Our fabulous OSF actors excel at rote memorization of arcane language, but most kids would do anything to avoid it. Not so for the daughter of Ken Ludwig, an award-winning playwright and possibly Shakespeare's greatest fan. His book, "How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare," is a guide to introducing kids to literature and a celebration of Shakespeare's work. Early in the book he explains that when his daughter was in first grade he decided that if there was only one area of learning and culture he could give her at this stage in both their lives, it would be Shakespeare.
Ludwig began by teaching his daughter lines from his favorite Shakespeare comedies. He then expanded his teachings to the tragedies and included his young son. "The key to introducing Shakespeare" writes Ludwig, "so that it doesn't feel daunting and yet has real integrity is to memorize it." Ludwig starts with just a few words, then a few lines and finally whole speeches. "The point is, Shakespeare is like a foreign language, in order to know it we need to understand every word, then practice until we feel comfortable," he writes.
For example, start with "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows," from "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Ludwig suggests children repeat the line four or five times, maybe exaggerate the sounds or do it in a funny accent and voila, a bit of Shakespeare they won't forget. From there, move on to larger and larger passages. In the beginning, he suggests making a game of it, have the children exaggerate the sounds such as the long "o" in "know" or "blows." Parents can make it a contest to see who can exaggerate the sound more. "Silly, yes," he says. "But I doubt that they'll ever forget the line after this." In general, Ludwig states, "Remember, always, always make the memorization a game for your children. Chest tones, patty-cake, marching, shouting, acting, wearing hats and cloaks, contests, bets, painting on mustaches, bribery by chocolate, whatever it takes."
Ludwig and his children memorized 25 Shakespearean passages together, from Oberon's plot against Titania in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to Prospero's speech in "The Tempest." He writes that while educating his children on the subject of Shakespeare, he spent invaluable time with them. Learning passages and discussing their meaning with his kids provided them with hundreds of hours of one-on-one time that they otherwise might not have shared.
The book's tone is passionate. Ludwig explains why one would even bother to teach their kids Shakespeare. Shakespeare is a learning tool, he says, something for children to lean on and gain confidence from as they grow up. We quote Shakespeare to articulate universal truths or sentiments. Riffing on Falstaff's wit, Ludwig goes on to say that "Shakespeare is not only creative in himself — he is the cause of creation in other writers." Being able to read Shakespeare's work with intelligence and understanding will enrich children's lives and inspire them to write.
Ludwig's process, from memorization techniques to tips on explaining the plays, verse, images and characters, is laid out in simple steps with plenty of examples that work for teachers, parents or anyone interested in a fun way to learn about Shakespeare's plays. The book also includes exercises on characterization, metaphor and acting tips, and a list of additional resources.
Whether or not you're a Shakespeare lover, Ludwig's memorization techniques can enhance understanding of any type of literature. He writes, "In order to memorize something, you have to be very specific and honest with yourself. You have to work slowly and you have to understand every word of what you memorize." He laments that the tradition of memorization, once a pillar of academic education, "has faded from our lives and something powerful has been lost."
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at email@example.com.