tudor as the villain, the model of the character.


    1. Have you read the Introduction to the Screenplay that I linked to? He is perfectly aware that the play’s Richard is nothing like the real Richard III.

      And no offense, but if you want to be taken seriously, maybe you shouldn’t be using the word “pompous” in the same sentence where you claim to understand Shakespeare better than Sir Ian McKellen.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Your comment shows how right I was when I wrote several weeks ago on Matt’s history blog,that I would stop posting these replies.I don’t want to have my own blog,as I abhor and don’t use the social media either.It is not for me to discuss these issues with people like you who bring it down to. the lowest personal level.When I posted here my first emotional comment,I just wanted to call everybody’s attention to the fact that while the identification of the grotesque character and Richard is still widespread,Ricardians inadvertently contribute to this,if they speak about the character is’ Richard’. They should rather fight against this unjust identification and try to understand the deeper meaning of Shakespeare.I was misunderstood and dealt with as if I were silly,not understanding that the character is not Richard.To be misunderstood this way is insulting even if one is not of the ‘I,Me,Mine’sort.(George Harrison). George was absolutely right,the I,Me,Mine mentality is general,so when I expressed my bad feelings about this,you dragged the discussion to a level which is even lower.So an actor with his ridiculous title of ‘sir’ must understand Shakespeare better than a person who has a doctor’s degree(PDF) of grotesque drama and who studied dramatic art to become a director,not a simple interpreter?Do you know what? Don’t take me seriously,take seriously authority, power,hollow titles given by them.A hollow,ridiculous title given by them is,naturally, more than a PDF with all the studies behind it,above all,if the guy having the title is famous,while the other one rejected every possibility of fame and riches.
        My site here in WordPress is called ‘hopeless’.It was never published ad never will be.I don’t want a blog,and websites are for money.I will publish a website elsewhere,and it will be also about hopeless causes.Though maybe I won’t even set it up,being so hopeless.
        I am not stupid,I know perfectly well that what I am doing with these posts is doing harm to myself,even my new book.I have done it to serve Richard’s cause,which is more important than my own.But this can only get worse ,so I will really finish this kind of activity.


  5. This post above went through after all,but the s of the plural is missing,for instance,where I meant ‘the actors follow the director’s instruction.I know showbiz from inside,I worked there,I could have been a film director in Budapest in my youth,but I hated showbiz.On the other hand,I knew a film director who made a tv-film which stressed the symbolism of the play Riii.I mention him in my book.But all this is not enough.The real,not simplistic interpretation of the play must be understood, and to places like that Visitor Centre,more people should write protesting.If they put there Olivier’s film,they should understand and explain their visitors what the play really is,and who the original model of the character was


  6. Just another thought about who is pompous and who is not.People who admire an actor because he is famous and he is a ‘sir ‘,and this is more important for them than a higher and more specialized education,are also full of prejudice. To start with,as I mentioned before,simply because of my qualifications, I am better positioned than an actor to understand a writer.To begin with,these qualifications should mean more than the title given by a queen about whom the same actor justly knows,that she represents a power which is far from being flawless. But going further,I might say that not even my qualifications mean that I am right about everything.I never claimed this.It is absolutely true that ‘sir’ Ian’s remark about 10year-olds must be changed,as somebody suggested ,to mean that some of them may know something better than any of us.This would be a better world if people didn’t admire external, superficial things. To be insulted with the suggestion that a person with a lower and less specialized education must know more about a subject than I do,only because of his fame and hollow title,is the result of this admiration of insignificant, superficial things.On the other hand,yes,it is possible that someone,a 10 year old or a 90year old,but also without my level of education, recognizes something that didn’t notice,or I interpreted wrong.But to start insulting somebody only because superficially the other person seems to be in a better social position,this is the point where I don’t want to go on.I don’t want to discuss matters with people who bring the discussion down to this unworthy level.


  7. In a world where higher and more specialized education mattered more than external fame and hollow title,I would enjoy going on with this debate.But you attacked me that I was the pompous one claiming that I understand Shakespeare better than a more famous guy with the hollow medieval title of ‘sir’,but a lower level and on grotesque art not specialized education.Next time you have a car to repair, don’t take it to the mechanic,take it to this actor,because he is famous, he is a ‘sir’,so he knows everything better.It doesn’t mean that I am infallible on grotesque art,but my ideas about Shakespeare are getting certain acceptance among those who are not starstruck. And it is only important because of the subject,not because of me. I’m not important, but it doesn’t mean either that anyone can insult me without knowing what she is doing.I am not British,my qualifications are from Budapest,but I still studied much more about grotesque drama than any actor.Even if he,yes,pompously claims that actors interpret plays.Never. They follow the instructions of directors.


    1. Oops!I’ve noticed only now that what I said in another post,is proved in a funny way here.Natural ly I meant that I have the PhD on grotesque drama,but the tablet ‘recognized’ the word ‘PDF’ and changed it.It shows how people who hate self-propagada work themselves into o disadvantage. I never boast about my PhD ,so it is not in the memory of the tablet,and because of the same reason some people think that I am not in the position to understand drama.All this is interesting because I suppose that the same thing happened to Richard.He wasn’t a PR man,and the crowd believes those who are loud


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