by Ken Ludwig
Since my early teens, I’ve felt strongly about Shakespeare—about the value of studying and memorizing significant passages by the greatest writer who ever lived—but it wasn’t until I became a father that I figured out how to share my passion with the people I loved.
One day, when my daughter Olivia was six years old, she came home from first grade spouting a line of Shakespeare: “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows.” Her first grade teacher was an English woman who took a particular interest in the hero of her youth, and she had decided to pass the torch on to the younger generation. When I heard my daughter happily quoting this line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a light went off in my head.
From that day on, I set up a routine. My daughter and I would spend one hour on Saturday and one hour on Sunday memorizing my favorite speeches from Shakespeare’s plays. We started with short accessible passages from the comedies and, gradually over time, increased the length and complexity of the passages. To my delight, my daughter took to it immediately, and it turned out that these hours spent together learning everything from As You Like It to King Lear were some of the best family times of our lives. For two hours each week, we sat next to each other totally engaged in something we both loved, and we had enormous fun doing it.
Sir Derek Jacobi in Twelfth Night – who, along with Richard Clifford and Frances Barber, made special recordings of passages from the book. Photo by Geraint Lewis.
About two years ago, it occurred to me that other parents and teachers might enjoy hearing about our family’s adventures with Shakespeare, and I sat down and started writing this book.
What I have tried to do in How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare – which will be published in early June by Random House – is offer to parents and educators the techniques and strategies I developed over the years for my own children. I realized early on in this process that Shakespeare is a lot like a foreign language. Some of his words are unknown to us, even as adults; Shakespeare’s sentence structure can sounds odd to our modern ears; and Shakespeare is constantly speaking in complex metaphors that can sometimes be difficult to understand.
So what I did for my kids – as I do in the book – was teach them how to understand every word in the Shakespeare passage being studied, then memorize the passage so that their knowledge of Shakespeare became fluent, the way a foreign language can become fluent.
In total, the book presents the first 25 passages that I taught my kids, ordered into a specific sequence to make learning them as easy as possible. And as each passage is discussed, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Tempest (with a lot more plays in between), I talk about the stories, the characters and the meanings of the works so that, ultimately, the kids get the kind of knowledge of Shakespeare they’ll need to become great students, great thinkers, and great teachers.
Recently, I had the opportunity of trying this method out on a large group. I was invited by Random House, as part of Take Your Children to Work Day, to spend a couple of hours with the 9-11 year olds, about 35 of them. I thought it would be fun to see if they could memorize a few facts about Shakespeare, along with one of my favorite passages from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand,
And the youth mistook by me,
Pleading for a lovers fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
The kids had a fantastic time. At the end, when their parents came in, they proudly recited what they’d learned from memory. Shakespeare triumphed again!
There is no doubt in my mind that knowing Shakespeare will make our children better citizens of the world. It will better prepare them for the joys, as well as the whips and scorns of time (as Hamlet says). It will introduce them to the rich world of literature, and, from there, to the universe of cultural references embedded in that literature. It will give them confidence. And it will, ultimately, by giving them Shakespeare’s perspective on the world, make them more moral human beings. To quote Hamlet again, it’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Ken Ludwig is an author, theatre educator, and award-winning playwright of Lend Me a Tenor and Crazy for You. Ken will give the keynote address at our Conference for Teaching Shakespeare in the Elementary Classroom on June 24 (early bird registration discount ends June 3!). and a demonstration from How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare to be released June 11, 2013. Copies will be available for signing after the session. Find out more about his work and new book at www.kenludwig.com.
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