How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare

How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare

by Ken Ludwig


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How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig

Winner of the Falstaff Award for Best Shakespeare Book, How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare is a foolproof, enormously fun method of teaching your children the classic works of William Shakespeare by Tony-Award winning playwright, Ken Ludwig.
To know some Shakespeare provides a head start in life. His plays are among the great bedrocks of Western civilization and contain the finest writing of the past 450 years. Many of the best novels, plays, poems, and films in the English language produced since Shakespeare’s death in 1616—from Pride and Prejudice to The Godfather—are heavily influenced by Shakespeare’s stories, characters, language, and themes. In How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare, acclaimed playwright Ken Ludwig provides the tools you need to inspire an understanding, and a love, of Shakespeare’s works in your children, and to have fun together along the way.
        Ken Ludwig devised his friendly, easy-to-master methods while teaching his own children. Beginning with memorizing short passages from the plays, his technique then instills children with cultural references they will utilize for years to come. Ludwig’s approach includes understanding of the time period and implications of Shakespeare’s diction as well as the invaluable lessons behind his words and stories. Colorfully incorporating the history of Shakespearean theater and society, How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare guides readers on an informed and adventurous journey through the world in which the Bard wrote.
This book’s simple process allows anyone to impart to children the wisdom of plays like A Midsummer Night’s DreamTwelfth Night, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. And there’s fun to be had throughout. Shakespeare novices and experts and readers of all ages will each find something delightfully irresistible in How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307951496
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 06/11/2013
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

KEN LUDWIG is an internationally acclaimed playwright who has had numerous hits on Broadway, in London, and throughout the world. His plays and musicals include Lend Me a Tenor, which won two Tony Awards, and Crazy for You, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical. He has also won two Laurence Olivier Awards and the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His work has been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and has been performed in over thirty countries in more than twenty languages. Visit him at

Read an Excerpt

chapter 1

Passage 1 Learning the First Line

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows

Nine words. Each word has one syllable. Nine syllables.

That’s all it is.

It isn’t hard to learn this line of poetry. It’s from the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, and I’ll bet your son or daughter can memorize it in less than a minute.

There are two keys to memorizing it:

First, say it aloud.

Second, repeat it.

So let’s do it together: Say this aloud:

I know a bank

Now say it again:

I know a bank

Now say it four times in a row. No kidding. Just do it—and promise me that you’ll do it aloud:

I know a bank

I know a bank

I know a bank

I know a bank

Did you say it aloud? Because if you didn’t, this won’t work, I assure you. In order to do it properly, you have to go to a place where you won’t be embarrassed. Just pick a room and close the door. Then sit down with your son or daughter and do it together. Say it aloud four times. If you’ve done this honestly, as I’ve described, you’ve now got it in your brain, and you’ll never forget it.

I know a bank

Now do the same thing with the second half of the line. The words are more complex but not difficult at all. Have your child say them aloud:

where the wild thyme blows

Now say them again:

where the wild thyme blows

It’s important when you learn Shakespeare that you understand every word you’re reading or memorizing. Your children should understand that a bank is a mound of grass on the side of a stream or river, and that thyme is a flowering plant with a strong smell. It is less commonly known that blow in Shakespeare’s day meant “burst into flower.” So what the speaker is describing is a mound of grass, probably near a stream, where the wild thyme is blowing in the breeze and bursting into flower.

Now let’s go back to the words. Say the second half of the line again, four times, out loud.

where the wild thyme blows

where the wild thyme blows

where the wild thyme blows

where the wild thyme blows

If you’ve said these words aloud, you and your child can now put the whole line together without difficulty. Do it. Say it aloud:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows

Say it again, and really enjoy saying it, because it’s good for the soul.

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows

One last time, and this time say it in a hushed tone, painting a picture with the words, describing a place of great beauty and depth:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows

And now you and your child have memorized some Shakespeare. Believe me, it will stay with both of you for the rest of your lives. And it will change your lives.

chapter 2

The Reason for the Book

Let’s pause for a moment so I can give you some background. When I’m finished, we’ll dig right back into the first passage.

I’ve been teaching Shakespeare to my children since they were six years old. I’m a bit of a Shakespeare fanatic, and it occurred to me when my daughter was in first grade that if there was any skill—any single area of learning and culture—that I could impart to her while we were both healthy and happy and able to share things together in a calm, focused, pre-teen way, then Shakespeare was it.

