Helen Mirren: ‘I don’t think Shakespeare should be taught in schools’

Telegraph reporters
·2 min read
Actress Helen Mirren - AP Photo/Matt Sayles
Actress Helen Mirren - AP Photo/Matt Sayles

Helen Mirren has suggested that Shakespeare’s plays should be shown to teenagers in theatres, rather than taught in classrooms.

“I don’t think Shakespeare should be taught in schools,” the actress told a Royal Shakespeare Company event. “All young people’s experience of Shakespeare should be live theatre.” 

Speaking via Zoom to Gregory Doran, the RSC’s artistic director, as part of the RSC’s series Talking Shakespeare, from her home in Lake Tahoe in America, Mirren explained that “droning through Shakespeare aged 11 or 12” in lessons could put pupils off, and that they should see a performance first. “If it sparks something now, go back to the text.”

Mirren, who was invited to join the RSC in 1965, has played numerous Shakespearean roles, including Rosalind in As You Like It, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra opposite Alan Rickman’s Antony, and, on film, a gender-flipped version of Prospero in The Tempest.

Talking to Doran about the rise of gender-swapped casting in theatre, Mirren said she thought it was a great innovation. “I’m so happy now that women can do Hamlet, do Richard III, do Lear, as Glenda [Jackson] just did. 

“It certainly was beyond any possibility when I was in my twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties. It was just impossible.”

Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman in Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre in 1998 - John Stillwell/PA
Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman in Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre in 1998 - John Stillwell/PA

Mirren also spoke about her first memories of performing at Stratford-upon-Avon, as one of the Roman citizens in Coriolanus. “We’d all stand in the wings muttering: ‘Hot, hungry, 500BC’ – our method acting.”

The challenge with Shakespeare, she explained, is “making this sometimes archaic language alive and accessible…not alienating”. Her constant battle with Shakespeare is “that you have to go through the head – but I [want] it not just to stay in the head.”

The Talking Shakespeare series, which has also featured Ian McKellen, continues with Roger Allam, David Oyelowo and Jane Lapotaire.

Much Ado About Shakespeare podcast
Much Ado About Shakespeare podcast

Listen to Much Ado About Shakespeare, a Telegraph podcast in which Arts Editor Ben Lawrence and the Royal Shakespeare Company analyse the themes of some of the greatest plays, on the audio player above, or via Apple Podcasts/Spotify