Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

The Top 5 Shakespeare Moments on Great Performances

Helen Maybanks

by Elisa Lichtenbaum

Friends, Romans, countrymen (and countrywomen), lend us your ears! Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s timeless tale of power, loyalty and ambition gone awry, is coming to Great Performances this month in a groundbreaking all-female production from London’s Donmar Warehouse starring Harriet Walter as Brutus and Jackie Clune as Julius Caesar.

To whet your appetite for this riveting production, here are five of our favorite Shakespeare moments from the Great Performances archives.

1) Sir Ian McKellen, King Lear (2009)

Throughout his illustrious career, Sir Ian McKellen has done it all, from classical theater to blockbuster movies and TV – and he has played nearly every major Shakespearean role, from Romeo and Richard III to a highly touted King Lear in a Royal Shakespeare Company production that aired on Great Performances in 2009. Join us as we revel in this scene spotlighting the “madness” of King Lear.

2) Sir Patrick Stewart, Macbeth (2010)

Something fabulous this way comes – Sir Patrick Stewart as Macbeth! Following a London West End run in 2007, a sold-out limited engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2008, and an eight-week run on Broadway, Great Performances captured Stewart’s Tony-nominated portayal of the ambitious general in director Rupert Goold’s gripping stage production of Macbeth, with Kate Fleetwood (Princess Feodora in Victoria) as his coldly scheming wife.

Why does Stewart’s Macbeth make a sandwich as he persuades two men to murder Banquo in the savage and unsettling “murderers’ scene”? Find out in his interview with Paula Zahn.

3) Benedict Cumberbatch, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the RosesHenry VI, Part Two and Richard III (2016)

Benedict Cumberbatch is perhaps best known as detective extraordinaire Sherlock Holmes in the popular Masterpiece series, but in this lavishly filmed miniseries based on Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays and Richard III, the beloved British thesp takes on the role of Richard III — Shakespeare’s most notorious king, who manipulates his way through the court on a bloodthirsty and ruthless path to the throne.

Watch as the duplicitous Richard plots the demise of both his brother and his father, the King.

Robert Viglasky © 2015 Carnival Film & Television Ltd

4) Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo, Great Performances at the Met: Romeo et Juliette (2017)

We can’t resist a good romance, even if it ends tragically. Hailed by The New York Times for singing “with white-hot sensuality and impassioned lyricism,” Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo sizzle as star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet in Gounod’s operatic take on Shakespeare’s classic story. Bartlett Sher directs the acclaimed Metropolitan Opera production.

Enjoy highlights from this sumptuous opera and feel the love.

5) Harriet Walter, Shakespeare Live! (2016)

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death in 2016, The Royal Shakespeare Company hosted a glittering jubilee party from The Bard’s hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon – and Great Performances was there to capture the festivities. The starry cast included Benedict Cumberbatch, Judi Dench, John Lithgow, Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, and a scene-stealing Prince Charles in a Hamlet-inspired sketch. It’s hard to pick a favorite moment from the evening’s many treasures, but we can’t resist applauding Harriet Walter’s heartbreaking turn as a dying Cleopatra. (Walter also shines as Brutus in the all-female Julius Caesar airing this month on Great Performances.

Watch a preview of Shakespeare Live!

Helen Maybanks © RSC

Great Performances: Julius Caesar premieres Friday, March 29 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN and streams the following day on and PBS apps.

Watch a preview of Julius Caesar.


Elisa Lichtenbaum, editor of the monthly THIRTEEN program guide, is also Senior Writer at WNET, a tap dancer and theater geek.




PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.