I began the process by teaching her lines from my favorite Shakespeare comedies; and as I continued with this method and expanded it to include my son, I became convinced that the way into the subject—the way to introduce someone to Shakespeare for the first time so that it doesn’t feel daunting and yet has real integrity—is to memorize it. First a few lines, then whole speeches.

With Shakespeare, memorizing is the key to everything.

A great deal of this book will involve memorizing speeches from Shakespeare’s plays. Along the way we’ll discuss other important aspects of Shakespeare—the stories, the verse, the imagery, the characters—everything that you and your children should know in order to understand how Shakespeare changed the world.

Two good questions arise right away: Why Shakespeare? And why memorize it?

Why Shakespeare?

The answer to the first question is that Shakespeare isn’t just one of the many great authors in the English language; 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.

Shakespeare is not only creative in himself—he is the cause of creation in other writers.

For many of us, Shakespeare has become a kind of Bible for the modern world, bringing us together intellectually the way religious services have traditionally done. For more than five thousand years, Moses, Jesus, and the other towering figures of the Old and New Testaments were the archetypes of our consciousness. In modern society, Hamlet and Macbeth, Juliet and Ophelia, have been added to their number. To know some Shakespeare gives you a head start in life.

Also, Shakespeare’s powers as a writer simply exceed those of every other writer in the history of the English language. Here is an excerpt from the diary of the distinguished English novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, who speaks here for every writer I know:

I read Shakespeare directly after I have finished writing, when my mind is agape and red and hot. Then it is astonishing. I never yet knew how amazing his stretch and speed and word-coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace and outrace my own, seeming to start equal and then I see him draw ahead and do things I could not in my wildest tumult and utmost press of mind imagine. [T]he words drop so fast one can’t pick them up. . . . Why then should anyone else attempt to write. This is not “writing” at all. Indeed, I could say that Shakespeare surpasses literature altogether, if I knew what I meant.

Why Memorize It?

As for memorization, I’m convinced that it unlocks the whole world of Shakespeare in a unique way. In order to memorize something, you have to be very specific and very honest with yourself. You have to work slowly, and you have to understand every word of what you’re memorizing. There was a time not long ago when memorization was considered to be one of the basic tools of an academic education. Students were expected to learn hundreds of lines from the Greek and Roman classics, then, later, from poetry in their native tongues. This tradition has faded from our lives, and something powerful has been lost.

That said, Shakespeare can be difficult to read, let alone memorize, without some help. Most people who pick up one of Shakespeare’s plays and try to read it for pleasure end up putting it down after the first few pages because they find it confusing. And this is true for adults, let alone children.

There are several reasons for this. First, many of Shakespeare’s words are unfamiliar to us. When Hamlet, in the most famous speech in the English language (To be or not to be), refers to something called a bodkin, most of us just scratch our heads and want to give up. (A bodkin is a dagger.)

Second, Shakespeare’s sentence structure often sounds odd to our ears. This is partly because Shakespeare wrote his plays more than four hundred years ago and partly because a substantial portion of his plays are in poetry. Thus he’s frequently saying things like Conceal me what I am instead of “Disguise me.”

Third, Shakespeare frequently writes in metaphors. His mind was so lively and cunning, so profound and imaginative, that he was always telling us how something was like something else, and it often takes some effort to puzzle out his meaning. For example, in one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches from Romeo and Juliet, he has Romeo compare Juliet’s eyes to stars in the night sky. He has Romeo say that the real stars have to hurry away, and they (the stars) have asked Juliet’s eyes to take their place. Then Romeo adds that Juliet’s eyes would—in place of the stars—shine so brightly that birds would start singing because they’d think it was daytime, not nighttime. Here’s what he actually says:

Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,

Having some business, do entreat her eyes

To twinkle in their spheres till they return. . . .

Her eye in heaven

Would through the airy regions stream so bright

That birds would sing and think it were not night.

This is obviously a complex piece of writing, yet my son won a recitation contest with this speech when he was eleven years old.

The point is that Shakespeare is like a foreign language. In order to learn it, we need to understand every word, then practice until we feel comfortable. If your children memorize one line at a time, then a short speech, then a longer speech, they’ll become self-assured and then fluent. At that point, Shakespeare will become part of their literary vocabulary.

