Shakespeare's Worst Speaking Roles

Know When it's Time to Quit

by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor

The stage of the new Globe Theatre in Southwark, London. (Credit: J. M. Pressley)

Shakespeare Fun Fact

Shakespeare actually started his theatrical career as an actor. He is among the players listed in a surviving cast list for Ben Jonson's play Sejanus and may have made cameo appearances in his own works.

The majority of stage actors must, at one time or another in their careers, face the daunting task of performing Shakespeare. Some approach the Bard with relish, some with trepidation. There are those blessed with the talent and good fortune to perform the plum roles, such as Hamlet or Falstaff. Others play smaller but vital parts such as Mercutio and Polonius. Even a minor player such as Macbeth's porter anchors a great scene that stands out for its comic relief in contrast to an otherwise merciless plot.

That being said, Shakespeare has plenty of room in his works for human set dressing. Over a score of characters are given names and make an appearance without uttering so much as a single word. Nearly two hundred have less than 10 lines to speak. Most Shakespearean troupes, for reasons both logistical and financial, long ago decided that the most prudent course was to have non-principals portray multiple bit parts in productions. That usually gives even the least among cast members a fair amount of stage time—which is the ultimate validation for most actors.

On the other hand, those bit roles can also provide a good barometer to the aspiring actor as to when it may be time to set down the grease paint and take up another profession, say, sales or insurance. Yes, it's a great thing to be able to say, "You know, I've got a speaking role in the latest Shakespeare production." However, if you find yourself repeatedly being cast as certain characters (especially without being asked to play any other roles), it may behoove you to consider that career change. What follows is a sampling of some of the worst speaking roles ever penned by William Shakespeare.

Second Gaoler (Cymbeline; Act 5, Scene 4)

The "Second Gaoler" appears at the very start of the scene to help escort Posthumus Leonatus into prison. He gets to say, "Ay, or a stomach" to add onto the First Gaoler's line, then never reappears. In contrast, his companion returns for 45 lines in this scene.

Balthasar (Merchant of Venice; Act 3, Scene 4)

Balthasar is on and back off stage before you can blink, but he at least gets an exit line before leaving: "Madam, I go with all convenient speed." That Portia borrows his name when she appears in disguise before the court shouldn't make the role any more appealing.

Cornelius (Hamlet; Act 1, Scene 2)

Cornelius is one of two courtiers that Claudius sends as ambassadors to Norway early in Hamlet. His colleague, Voltimand, gets a whole speech all to himself. Poor Cornelius doesn't even get his one line to himself; he has to share it with Voltimand when both proclaim together, "In that and all things will we show our duty." This qualifies it in my mind as perhaps the worst single speaking part in Shakespeare, period.

First Commoner (Julius Caesar; Act 1, Scene 1)

Julius Caesar opens to a scene of Flavius and Marullus castigating a bunch of commoners for showing up to celebrate Caesar's triumph. Unlike his compatriot, the cobbler—who carries on an entire conversation—this character barely gets to answer the tribunes at all with his one line, "Why, sir, a carpenter."

James Gurney (King John; Act 1, Scene 1)

A servant to Lady Faulconbridge, Gurney—as many servants in Shakespeare—mainly shows up as set dressing for a few moments. He shows up with her nibs early on, says "Good leave, good Philip" before exiting, and disappears for the rest of the play.

Joseph (Taming of the Shrew; Act 4, Scene 1)

Joseph is one of five servants who briefly appear at Petruchio's country house in the first scene of Act 4. What makes this role particularly bad is that every other servant in the bunch has at least two lines; poor Joseph only gets to say "What, Grumio!" and ne'er be heard from nor seen again.

Philemon (Pericles; Act 3, Scene 2)

Philemon is a servant of Lord Cerimon. His contribution to the plot is to respond, "Doth my lord call?" and then run off on an errand for his master. He never returns.

Taurus (Antony & Cleopatra; Act 3, Scene 8)

Taurus appears at Actium as Octavius Caesar's lieutenant general in Act III. He has one line, consisting of two words: "My lord?" in response to Octavius. You would think a general would get better treatment.

Third Musician (Romeo and Juliet; Act 4, Scene 5)

The "Third Musician" late in the play gets a name (James Soundpost) but only gets one line: "Faith, I know not what to say." Meanwhile, his first and second musician bandmates get nine and four lines, respectively. At least they all get a fair time in front of the footlights, being onstage for the majority of their only scene.


Shakespeare Complete; Open Source Shakespeare, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 4th edition (David Bevington, ed.); NTC's Dictionary of Shakespeare (Sandra Clark, ed.)