How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare, by Ken Ludwig
[Note: This book was provided by Blogging For Books for free in exchange for an honest review.]
It is clear from even a cursory look at this book that Ken Ludwig has a passion for drama. Ludwig is a multiple Tony Award winning dramatist and a fan of Shakespeare from his youth, and he shares with parents and teachers (the intended audience for this work) the same sort of tips to teach Shakespeare to children that he used with his own children. Although the book is somewhat lengthy (including its appendices and an annotated bibliography that seeks to provide books and movies about Shakespeare for further reading, it comes out to around 350 pages), it is clearly written by someone who remains a bit of a child at heart and has an exuberant enthusiasm for drama in general and the wit and wisdom of Shakespeare in particular. For those who are bardophiles [lovers of Shakespeare’s works] and wish to pass on that love to others, this book has a lot of helpful advice and tips.
This book is full of intrigue. For one, it recommends a particular order to teaching Shakespeare’s plays, starting with plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream when children are about the age of six or so, young enough to enjoy the repetition and old enough to be able to appreciate the theater and grasp the language (with questions about meaning). The book includes a companion website (howtoteachyourchildrenshakespeare.com) and is filled with all kinds of interesting tips on how to break down long speeches of prose and especially poetry from some of Shakespeare’s plays into an easily digestible form. There are also lots of photos from Shakespeare productions, including a photo from one interesting performance where David Tennant played Hamlet and Patrick Stewart played Claudius. As a whole the book is divided into three parts and 40 passages, the first part dealing with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, and one passage from Romeo & Juliet. The second part has passages from Macbeth, Henry IV Part 1, As You Like It, and Henry V. Part three closes with passages from Hamlet and The Tempest. Throughout the book as a whole, the author discusses the themes of love, death, the meaning of life, time, and loyalty to family, among other issues.
These various passages are explained, words are defined, and lessons are taught with a great deal of energy and skill. Yet there is a great tension that this book and its author find itself in that is not necessarily openly acknowledged. For one, this book talks a lot about the place of Shakespeare within the canon of English literature (in language much like that used to discuss the Bible, which is referred to often in these pages) and the worth of knowing Shakespeare for its moral depth and elevated concepts and language. Yet at the same time the author delights in recommending R-rated movies and playing up the transgressive elements of Shakespeare’s work (he even recommends having boys do the whole cross-dressing bit from Shakespeare if they are up for it, something that can lead to ridicule if one does it around the wrong people). Of course, a similar tension exists between a focus on memorizing Shakespeare’s words and an appreciation for the ambiguity in his writing, as well as between the fact that Shakespeare’s work was time-bound within the late 16th century as well as redolent of more contemporary drama with its existential concerns, and the tension between our regard and respect for Shakespeare’s plays and the bowlderizing that was often done to his texts by later generations. These tensions enrich this work and make for a complicated and nuanced picture.
Some of the tips that the author gives are very worthwhile to fans of Shakespeare of any age. For example, it is good to look up unfamiliar terms and useful to read the words aloud rather than just rely on reading them on the page. Making Shakespeare relevant by playing games like coming up with creative Shakespearean insults, or using Shakespeare’s epigrams in everyday circumstances, or compete to notice imagery in Shakespeare’s writings as well as elements like meter and internal rhyme are all suggested within these pages. Among the funniest epigrams that can be used by parents and children alike is Falstaff’s immortal line from Henry IV Part One: “Why, Hal, ’tis my vocation, Hal. ‘Tis no sin for a man to labor in his vocation.” (The author suggests this line should be repeated when one is caught doing something one ought not to be doing, which makes for some very humorous contexts.) Besides the tips, the author includes a lot of context about Shakespeare, theater, and publishing that ought to provide enough information for inquisitive young people who have a lot of questions. Parents and teachers of such children who wish to encourage and develop a love of the appropriate kind of drama will appreciate this book greatly.