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Teaching Kids Shakespeare with Good ‘Ole Memorization

My tutor, The Bard

D. L. Yonge-Mallo

Francis Phillips - published on 08/09/13

Children must memorize Shakespeare's poetry because “it’s good for the soul” and “it will change [their] lives.”

The title of this engaging volume is either optimistic or pessimistic, depending on your point of view: optimistic because Ken Ludwig, a successful playwright with two children on whom he has successfully experimented with regular doses of the Bard, assumes that Shakespearean poetry should be the imaginative birthright of children; pessimistic because a knee-jerk but realistic response from most parents to his bright ideas would be “Are you serious?”

In his introduction Ludwig explains his reasoning behind this home-tutoring project: children find it easy to memorise poetry; and they should be introduced to Shakespeare’s poetry because “it’s good for the soul” and “it will change your lives.”

I happen to agree with all these reasons, but I am intrigued that the author does not feel the urge to expand further how one’s life is changed by the impact of this supreme dramatist or why he is good for the soul. I would say that to read Shakespeare, in the words of the critic Harold Bloom, is to become more rounded, more human: our internal repertoire of personalities and their behaviour, base, brave or bombastic (Shakespeare knew a few of those) is vastly enriched and enlarged by our acquaintance with his work.

Ludwig laments the fact that modern pedagogy has ceased to emphasise memorization and learning by heart. Only those who had the good fortune to be made to learn poetry as a matter of normal school life can understand what children miss in most classrooms today. It is not just that their minds are like sponges, able to absorb poetry as they once absorbed nursery rhymes and Christmas carols; it is also that later in life you will never find memorization so easy. The memory muscle, never truly exercised, will have grown permanently flaccid.

Ludwig, who says he grew up watching and listening to actors in repertory theatre, advises on 25 key passages of Shakespeare’s most famous plays that children should be challenged to learn by heart. Alongside this, any unfamiliar words should be explained to them; they should listen to a good adult recitation; and the characters and plots should be introduced. Starting with the famous passage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows…” he shows how the verse, its metre and imagery and the context of a magical world of fairyland, all coalesce in a child’s imagination.

Interestingly enough, that was the first passage in Shakespeare that I, aged 10, had to learn for English homework and I have never forgotten the lines. Our English teacher did not communicate to the class a personal passion for Shakespeare; but she was old-fashioned in her teaching methods and it worked: no gimmicks or film clips, just reading round the class with designated parts and a new passage to learn every week for public recitation. Mind you, this was in the 1950s, when children were more biddable, punishments for missed homework were real, and you did not expect to go to school to be entertained.

As well as discussing the Dream, Ludwig also draws attention to Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, As You Like It, Hamlet and The Tempest among other plays, using the same techniques to encourage memorization of the most celebrated passages. “We’ll discover how and why it is such a great work of art by memorizing several passages of it together”, he remarks of Twelfth Night – a play he ranks alongside the work of Mozart or Michelangelo. “If there is a fictional world I want to live in, it is definitely Illyria”, he informs the reader. My own fictional milieu would be Elsinore:  not exactly a joyful world but who would not be entranced by the personality of Hamlet?

I am sure Ludwig is right in his approach. Just as with learning a musical instrument, the author emphasises how the delicate instrument of the voice, with its stresses and inflexions, its pauses and its pitch, its timbre and tonality, best conveys the beauty of a line or passage of Shakespearean verse.

His ideal method would also teach children many of the poet’s most popular phrases, such as “All that glitters is not gold”, to show how integral they have become to our understanding and use of language.

His provocative book includes a chronological list of the plays, extra speeches for eager young thespians to learn, a bibliography and notes on the more memorable film and TV adaptations. I quibble with the remark that Macbeth “contains perhaps the only happy marriage in all of Shakespeare”; “happy” hardly seems an adequate description for the Macbeths’ weird and co-dependent relationship, and anyway, what about Portia and Brutus in Julius Caesar? You cannot read their exchanges in Act II, scene 1 without recognising the strength of their marital devotion, so soon to be destroyed.

The crucial question remains: will a willing and literate parent decide this is the handbook they have been waiting for, to enhance their weekly jolly jousting match with their willing and literate offspring? Somehow I doubt it. Perhaps a school with old-fashioned teaching methods, a good strong daily dose of “Eng. Lit” and high expectations of a child’s capacity for memorization is the realistic answer.

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