The Value of Knowing Shakespeare

Knowing Shakespeare in depth has profound implications for your children. It means that they can begin to view life through a Shakespearean lens, using the questions that Shakespeare raises in his plays as a point of reference as they learn to form their own opinions. What does Twelfth Night tell us about the relationship between brothers and sisters? What does Hamlet tell us about the anxiety we feel when a parent dies?

In addition, Shakespeare articulates emotions that help children understand the stresses of their daily lives. When children hear Juliet say:

Give me my Romeo; and when I shall die

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night

or they hear Macbeth utter:

Life’s but a walking shadow, . . . It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

they are likely to feel that thoughts of longing, death, and hopelessness are less alien to them.

From the beginning, I had a number of additional goals in mind in teaching my children Shakespeare. One was to give them the tools to read Shakespeare’s works with intelligence for the rest of their lives. On the simplest level, this will enrich their lives and give them a lifetime of pleasure.

Another goal was to expose them to literature of such universal depth and worth that it would inspire them to want to achieve great things as they marched forward into maturity. I have staked my life as a writer on the proposition that 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.

From a very personal standpoint, the course of Shakespeare studies outlined in this book also provided me and my children with hundreds of hours of one-on-one time together that we never would have shared otherwise. These hours spent together have made our family stronger and more tolerant of one another.

On a practical note, I had another, very specific goal in mind: to teach my children at least twenty-five passages from Shakespeare’s plays so that they could have the lines at their fingertips and spout them whenever the occasion presented itself. The occasion might be citing a literary reference in an English essay, or it might include making an intelligent point in conversation. These uses, frankly, open doors for our children, which is what we as parents are, rightly, always trying to do.

Being fluent in Shakespeare from an early age imparts one last advantage that has a significance all its own: It gives my children self-confidence. It gives them the tools, as Falstaff might say, to be witty in themselves and be proud of it. As a father, this is one of the best parts of the whole exercise.

chapter 3

The Plan of the Book

Let me outline the plan of this book so you know what’s coming. Then we’ll get right back to I know a bank.

The Twenty-five Passages

Together you and I will teach your children twenty-five passages of Shakespeare by heart. We’ll start with short, accessible passages; then gradually we’ll increase the length and complexity of the passages until, toward the end, we’ll go for a few entire soliloquies.

I have strong views about which plays—and which passages from these plays—your children will find it easiest to start with, and I have put them in a very specific order. If you follow this order, I can just about guarantee that your kids won’t get bogged down and frustrated.

I think that children do best by starting with the comedies. Specifically, I find that A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night are the most child-friendly of all the plays, and we’ll spend a good deal of time on them. We’ll then move more quickly through the canon in order to expose your children to some of Shakespeare’s most famous works. Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet, for example, are simply part of our cultural DNA and cannot be missed.

Shakespeare’s Language

In every chapter, I’ll be quoting a great deal of Shakespeare’s poetry and prose in addition to the passages being memorized. I’m doing this to expose your children to as much of Shakespeare’s language as possible. I’ve chosen these additional passages carefully, as I want your children to come away from this book with a level of familiarity with Shakespeare that they can’t get elsewhere. In every case, you and your children should read the additional passages aloud.

The Stories and Characters

Along with the passages themselves, we’ll teach your children the plots and characters to go with them. This is not only valuable in itself but will help them memorize the passages more quickly, and they’ll remember them longer. If you learn the line Lord what fools these mortals be! and associate it with a hilarious little sprite named Robin Goodfellow in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you’ll never forget either the character or the line.

