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Arts & Entertainment

Shakespeare, Part 1

Helen Mirren

Lesson time 15:52 min

Helen shares her process for breaking down a Shakespeare passage by working through Portia’s “Quality of Mercy” speech from The Merchant of Venice, a monologue she’s never performed before.

Helen Mirren
Teaches Acting
In 28 lessons, the Oscar, Golden Globe, Tony, and Emmy winner teaches her process for acting on the stage and screen.
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I'm often asked, why do young actors have to be interested in Shakespeare? Young actors don't have to be interested in Shakespeare, unless it gets them by the throat. He is recognized as the greatest playwright in the history of playwriting, basically. And the miracle is that he wrote in English. So us in America, us in Britain, it's our natural language. We are so lucky that that is the case, because we can understand the subtleties and the colors and the extraordinary layers of meaning in one line. We can understand. And so we are very privileged in that way. Shakespeare is a great training ground because it's so difficult. It's much harder than anything else you will ever do. To try and find a way of speaking very heightened poetry in a naturalistic way is very, very difficult, let alone shouting it in a big theater. It's like the worst. So you know, it's profoundly challenging. But the other great thing about Shakespeare is that you can play those scenes, those lines every night for six months, and almost every night you will find a different meaning in those lines, and possibly even a different way of saying it. And that was what-- I had the privilege of watching some of the great Shakespearean actors do that. And hopefully, my-- certainly my ambition was to become one of those myself. It was to see how they could, on a nightly basis, slightly modulate the line because they were inhabiting it with a different thought each time. And maybe that's where Shakespeare is also very valuable, is you have to think in Shakespeare. You have to think, because the thought is so profound and complex. You can't just blah, blah, blah it out, you know? You have to think as you're saying it. And you have to truly engage and live it. You have to live it. And in the end, that's where our art resides, isn't it? It's in living the moment. And we all talk about that moment, and how difficult it is, and how almost impossible it is, and how once in a while you get there, and it's a miracle when you do. But living in that moment. And Shakespeare at its best, when it's done to the best, that's how it is. I thought by-- to work, we could work on a little piece of Shakespeare, a famous speech-- I'm sorry, I'm going take this sticker off-- which is The Quality of Mercy is Not Strained. I don't think I've ever played Portia. I can't remember. I played Nerissa, but I don't think I've ever played Portia. I would have loved to have played Portia. So I don't know this speech sort of off by heart, except for how sort of famous it is. Well, the first thing by far obviously is just to read through the words and unpick the meaning. The quality of mercy is not strained. What does that mean, strained? I guess that means-- and you find your own meaning. And sometimes, what the literal meaning is is one thing, but I think with Shakespeare...

Find freedom in your roles

In her first-ever online acting class, Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren shares the techniques she has learned through the course of her international career that has spanned stage, screen, and television. Her powerful and versatile performances have earned her numerous awards, including the Academy Award in 2007 for her performance in The Queen, a Tony Award in 2015 for her performance in The Audience, and four Emmy Awards.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

She talks so much sense. Confims my thoughts giving me that validation. Her tenacity, so kind too, very warm. I always want to learn more , its a never ending study, and this wonderful woman, again, has sparked my love and awe of this incredible art.

What a treat to hear from one of the greats in such an intimate conversation!

Love her, she is so captivating. Incredibly experienced.

really deep and personal connection from Helen to the fellow student. cool.


Grace Y.

I was surprised by how much more I understood (and enjoyed) the monologue when I put it in my own words! At first I was resistant to doing each line... (it takes time.) But just do it. It is an incredible tool! I will definitely use it in the future.

Maryam L.

In high school, I was always taught the meaning whenever we had to read one of Shakespeare's plays, and that was the meaning that was to stick till the end of the year. I was always told and taught everything. This is the first time I've heard anyone say find your meaning in the words of Shakespeare. Obviously, the meaning isn't far from what it needs to be, but that we can make it our own is amazing. This was truly inspiring.

A fellow student

Loved the suggestion of delivering the lines of Shakespeare as an Australian would do with lifting at the end of the line. Amazing to think of actually taking on Shakespeare. Really understanding the meaning of the words, not just memorizing the text. Make it meaningful for oneself. Thank you for this guidance.

Madeline E.

Loved this lesson. I found Helen's advice useful. I'm not very familiar with The Merchant of Venice so I'm inspired to read it now!

A fellow student

Never considered the point of putting more enfasis on the meaning of the words that you say. This means that in the moment you have to be aware that this is something very serious and dont take it for granted. Certain dialogue has more depth and significance than others

Nastasia M.

I love how detailed she gets in the monologue, as if you unfold layers of your understanding to embed the meaning into your mind which will then allow you to act it more naturally when you perform.


As my mother tongue is not English, Shakespeare is enormously difficult to understand....old style of saying is conundrum for me. But his word play---sounds/rhythms/rhymes may resonate with something in English native people's hearts, may not? I am still wondering which one I should choose for monologue.

Dario Z.

I'm Italian but I'm a British culture, language and literature lover. Thank you Helen for helping me to approach to his poetry for first time!

Nicole B.

It was truly amazing thank you Hellen you are very inspiring. (Zoe Burrell 12)

Alexander C.

Hello friends and colleagues of New York City! Helen Mirren said: if you can act Shakespeare, you can act anything. Who would be interested in getting together as a group once a week (say, Sundays) to read a Shakespeare play out loud? I know several acting spaces in the city where we could get chairs and tables together, just to conjure his words and stories to life. We could take a journey together discovering Shakespeare’s voice, chronologically going through his plays, starting with his earliest, and going on to the end of his career. Our acting would improve. If you’re interested, feel free to add your name to this post, or any ideas you may have. Really want to see if we can get something good going.