Run your finger down the CV of any major actor or actress and chances are that finger will soon trip over a work by Shakespeare, be it a big or small-screen production, a play or radio recital. There often seems to be an air of snobbery about tackling one of the bard's roles. You are nothing, in the acting world if none of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter has tripped off your tongue during the course of your career.
The latest to limber up is Jude Law, who has recently taken to the stage as Hamlet in London's West End as the culmination of the Donmar Warehouse's year-long residency at Wyndham's Theatre. The three-month run is, naturally, sold out, audiences undaunted by speculation over the actor's ability to grapple with the demanding role as Shakespeare's tragic prince. Is it daunting to follow the vast panethon of previous Hamlets, asked The Daily Telegraph of the actor in an interview this week.
"You have to forget all that," Law replied airily, "Hamlet is a bit like a great song that's been covered by a load of different singers. It's like Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell all covering the same song. But they would each bring a different sound and colour to it." Before Law, the Scottish Doctor Who actor David Tennant was the latest star to take on Hamlet in a run for the Royal Shakespeare Company last year. After months of doubt, in the end he earned high praise from once-sceptical critics, but he was subsequently forced to withdraw from several performances suffering a back injury. Happily for those who missed him in the flesh, the BBC announced last week that is has signed him up for a television version.
Initially, the announcement of his role spawned much media discussion over the best Hamlet ever. Was it Richard Burton in 1964 in a Broadway production that was subsequently filmed, and co-directed by Sir John Gielgud? Or Gielgud himself, who played the role over 500 times in six different productions? Was it Derek Jacobi in his 1979 show that toured the world? Or other British theatrical names such as Michael Pennington, Jonathan Pryce or Simon Russell Beale? Perhaps it might even have been Mel Gibson in a 1990 film version which also starred Glenn Close as Gertrude? Just a thought.
But of course it's not just Hamlet which has been taken on by great acting names. Shakespeare wrote numerous challenging roles, which, if played successfully, will up the kudos of any professional actor and so are taken on by many with glee. It's significant, too, that Shakespeare's characters are of all ages, so a young starlet in her twenties can still be kept in work by Shakespeare 40 years later. The British actress Maggie Smith played Desdemona in Othello in the 1965 film version, then the Duchess of York in Richard III exactly 30 years later.
And there are epic pairings down the ages too. Just look to Macbeth. Laurence Olivier famously played the role as the scheming Scottish general alongside Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955. Years later, another two greats, Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, starred as the couple in a production directed by Trevor Nunn. "It will astonish me if the performance is matched by any in this actress's generation," wrote the theatre critic JC Trewin of Dench's role afterwards.
Dench, in fact, is something of a Shakesperian lifer. She made her professional stage debut as Ophelia from Hamlet in Liverpool in 1957, her New York debut in 1960 as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and her Stratford premiere two years later as Isabella in Measure for Measure. She has whittled through Shakespeare's roles as if aiming for a record, choosing roles in lesser known plays of his too, such as The Winters Tale and The Comedy of Errors.
Then of course comes Kenneth Branagh, another whose professional life has been strongly tinged with Shakespeare. He, however, has not always met with success. His 1989 film adaptation of Henry V, which he starred in and directed, earned him Oscar nominations and also starred actors including Emma Thompson, Dench (of course), Robbie Coltrane and Christian Bale. But a later film version of As You Like It, which Branagh set in Japan complete with ninja warriors and sumo wrestlers, was panned.
There have been more successful film adaptations though. Among them Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, which placed a baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio alongside Claire Danes. The 2004 version of The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino as Shylock, was Bafta nominated. Pacino is now involved in the production of a film version of King Lear, directed by Michael Radford and tentatively talked of for release next year. Hitting screens later this year will be The Tempest, with stars including Helen Mirren, Alan Cumming and, bizarrely enough, Russell Brand. The universal lure of the bard, it seems, has never been stronger.