Sir Ian McKellen said that people "should not bother to read Shakespeare".
The Lord of the Rings actor said that he believed Shakespeare's plays should instead be watched live in the theatre, in the same way that inspired him while growing up in Lancashire.
McKellen told Radio Times, "I don't think people should bother to read Shakespeare. They should see him in the theatre! Reading just reduces him to an examination subject."
He revealed he had been inspired to act by watching John Gielgud and that, in turn, Michael Grandage, former artistic director at London's Donmar Warehouse, admitted that watching McKellen in stage in Twelfth Night in the 1970s with the Royal Shakespeare Company "was the moment he knew what he wanted to do with his life".
Sir Anthony Hopkins, however, who stars alongside McKellen in a new BBC adaptation of Ronald Harwood's play The Dresser, disagreed with his co-star.
In the joint interview, Hopkins urged actors to read "anything you can get your hands on" and took a less rose-tinted view of acting in the theatre.
Hopkins admitted that even early in his career, he found theatre a "grind" and had no desire to return to the stage.
"I was never at ease in the theatre. For me it's a grind. I think that at some deep level I must have asked myself all those years ago, 'Do I really want to go through this stress night after night, after night?' And the answer was 'No.' I guess I'm just bone idle."
Executive producer Colin Callender revealed at the BFI screening of The Dresser last week that the plan had been to revive the play on stage but Hopkins had refused.
Hopkins revealed he had agreed to do The Dresser precisely because it was not a theatre production; instead it was like "a free visit to the old past, a painless journey back in time and space to life as it was - without having to stay there!"
The play, which is set during the Second World War, stars Hopkins, 77, as Sir, an ageing actor playing King Lear, and McKellen, 76, as his devoted dresser Norman. It is the first time the two acting legends have performed together.
The last time Hopkins performed on stage was at the National in 1986 in the role of King Lear before he moved to Hollywood.
He said that age now allowed him to understand the king in a new light that could even tempt him back onto the boards. "I'd passionately like to do the play again, here - and this time I'd play him like Mike Tyson," he revealed.
McKellen also reflected on his career as he grew older and admitted that "mortality was a daily consideration".
He revealed that it was the casting of Hopkins and the suggestion he play Norman instead of Sir that had convinced him to say 'Yes'.
McKellen claimed that The Dresser is "as good a witness as any" to help audiences understand why old actors like himself and Hopkins continue to do their craft.
:: The Dresser airs on Saturday October 31 on BBC Two at 9pm.