Entertainment & Arts

How much do Shakespeare in Love's leads know about Shakespeare?

Eve Ponsonby and Orlando James in Shakespeare in Love Image copyright Johan Persson
Image caption Eve Ponsonby and Orlando James joined the Shakespeare in Love cast on 12 January

Actors Orlando James and Eve Ponsonby can currently be seen on the London stage in the theatrical version of Shakespeare in Love.

Based on the Oscar-winning 1998 film, the play sees Orlando play the young Will Shakespeare, here depicted as a budding playwright with crippling writer's block.

Eve, meanwhile, plays Viola De Lesseps, a (fictional) noblewoman who disguises herself as a man in order to play the male lead in the debut production of Romeo and Juliet.

Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, Shakespeare in Love received a warm response from the critics when it opened last year.

How much, though, do its leads know about Shakespeare himself? The BBC News website sat down with them before an evening performance earlier this month and gave them a gentle grilling about the Bard of Avon.

Image copyright Johan Persson
Image caption Suzanne Burden (centre) plays Queen Elizabeth I in Lee Hall's adaptation


We start by setting a few ground rules. Yes, it's a competition. Yes, there will be points. And, since we are in a theatre dressing room, "The Scottish Play" is an acceptable alternative to saying Macbeth.

"Oh, good," says James with relief. "I've already had to spit on the floor and spin around three times." (Old theatrical superstition.)

"Can we say the name though?" says Ponsonby. "I've never said 'The Scottish Play' - I've always just said the name."

"I love that we know one of the answers now," says James. "I'm going to say it for every question."

Question 1: "Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene..."

Ponsonby (instantly): Romeo and Juliet. Next one - let's go.

Question 2: "Now is the winter of our discontent...

James: "...made glorious summer by this sun of York." Richard III. One all.

Question 3: "If music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it."

Ponsonby: Is it Love's Labour's Lost? Much Ado About Nothing? Measure for Measure? As You Like It? I'm just going to go through all of them.

James: "If music be the food of love..." This is so famous.

Ponsonby: Twelfth Night? (Correct.) Yes!

James: It's a Shakespeare in Love quiz - of course it's Twelfth Night! Tsk.

Question 4: "Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace..."

Ponsonby: Erm... erm... A Midsummer Night's Dream! 3-1.

James: I'm more of a sitter and a thinker.

Question 5: "So shaken as we are, so wan with care, find we a time for frighted peace to pant."

Ponsonby: Is it Hamlet? No, it's not Hamlet.

James: You should deduct a point for that. Is it The Winter's Tale? The Tempest? Henry IV Part 1? (Correct.)

Ponsonby: 3-2


Image caption Natasha Parry as Titania and Paul Rogers as Bottom in a 1958 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

With Ponsonby narrowly ahead, we move on to questions about Shakespeare's many references to animals - including one about the most famous stage direction ever written.

Question 1: Who gets an ass's head in A Midsummer Night's Dream?

James and Ponsonby: (near simultaneously): Bottom.

Ponsonby: You got there first.

Question 2: What animal chases Antigonus off the stage in The Winter's Tale?

James: A bear. "Exit pursued by a bear." First lines I don't listen to, but then all I'm listening out for is animals.

Question 3: In which play do we hear the phrase "beast with two backs"?

Ponsonby: Othello!

James: You don't need to raise your hand.

Question 4: Which character says "Since I am a dog, beware my fangs"?

Ponsonby: Hots... Spur? Shy... Lock? Shylock. (Correct.) The Merchant of Venice.

Question 5: What's the name of Launce's dog in The Two Gentlemen of Verona?

James: We call our dog in the play Spot. Lancelot? (Answer: Crab.)


Image caption Barbara Flynn as Goneril, Amanda Redman as Regan and Victoria Hamilton as Cordelia in the BBC's 1998 recording of the National Theatre's King Lear

It's now 5-4, with James taking the lead. We move on to a round about family matters, both on and off stage.

Question 1: Name the three sisters in King Lear.

Ponsonby: Regan, Gertrude and Cordelia.

James: Gertrude?

Ponsonby: Goneril! (Correct.)

