Chapter 6 of 28 from Helen Mirren

Shakespeare, Part 1

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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.

Topics include: Let Shakespeare Take You by the Throat • Make the Lines Live for You

Helen Mirren

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

Oscar, Golden Globe, Emmy, and Tony winner Helen Mirren is one of the greatest actresses of our time. In her first online class, she discusses the dualism that is core to her method: the necessity for mastering technique (craft) and then letting go so that your imagination can take over (art). Learn how to break down a script, research characters, and master techniques so you can transcend them to find freedom in every role.

Helen brings you behind the scenes to show you the secrets of her acting technique.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Helen will also critique select student work.

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Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren Teaches Acting