Dame Judi Dench on why she feels Shakespeare’s work has endured

Dame Judi Dench has said she feels the work of Shakespeare has endured throughout the centuries as he knew “absolutely everything” about “every condition”.

The Oscar-winning actress, 88, has played a host of roles in the Bard’s plays across the years, including Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra.

Appearing on a Shakespeare special for BBC Four’s This Cultural Life, she said her performance in Sir Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 version of A Winter’s Tale is “probably” her last but remains hopeful for future roles.

Theatre – Antony and Cleopatra Rehearsals – Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins – Olivier Theatre, London
Dame Judi Dench as Cleopatra and Anthony Hopkins as Mark Antony during rehearsals for the National Theatre’s production of Antony and Cleopatra (PA)

Speaking on how Shakespeare’s work can be approached in different time periods, she said: “I don’t think it should be adapted, it’s what it does to the person watching, isn’t it? It’s a reference perhaps…

“He knew absolutely everything, as far as I’m concerned Shakespeare, about every condition, and therefore that’s why the plays have gone on so long because so many things mean different things to different people.

“And as well as that, all the emotions mean different things to people.”

In the sit-down interview with the show’s presenter John Wilson, Dame Judi, who won her Academy Award for her role as Elizabeth I in the 1998 film Shakespeare In Love, reflected on how she fell for the Bard’s work after seeing her older brother act in a school production of Macbeth.

She also discussed playing Lady Macbeth alongside Sir Ian McKellen’s Macbeth at The Other Place theatre in Stratford in 1976, which became a landmark production of the play.

Her late husband Michael Williams was also a Shakespearean actor, which led them to refer to the playwright as “the man who pays the rent”.

She recalled: “Michael was in one company, I was in the other, so Shakespeare was the person we were playing all the time so he was very much ‘the man who pays the rent’.”

Asked what he means to her now, she joked that he remains “the man who pays the rent”, adding: “He’s never been less than that. Very, very, very important.

“He’s referred to every day in my life, I think, and I think he’s referred to in most of our days without us knowing.”

Dench & Williams Branagh Award
Actress Dame Judi Dench and her late husband Michael Williams (William Conran/PA)

The actress has previously spoken about her macular degeneration condition, which causes the gradual loss of vision.

Dame Judi said she cannot read anymore, which will make learning lines “tricky”.

“I haven’t had to do it since my eyes have been this bad but I will, I’ll find a way”, she added.

Asked if her role as Paulina and Time in the 2015 version of A Winter’s Tale will be her last, she said: “I wouldn’t like to think that, it probably is but I’m going to say that. You never know, do you?

“I’ve never been in Othello, that would have been nice at some point.”

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first printed edition of Shakespeare’s collection of plays, commonly referred to by modern scholars as the First Folio, which is believed to date from 1623.

Judi Dench: This Cultural Life Shakespeare Special is due to air on November 5.