Brutus and Other Heroines

Playing Shakespeare's Roles for Women

By Harriet Walter

Brutus and Other Heroines
Paperback, 224 pages Online Price:
ISBN: 9781848422933
Format: 216mm x 138mm
Imprint: Nick Hern Books
Published: 27th October 2016
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RRP: £12.99
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Category: Acting, Biography & general, Shakespeare books

Harriet Walter on Shakespeare's Women at the How To: Academy at Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design, London
Mon 3rd Jul 2017

‘A part we have played is like a person we once met, grew to know, became intimately enmeshed with and finally moved away from. Some of these characters remain friends, others are like ex–lovers with whom we no longer have anything in common. All of them bring something out in us that will never go back in the box.’

In a varied and distinguished career, Harriet Walter has played almost all of Shakespeare’s heroines, notably Ophelia, Helena, Portia, Viola, Imogen, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice and Cleopatra, mostly for the Royal Shakespeare Company. But where, she asks, does an actress go after playing Cleopatra’s magnificent death? Why didn’t Shakespeare write more – and more powerful – roles for mature women?

For Walter, the solution was to ignore the dictates of centuries of tradition, and to begin playing the mature male characters. Her Brutus in an all–female Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse was widely acclaimed, and was soon followed by Henry IV. What, she asks, can an actress bring to these roles – and is there any fundamental difference in the way they must be played?

In Brutus and Other Heroines, Walter discusses each of these roles – both male and female – from the inside, explaining the particular choices she made in preparing and performing each character. Her extraordinarily perceptive and intimate accounts illuminate each play as a whole, offering a treasure trove of valuable insights for theatregoers, scholars and anyone interested in how the plays work on stage. Aspiring actors, too, will discover the many possibilities open to them in playing these magnificent roles.

The book is an exploration of the Shakespearean canon through the eyes of a self-identified ‘feminist actor’ – but, above all, a remarkable account of an acting career unconstrained by tradition or expectations. It concludes with an affectionate rebuke to her beloved Will: ‘I cannot imagine a world without you. I just wish you had put more women at the centre of your world/stage… I would love you to come back and do some rewrites.’

'A glorious reminder that genuine diversity on stage offers astonishing creative benefits… Harriet Walter is mesmerising in one play after another, bringing her classical training to bear as a conflicted Brutus, then a Henry IV who wears his crown heavily, and finally a Prospero who knows that the steel bars of prison are resistant to all magic… this is genuinely art to enchant' The Guardian on the Donmar Warehouse's Shakespeare Trilogy

Blog Post: Harriet Walter on five major Shakespeare roles: 'Nowhere in the play or in any historical account is Cleopatra described as beautiful. ... That means she possessed some indefinable sexual ingredient, the X-factor which you either have or have not got and which is something beyond the art of acting.' Read more >>

Extra Content: read Harriet Walter on why she wrote Brutus and Other Heroines in an article for The Arts Desk, 23 October 2016.

'Illuminating… provides fascinating insights that come out of researching, rehearsing and performing the roles… will be of interest to scholars as well as actors of either gender playing those characters'


'Delightful... intelligent, entertaining and informative'

- British Theatre Guide

'Intelligent, thoughtful… a strong combination of actor's guide to interpreting text and more general reflections on Shakespeare, but it's the book's element of female empowerment - whether through cross-casting or making judicious choices - which makes this such a potent read… an invaluable tool for actors, but more than that, this is a battle cry for us all to demand better'

- Broadway World

'Enlightening and entertaining… Harriet Walter has a real gift for an account which is part personal journey and part practical analysis of Shakespeare’s words and how they can be interpreted – by someone who really knows... if you want insights into playing Shakespeare’s roles for women in the widest sense then look no further than this penetrating, very readable book'

- Ink Pellet

'One of those startling one-offs that seem to resist categorisation… [asks] lively questions, and Walter is restless and intelligent in pursuit of answers... this is a clever, energetic, principled mind at work'

- The Oldie

'Walter understands Shakespeare’s language instinctively… drama students approaching these parts themselves will find it a helpful textual guide'

- Spectator

'No book has given me a greater insight into the mind of an actor and I thoroughly enjoyed flicking through the pages to find out about the next character to sink her teeth and magnificent mind into'

- Female Arts

'What Harriet Walter has to say about acting and the insight into the roles she has played will be of interest not only to actors but to anybody studying Shakespeare and searching for clues about the characters'

- Mature Times

Besides the Shakespearean characters listed in this book, Harriet Walter has played many other great classical stage roles, including the Duchess of Malfi (RSC), Hedda Gabler (Chichester and tour), Nina in Thomas Kilroy’s Irish version of Chekhov’s The Seagull with Anna Massey and Alan Rickman (Royal Court), Masha in Three Sisters (RSC; Olivier Award), Anna Petrovna in Ivanov with Ralph Fiennes (Almeida), Hester in The Deep Blue Sea (Theatre Royal Bath and tour), and Elizabeth I in Schiller’s Mary Stuart (Donmar Warehouse, West End, and Broadway; Evening Standard Award and Tony Award nomination). She has also performed in several contemporary classics including Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine (Royal Court), Harold Pinter’s Old Times (West End), Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (National), and as Linda in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with Antony Sher (RSC, Stratford and West End).  

She has created roles in new plays including Arcadia by Tom Stoppard and Yasmina Reza’s Life x 3 (National), Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Three Birds Alighting on a Field (Royal Court), Stephen Lowe’s adaptation of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Joint Stock), Moira Buffini’s Dinner (National and West End), Simon Gray’s The Late Middle Classes, Stephen Poliakoff’s Sweet Panic, Tamsin Oglesby’s US and Them (Hampstead), and Clara Brennan’s Boa opposite her husband, Guy Paul (Trafalgar Studios).

Her films include The Sense of an Ending, Mindhorn, Denial, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Suite Française, Man Up, The Wedding Video, Young Victoria, Babel, Villa des Roses (British Independent Film Award nomination), Sense and Sensibility and Louis Malle’s Milou en Mai. Her television work ranges from The Imitation Game by Ian McEwan and The Cherry Orchard (both directed by Richard Eyre), The Price (Channel 4 and RTÉ), Harriet Vane in the BBC’s Lord Peter Wimsey series and The Men’s Room, via guest appearances in Inspector Morse, Waking the Dead, Spooks, Poirot, Midsomer Murders and New Tricks, to more recent appearances as D.I. Natalie Chandler in Law and Order: UK, Little Dorrit, Downton Abbey, Black Sails, Call the Midwife and as Clementine Churchill in the Netflix series The Crown.

Her other books are Other People’s Shoes (Nick Hern Books), Macbeth (Faber and Faber’s ‘Actors on Shakespeare’ series) and Facing It: Reflections on Images of Older Women (Facing It Publications).

She is an Honorary Associate Artist of the RSC, an Honorary D.Litt at Birmingham University, and was awarded a CBE in 2000 and a Damehood in 2011.

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