Saturday, July 06, 2013

Book Review - How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare

For summer vacation this year, we've decided to (finally) return to the Utah Shakespearean Festival. We haven't been since we had children but have decided that they are old enough to be introduced to Shakespeare and enjoy it. In prep for that vacation, I picked up a copy of How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig hoping to find practical tips and advice for introducing Shakespeare to the kids before we arrived at the festival.

Before reading the book, I didn't know the name Ken Ludwig but it was clear from the text that he does have some definite authority on Shakespeare. Looking up his biography I found that I'm actually familiar with some of his other works as a playwright. He's written and directed a number of plays for Broadway, London and other regional and touring shows. I'm not sure if he has done any "professional" teaching of Shakespeare but I can say that a lot of his commentary and information reminded me a lot of some of the Shakespeare classes I attended at college. While his close readings aren't as in-depth or extensive as the close readings I did in class the readings and commentary in this book had great high level introductions to the plays mixed with wonderfully informative explanations of some of the more obscure text and explanations of some of the symbolic or peripheral relationships that wouldn't be apparent on a first read.

The primary teaching technique that Ludwig suggests is to have your children memorize passages of Shakespeare. The book sets forward over two dozen primary passages for you to memorize with your children. While you could certainly memorize the passages in any order, the book is laid out in such a way as to provide a logical framework for bringing your children through the works of Shakespeare from the lighter and more accessible to the heavier and more difficult. The book starts with passages from lighter works like A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night and works over to more intense works like Hamlet and The Tempest.

I must admit that my initial reaction to his teaching proposal was one of skepticism. I sincerely doubted whether or not I could get my children interested enough to take the time to memorize 20+ passages of Shakespeare. In fact, when I suggested the idea, my two boys shrugged and walked away. My daughter showed some interest but it seemed to be more an interest of spending daddy-daughter time than in doing anything with Shakespeare. As such, we won't have any passages fully memorized before our trip to the Shakespeare Festival next week. Still, I am impressed with the method and details he presents and I am hopeful that over the course of the summer I may be able to teach my kids at least one or two passages.

The book has a companion website at The website includes PDF printouts for each of the passages to memorize. The PDFs are ~large font cue cards to hang up or hold up while memorizing the passages. While you could certainly type up your own documents, it is nice to have the work already handled for you. Granted, I personally would have been willing to increase the font size even a little more (though that would mean using more paper).

Also on the site are streaming audio files of actors reciting the passages from the book. I haven't yet listened to the recordings for all of the passages, but I absolutely love this added touch. Shakespeare written is gorgeous but it is meant to be seen, to be heard. There is such a difference between reading the written word on the page and hearing the poetic interplay of the words spoken aloud. That aspect is probably the largest strength of Ludwig's suggestion to teach by memorization. He is not merely suggesting that the children memorize a passage and the write it back down. He wants the children (and presumably the adults helping) to memorize the passage and to understand its context. To become a particpant in the action and to recite the words as the actor speaking the words. By speaking the words aloud and perhaps even adding some dramatic action or emotion, the student will become more immersed in the work.

I found myself really enjoying this book simply as a book. Ludwig has a great passion for Shakespeare and combines that enthusiasm with wonderful knowledge and instruction. I absolutely loved the in-depth readings of the various passages and the extra details and descriptions that he brings to the study. While I was initially hesitant with regards to his suggestion to have the children do a lot of memorization, I quickly found myself swayed to his argument and I look forward to trying to get the kids reciting Shakespeare with me. I think the hardest part will be to get them started. Once we're underway, I hope they will also enjoy the fun and enthusiasm from this book and together we can learn these passages and go on to learn more.

For those who are adamantly NOT Shakespeare fans (you know who you are...and so do I), I doubt this book will convert you. For those who don't yet know the Bard or who only have an inkling of his work, I can definitely recommend this book as a great starting place to gain familiarity with some of his most famous plays and passages and to gain a greater appreciation for the genius of Shakespeare. I plan to get plenty of use out of this book both in my own studies and with my children.

4 out of 5 stars

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1 comment:

Brian Miller said...

sounds like a pretty cool book...and a cool bit of vacation as well...took my son to midsummer night dream a few years back and he loved it...some of it went over his head of course but...interesting...will check it out...