Table of Contents

Introduction John Lithgow xiii

Part 1 A Midsummer Night's Dream

1 Passage 1: Learning the First Line 3

2 The Reason for the Book 6

3 The Plan of the Book 13

4 Passage 1, Continued: Imagery and Rhythm 17

5 The Final Six Lines 23

6 Passage 2: Puck's Announcement and the Story of A Midsummer Night's Dream 30

7 Digging Deeper into A Midsummer Night's Dream 37

8 Passage 3: Bottom's Dream 40

9 Passage 4: Theseus and Hippolyta 48

10 Poetry Versus Prose: How Does Poetry Work? 55

Twelfth Night

11 Passage 5: Cesario's Willow Cabin 66

12 The Viola Plot 75

13 Passage 6: Orsino's Heart 79

14 Passage 7: The Nature of Shakespearean Comedy 83

15 Passage 8: Cakes and Ale 95

16 The Malvolio Plot 100

17 Passage 9: Carpe Diem 104

18 Passage 10: Sisters and Brothers 108

19 Passage 11: Do Not Embrace Me 113

Romeo and Juliet

20 Passage 12: Juliet in Love 120


21 Shakespeare's Life and an Overview of His Work 130

Part 2 Macbeth

22 Passage 13: Macbeth's Conscience 149

23 Passage 14: Lady Macbeth and the Imagery of Evil 155

Henry IV, Part 1

24 Passage 15: The World of Falstaff 165

25 Passage 16: Falstaff s Voice 179

As You Like It

26 Passage 17: Rosalind 195

27 Passage 18: This Wide and Universal Theatre 206

28 Passage 18, Continued: The World as a Stage 211

Henry V

29 Passage 19: O, for a Muse of Fire! 220

30 Henry the Patriot 230


31 Hooray for Heminges and Condell 239

Part 3 Hamlet

32 Passage 20: What a Piece of Work Is a Man 247

33 Passage 21: Who's There? 256

34 Passage 22: The Advice of Polonius 261

35 Hamlet's Soliloquies 267

36 Passage 23: O, What a Rogue and Peasant Slave Am I! 275

37 The End of the Story 283

38 Passage 24: The Most Famous Words in the World 291

39 Hamlet and the Theater 297

The Tempest

40 Passage 25: A Summation 305

Epilogue 313

Appendix 1 A Chronological List of Shakespeare's Plays 315

Appendix 2 Five Additional Longer Passages 317

Appendix 3 Fifty-five Additional Passages to Teach Your Children If They Want to Continue 318

Appendix 4 A List of Favorite Epigrams 323

Appendix 5 Sample Quotation Pages 325

Bibliography 329

Books for Children 329

Books for Parents, Teachers, and Advanced Students 330

Films 337

Audio Recordings 342

Acknowledgments 345

Photo Credits 347

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How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
lovelybookshelf More than 1 year ago
Confession: I am a very reluctant Shakespeare reader. I don't remember being exposed to his works before high school, and I don't remember my teachers showing much spirit when Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar came along on the syllabus. We're a homeschooling family, and I know there will be time I'll have to teach things I'm not terribly interested in. But I want my daughter to appreciate Shakespeare's works in the same way I want her to appreciate great pieces of art or music: because these works are "part of our cultural DNA and cannot be missed," as Ken Ludwig says. Although I have concerns that it is too late for me, I'd love to enjoy Shakespeare, too. Thank you, Ken Ludwig, for writing How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare. I didn't even have to warm up to it! He writes about Shakespeare in such an engaging way, with vivaciousness, passion, and a wildly contagious enthusiasm. Not only do I find myself having a sense of awe and appreciation for what I'm reading, I'm falling in love with the words, the way they are crafted, their deeper meaning. If Ludwig can do this for me as an adult, someone so reluctant and with major Shakespearean hang-ups... the possibilities for using this in my child's education are huge. Ludwig starts off with a very simple (but stunning) seven-word line from A Midsummer's Night Dream, tackling it very briefly. He moves on to discuss Shakespeare's importance and to give a bit of explanation about the layout of the book and key factors in learning to appreciate and enjoy his works. Ludwig then gets back to the literature itself, complete with synopses, selected passages, explanations, and suggestions for memorization. The book's website offers printable quotation sheets and audio clips of all twenty-six passages. Because of its focus on memorization and recitation, classical and Charlotte Mason homeschoolers will find How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare especially useful. We're more of a relaxed/eclectic homeschooling family, but the enthusiasm within this book has earned it a permanent place on our bookshelf. I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.
uncommongirl More than 1 year ago
How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare is a guide and not a step-by-step curriculum. A great resource for literature study, the book covers twenty-five passages of Shakespeare. The learning/memorizing starts with a single line and moves on to complete speeches. And while memorization is key to the teaching concept of the book, it reaches in further to teach the language, vocabulary, metaphors, plots, and so forth, of Shakespeare’s writing. Similar to learning a foreign language, Ken Ludwig’s method incorporates reading, hearing, and speaking Shakespeare. Having no previous Shakespeare familiarity,  I found this book interesting. I would have appreciated it during our homeschool years and will be using it in a few years from now with my grandson. “No” on intimidation. “Yes” on  fun.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book!  Being a theatre enthusiast, I was excited to go through this book.  I am an elementary teacher who is researching theatre in the classroom, so this will definitely help!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago