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Don’t Be Afraid to Teach Your Children Shakespeare

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

“Procession of Characters From Shakespeare's Plays,” circa 1840, unknown artist (manner of Thomas Stothard. (Public Domain)

When Ken Ludwig’s daughter was just 6 years old, he, as with most dads, wanted to get to know her and share one of his own loves. As a two-time Olivier Award-winning playwright, Ludwig’s love just happened to be Shakespeare.

He started with his daughter and then his son. “I just loved sitting down with them for hours at the weekend,” he said.

Having written 25 plays and musicals, which have been performed in over 30 countries worldwide, including six Broadway productions and seven in London’s West End, Ludwig is well-versed in theater. So writing a book about teaching Shakespeare to children may have seemed natural: His “How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare” won the Falstaff Award for best Shakespeare book of 2014.

In the book, he shares how teaching his own children made his “family stronger and more tolerant of one another.”

Sitting down with Shakespeare may not first come to mind when entertaining your children, but here Ludwig shares with The Epoch Times how rewarding and enriching that experience can be for all.

(Courtesy of Ken Ludwig)

The Epoch Times: Your book reinvigorated Shakespeare for me, to see his work with fresh eyes. My experience of Shakespeare was dry and hard work at school. I related more to experiencing the play “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” in Regents Park, London. How do you convince adults that Shakespeare is relevant to their child if their experience has been similar to mine?

Ken Ludwig: Yours is not an untypical journey. The title of my book is not just “How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare”; the stealth title is “How to Teach Yourself Shakespeare,” because the fact is that most people are afraid of Shakespeare. They get a little exposure to it, and when they do, it’s confusing. It literally feels like a foreign language that they can’t understand, especially when they try to read it. It’s pretty intense reading for someone who doesn’t know how to go about it.

That’s why it’s especially good to introduce Shakespeare to kids: because their minds are open to everything. They’re like little sponges, and they’re not prejudiced against the idea of Shakespeare. This is especially true for kids at a very young age, like 6 to 12.

So what my book tries to do is expose both kids and their parents to the beauties and intelligence—and just plain fun—of Shakespeare, with no prior knowledge required.

I had a wonderful meeting recently with an Englishman who has become a very successful businessman. It was only later in life, in his late 30s, that he discovered and fell in love with Shakespeare for the first time. How did he do it?

He told me that he used to take a group of his employees to London once a year for a blowout day of fun, food, and entertainment so they could spend some real quality time together. First, they might have a fun pub lunch, and then they’d go to see a sports match or the like, then they’d have a great, rollicking dinner together, and that was that.

But about 20 years ago, they were on the South Bank in London and passed the Globe theater, and tickets were available. The performance at the Globe that day was “As You Like It,” and they bought groundling tickets (where you stand in the courtyard of the theater) and decided to give it a try. And for my friend and his companions, it was like a revelation. He said it was like a mist that disappeared from before his eyes. His experience of Shakespeare up to that time had been confusing and frustrating, and suddenly, “It was like the best afternoon I’ve ever spent.” Since that time, he’s become an enormous Shakespeare lover and advocate.  Shakespeare has enriched his life.

Seeing a Shakespeare play performed by fine actors in a great production—like those at the Globe, the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company], or Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C.—these performances simply change your life. Good actors tell the stories clearly, in a straight line, so that the audience can understand every word.

The Epoch Times: Do you hear back from adults with similar revelations after reading your book?

Mr. Ludwig: I do. I do. And that’s the best part of it. I’m a playwright by profession, and that’s how I make my living. Writing this book was a labor of love. Believe me, no one has ever made a living writing a book about Shakespeare. But you do it because you love it so much, and you want to share it with the world. And the best part has been when people write to me and say, “Oh, my gosh! I was teaching it to my son and daughter and we all started understanding it together, and now we all love it!”

“Afraid” is the operative word they’ll say to me: “I was afraid of Shakespeare. But, oh my gosh!  I just loved it. I understood it for the first time!”

And understanding it for the first time is really a matter of doing what the book says in those first few chapters: First, read a few lines—the ones I suggest in the first chapter—simple, beautiful lines from a simple, understandable passage. The passage I suggest starting with is one from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It describes a place in a forest where the magical Fairy Queen of the forest sleeps at night. The passage begins:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxslips and the nodding violet grows. There sleeps Titania, sometime of the night, Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight.

We learn that these lines are being spoken by a hilarious, dangerous, wonderful character named Oberon, and that he’s telling his henchman Puck where his wife Titania sleeps—so that Puck can find her and enchant her with a magic flower. When my children first heard about all this, they were struck dumb with excitement. What could be a better story for a youngster than a story about a magic forest, a mischievous fairy sprite, and a beautiful princess?

