Committing the Bard to Memory
Issue Two / 2019
Ken Ludwig, How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare (Random House, 2013).
There was a time not long ago when memorization was considered to be one of the basic tools of an academic education. … This tradition has faded from our lives, and something powerful has been lost. (8)
In How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare, director and educator Ken Ludwig argues eloquently for the benefits of memorization from the perspective of a profession—stage acting—that still requires it. His book is simultaneously very practical and deeply idealistic, dedicated to the idea that, “the arts make a difference in how we see the world and how we conduct our lives” (11). The combination of carefully chosen passages and memorization techniques make How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare an extremely useful education resource for teaching children from elementary school through high school. He is also writing from personal experience after teaching his own children Shakespeare, beginning when they were six years old.
The book is structured around twenty passages from Shakespeare which have been carefully sequenced to start with those most accessible to young children: beginning with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, reaching the rousing St. Crispin’s Day Speech from Henry V two thirds of the way through the book, and concluding with Hamlet and The Tempest. It is an arc that carries a child from comedies through histories to tragedies, and beyond to Shakespeare’s romances in which elements of comedy and tragedy combine. Shakespeare’s plays touch upon all of the central themes of the human condition and, consequently, the chosen passages explore the nature of love, friendship, grief, courage, and forgiveness.
In each chapter, Ludwig provides context for each passage, discussing the imagery and symbolism used by Shakespeare. The passages are also intended to be “landmarks” within each play for children to recognize when they eventually attend a theater performance of the play or read it in its entirety. And they are very well chosen landmarks, for example the five passages from Hamlet include: the What a Piece of Work Is a Man soliloquy, the very first lines of Hamlet, Act I, Scene 1, Line 1 beginning Who’s there?, the Advice of Polonius, O, What a Rogue and Peasant Slave Am I, and To be, or not to be.
In addition to the 20 passages the book is built around, Ludwig includes recommendations for five additional longer passages and then a further 55 additional passages in two appendices. Considering that the curriculum is meant to encompass all years between kindergarten and the senior year in high school, this broad selection allows a parent to customize how much memorization to tackle based on the individual child’s level of enthusiasm or non-Shakespeare academic workload. Two passages per year will mean completing the main passages in the tenth grade, and a gradual increase in the number of passages each year will mean covering more of the additional passages.
Remember, always, always make the memorization a game for your children … My view was always a ruthless one: Anything I could do to help them memorize the passages was fair game. (72)
Children memorize lines or even whole passages from Star Wars, The Princess Bride, or Harry Potter without needing any encouragement. With a little encouragement, they can memorize much richer literature. Enthusiasm is contagious. Whether you love Shakespeare or the Mets, it is possible to inspire a similar love in your children. A father who plays catch often with his child in the back yard, takes him to ballgames, talks about baseball during dinner table conversations, listens to games on the radio, and watches games with him on TV will raise baseball fans. There are many suggestions within How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare on how to make memorization fun, and much more of a game than work. Shakespeare can become part of your family culture if you choose. If mom and dad go to see Shakespeare on date night, if they talk about Shakespeare at family meals, and most of all if they spend enjoyable hours memorizing passages of Shakespeare with their children, then their children will grow up inspired rather than intimidated by the Bard of Avon.
Your view of Shakespeare will determine your perception of Ludwig’s book. As recently as the early 20th century, Oxford dons might seriously have argued that there was no need to include any English author after Chaucer in the Canon. Ludwig’s view is the opposite; for him Shakespeare is at the center of the Canon, and he approvingly cites Harold Bloom’s view that Shakespeare invented modernity. If you love Shakespeare and hope someday to take your children to watch and enjoy his plays, then I think Ludwig’s book is an essential resource. Encountering Shakespeare enriches your children’s education by introducing them to characters who are startlingly “real” and in whom they will see elements of themselves and anyone they ever meet in person or in literature.
John Beegle is an IT consultant who works in Northern Virginia. He’s a fan of Shakespeare and enjoys the Washington Nationals with his wife and son.
 Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1977), 63.
 Ludwig, 331 cites Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998). Bloom discusses the same thesis more briefly in his earlier book on the Western canon, see Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Riverhead Books, 1994), 24, 38‒9, 46.