James: I don't work well under pressure.

Question 2: Name the two brothers in Much Ado About Nothing.

Ponsonby: Paris? (Incorrect.)

James: You have Don Pedro and Don...

Ponsonby: ...John. (Correct.) Half a point to me.

Question 3: What's the name of Viola's twin in Twelfth Night?

Ponsonby: Sebastian. (Correct.) Yes! I'm really happy with that one.

James: Just for the record, I do know all of these.

Question 4: What's the name of Caliban's mother in The Tempest?

Ponsonby: I don't know.

James (excitedly): Philomen? Oh, I don't know. (Answer: Sycorax.)

Question 5: What was the name of Shakespeare's only son?

James: I should know this. James?

Ponsonby: Bill Junior? Hamlet? Macbeth?

James: I can't believe you just said that. In a dressing room.

Ponsonby: It's not that anyway. (Answer: Hamnet.) Hamnet? Poor, poor boy.


Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption Hands up who knew Forbidden Planet was based on Shakespeare? Not you, Robby the Robot

The score is now 6½-5½, with Ponsonby in the lead. But that can all change in a round in which she and her co-star have to name the play that inspired these celebrated big-screen adaptations.

Question 1: 10 Things I Hate About You (1999).

Ponsonby: Er... er... How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days! No.

James: What? The Taming of the Shrew. (Correct.)

Question 2: Forbidden Planet (1956).

James: I don't know. It's sci-fi, isn't it?

Ponsonby: The Tempest? (Correct.)

James: Should we both take a point for that?

Ponsonby: No, because I said it first.

Question 3: Throne of Blood (1957).

James: It's "The Scottish Play". (Correct.)

Ponsonby: What's that called?

James: Hmm-mmm.

Question 4: She's the Man (2006).

Ponsonby: Twelfth Night? (Correct.) She dresses as a boy.

Question 5: Ran (1985).

James: Is it also "The Scottish Play"? (Incorrect.)

Ponsonby: Hamlet? Romeo and Juliet? (Incorrect.)

James: Is it King Lear? (Correct.) We must be quite close now.


Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption In this computerised image, Uranus is the second planet from the right

Verily he speaks the truth, with the scores dead level on 8½ apiece. It's all to play for as we enter the final round.

Question 1: What role is Shakespeare said to have played in the original production of Hamlet?

James: Laertes! (Incorrect.) Fortinbras! (Incorrect.)

Ponsonby: Hamlet? (Incorrect.)

James: Claudius? (Incorrect.) Erm... The Ghost? (Correct.) Yes!

Question 2: Which Shakespeare character describes himself as "more sinn'd against than sinning"?

James: Er... Leontes! (Incorrect.)

Ponsonby: Hamlet, Othello, Iago, King Lear... (Correct.) King Lear! Of course it is.

Question 3: Which play did Shakespeare write in collaboration with John Fletcher?

James: The Comedy of Errors? (Incorrect.) The Merchant of Venice? (Incorrect.)

Ponsonby: The Two Gentlemen of Verona? (Incorrect.) The One Gentleman of Verona? (Incorrect.)

James: The Two Noble Kinsmen! (Correct.) Two more questions!

Question 4: Which planet's moons are named after Shakespearean characters?

Orlando: Pluto, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Neptune, Venus, Earth, Mercury... What haven't we said?

Ponsonby: KW dot one, whatever the new one is. (Eve may be referring to Kepler 186f, discovered last year.)

James: Uranus! (Correct.) Down to the wire. Did you dream this would work out this way?

Final question: What was the name of Shakespeare's acting company?

James: The Chamberlain's Men! (Incorrect.) No, the other one...

Ponsonby: The King's Men? (Correct.) Yes!

But it's too little, too late - James wins by 11½ to Ponsonby's 10½.

But wait. A steward's enquiry is required. Shakespeare's acting company was originally known as The Lord Chamberlain's Men before becoming The King's Men with the accession of James I, so technically James is also correct...

...which means he gets an extra mark, extends his lead and beats his co-star by two clear points. Quizzes can be so cruel...

Shakespeare in Love continues at the Noel Coward theatre until 18 April.

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