Posted in Book Lovers Community

How To Teach Children Shakespeare

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I have a confession to make.  I’m not very familiar with Shakespeare. I recall reading Romeo and Juliet in my freshman English class, and in college I know that I read Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet at some point. But I suppose that I must have been more concerned with getting what the professor wanted out of the plays than letting the plays get into me, because I don’t remember much about them.

It’s embarrassing that a bibliophile, such as myself, has such a gaping hole in my literary education. It’s even more shameful that, as a homeschool mom, I am charged with teaching Shakespeare to my children and I have absolutely no idea how to go about it.  But this year, on the 400th anniversary of his death, I have decided that it is time to stop faking it and rectify my ignorance. I am going to read Shakespeare.

But how to get started? When Sarah Mackenzie from Read Aloud Revival sang the praises of a book called How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig, I knew that I had finally found a lifeline. And, boy, was she right. This book is so jam-packed with goodness, I hardly know where to begin.

Ludwig is a multiple Tony award winning playwright, and his passion for Shakespeare permeates every page of this delightful book. This is a book that celebrates the beauty of Shakespeare—his language, his themes, his imagery, and his insight. Although the title suggests that the book is written for parents, Ludwig asserts that the techniques that he teaches in the book can easily be used in a classroom. I would contend that this book would be useful for ANYONE who wants to learn (or help someone learn) Shakespeare: parents, teachers, and adults approaching Shakespeare for the first time.

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In the introduction of the book it is stated that Ludwig’s approach is more passionate than academic, but don’t let that fool you. The depth of knowledge that he displays throughout the book is vast and varied.  He is upfront about his strategy: “With Shakespeare, memorizing is the key to everything.” And he begins immediately with the memorization of one line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.

And with those few words, you are immediately drawn in and whisked away into the beauty that is Shakespeare. (If you have any doubt as to whether or not Ludwig’s strategy works, suffice it to say that I did not have to reference my copy of his book to write those lines, or to picture the oxlips and nodding violets with a sleeping fairy queen in their midst, despite the fact that it has been weeks since I read the first chapter.)  He does explain his reasoning behind using memorization as his pedagogical strategy, but by that time, you are already convinced.

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Ludwig walks you through the process step-by-step, so a Shakespeare novice like myself will not find the process daunting. He includes the address for a companion website that has printable memorization pages (part of his strategy), as well as recordings of the passages read by famous Shakespearean actors.  In addition to teaching strategy for memorization, Ludwig also provides exercises to help your children understand and internalize the language and beauty of Shakespeare. Ludwig revels in the beauty of Shakespeare. You learn how the Bard deliberately used language to make the verse sound beautiful. Literary devices that he used are explained and explored in ways that children will understand and find pleasurable. He expounds on some of Shakespeare’s favorite techniques and touches on concepts such as assonance, imagery, metaphor, and the difference between poetry and prose, to name a few. I imagine that, after completing an education in Shakespeare as laid out in this book, children would not only be well-versed in Shakespeare, but also better writers.

Ludwig is a playwright, and the love of theatre that he shares with Shakespeare shines forth in the book. He encourages you to act the scenes out with your children and he discusses the influence that Shakespeare had on English drama. If you are not a fan of theatre when you begin the book, Ludwig’s passion will draw you in and convince you to give it a try. But theatre isn’t the only art that he references and champions in the book. He also sings the praises of classical music, jazz, sculpture, poetry, painting, opera, classic literature, and even some pop culture. Through his comparisons and highlights, he shows you the boundless influence that Shakespeare has had on Western Culture.

“Shakespeare is, indisputably, one of the two great bedrocks of Western civilization in English. (The other is the King James translation of the Bible). Not only do Shakespeare’s plays themselves contain the finest writing of the past 450 years, but most of the best novels, plays, poetry, and films in the English language produced since Shakespeare’s death in 1616-from Jane Austen to Charles Dickens, from Ulysses to The Godfather—are heavily influenced by Shakespeare’s stories, characters, language, and themes. As Falstaff says in Henry IV, Part 2: ‘I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.’”

Ludwig began using the techniques laid out in this book when his daughter was 6 years old. I would say that you can begin using the memorization parts of the book with a child that age or even younger. However, it is my sense that the golden age for taking advantage of all aspects of this book (memorization, exercises, and discussion) is probably somewhere around ages 8-12. I think at those ages, a child is old enough to have a wider breadth of general knowledge with which to understand more of the context, but is still young enough to take pleasure in some of the wonderful silliness of some of the activities. As it is Shakespeare, some of the passages selected for memorization (as well as some of the discussion topics) are probably better suited to older students. But Ludwig does clearly state that some plays are not to be read until adulthood (like Julius Caesar). This book would be perfect for a parent with children of different ages; he/she could select one of the more child-friendly plays, have the whole family memorize the suggested lines, enjoy the exercises and the beauty of the language and the story, and then delve deeper into discussion with any mature children. Although the techniques taught are useful for any age, the book itself is for adults. Some of the themes discussed include sexual desire, spirituality, and violence. But, again, this IS Shakespeare, and a mature reader will be able to handle those themes without incident. For the more sensitive parent, however, it should be noted that some of the verses for memorization contain words that were common in Shakespeare’s day, but whose meaning can have profane connotations in today’s culture (ex: donkey). That said, there is no reason that any parent or teacher cannot glean an abundance of information for understanding and teaching Shakespeare from this book. The appendices alone, which include a canon and timeline of plays, additional memory work, lists of favorite Shakespearean films, and a vast bibliography, are worth the price of the book.

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Ludwig is passionate about Shakespeare, and he made me fall in love with the Bard as well. In How to Teach Children Shakespeare, Ludwig has given us a golden key to unlock the door to Shakespeare’s beauty, insight, and influence.  And that understanding helps us see the world with new eyes.

“The arts make a difference in how we see the world and how we conduct our lives—how we view charity to our neighbors and justice to our communities—and Shakespeare, as the greatest artist in the history of our civilization, has worlds to teach us as long as we have the tools we need to understand him” –Ken Ludwig