Step two: As the book says, make sure that you and your kids understand every word in the passage and then memorize it, which you can do in about 10 minutes. With that start, things will begin to fall into place.

The third step is to take the time to watch a good production of Shakespeare. You can do it in person if you have a good theater nearby, or you can do it online. There are some very good Shakespeare movies on Amazon and Netflix, or you can watch the GlobePlayer, which records many of the best productions put on by the Globe theater in London.

Finally, go back to reading Shakespeare and learn new passages by heart, one after another. By doing this you learn the stories, you understand the moral issues that Shakespeare raises, you meet the characters, and you fall in love with the language.

(Courtesy of Ken Ludwig)

The Epoch Times: Are there certain characters that are good archetypes?

Mr. Ludwig: As a playwright, I look at how, in play after play and time after time, Shakespeare ticks one box after another: interesting set of characters, terrific plot, fantastic language, turns our hearts inside-out, makes us laugh, and makes us conscious of our transience.

Every play is filled with characters that we remember forever. They’re almost shockingly vivid. Beatrice and Benedict, the bantering romantic couple from “Much Ado About Nothing,” you could live with them forever. They form the basis of our whole tradition of romantic comedy. Thanks to Shakespeare, we’ve seen couples like them in the movies for the past 50 years.

The Epoch Times: What inherent values does Shakespeare show us?

Mr. Ludwig: Shakespeare is especially interesting in that he tries very hard not to make moral judgments that he pushes on his audience. He is always open to interpretation. That’s why he’s lasted so long. We’ve read Shakespeare for 450 years because we can constantly reinterpret him and make him part of our own lives.

Just think: Here we are in the early 21st century, and the crises he describes resemble our own crises. [There’s the] political crisis of Richard III in the play of the same name. He’s a terribly corrupt member of the royal household who murders his way to the top just to sit on the throne of England and declare himself the ultimate ruler. In Antony, from “Antony and Cleopatra,” [is] a leader who abandons his wife and goes to Egypt and falls in love with the greatest courtesan of her time, Cleopatra.

And then there’s that wonderful moment in the comedy “Twelfth Night,” where a spoil-sport named Malvolio tries to stop other members of his community from having a good time. They’re having a party in the middle of the night, singing songs and disturbing the household, and this father-figure Malvolio marches angrily in and tells them to stop it. At which point, one of the revelers (an aptly named Sir Toby Belch) replies, “Shall there be no more cakes and ale?” And there, in a single short sentence, is a philosophy of living, one that carries right down to us 450 years later.

Those amazing moments, of which there are thousands in Shakespeare, where he can take an idea that has such profound resonance and summarize it in a few short words, speak to us today as they’ve spoken to generation after generation for century after century. There is no other writer who has ever lived who has had so much resonance or so much influence on all the other writers who came after.

That’s how Shakespeare teaches us. He makes us think. He lets us find lessons within ourselves. And by finding them that way, they stay with us forever.

The Epoch Times: You mention in your book that Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” is like a teenage rite of passage. As your children went through life, did they resonate with different characters at different times?

Mr. Ludwig: Yes, yes, exactly. Somebody’s being grouchy (me) and they’ll turn to me and say, “Shall there be no more cakes and ale?” And I’m stunned and proud.

My daughter did it the other day. We were talking about someone who didn’t show his potential until later in life, and she turned to me and said:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold The unyoked humor of your idleness.

She remembered those lines from “King Henry IV,” when young Prince Hal declares that he’s going to show the world some day that he’s better and wiser than he seems at the moment. Believe me, my kids are nice, ordinary kids with no special gifts. But we spent a lot of quality family time learning these passages from Shakespeare, and it has stuck with them. It has enriched their lives.

One of the people I talk about when I lecture is Alfred North Whitehead, a mathematician and philosopher, who defined art as the re-creation of patterns that we, as readers, recognize from our daily lives, from books and paintings that we’ve seen in the past. He says that our aesthetic joy in works of art—the gasp of joy we feel when we see a sculpture by Michelangelo or a play by Shakespeare—is tied up with our recognition of a pattern that is very human and one we have seen before, either in life or art. And that’s what Shakespeare does par excellence; he finds a way to remind us of parts of our lives that work underneath the surface. So that when we see one of his plays, we say to ourselves, “Oh, my gosh! I’ve been there. I know that feeling. I understand that impetus. I sympathize with that lover or that victim or that hero. And suddenly I don’t feel so alone.”

Those patterns of recognition are part of the way Shakespeare helps us understand life, and it’s why Shakespeare resonates so deeply with our children.

Contributed by Lorraine Ferrier

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