Ludwig on Shakespeare

Shakespeare is at the core of every serious actor’s training and experience, and the sooner you start the process the better. Of all the hundreds and hundreds of actors I’ve auditioned for my plays over the years, by far the best and most successful have known their Shakespeare very, very well. The fact is, not only is Shakespeare the greatest playwright of the English language; he has also influenced every writer, let alone playwright, who has come after him.

            In addition, you can’t pretend to act Shakespeare without knowing how to breathe, listen, interpret, and pace yourself. Mere emoting won’t cut it. And here’s the thing: Shakespeare actually tells you how to say his lines right in the text, as long as you know how to read it properly. Thus, knowing Shakespeare gives actors two significant advantages: First, it gives them a context for every part they’re acting; second, it gives them the technique they’ll need to be great performers.

            I’ve felt strongly about Shakespeare since I first entered the theater, but it wasn’t until I became a father that I figured out how to put my convictions into practice. When each of my children entered first grade, we sat down together and started memorizing lines from Shakespeare, starting with short accessible passages from the comedies and gradually increasing the length and complexity of the pieces.

            What I have tried to do in my book How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare is offer parents and educators the techniques and strategies I developed over the years for my own children. I realized early in this process that Shakespeare is a lot like a foreign language. Many of the words are unfamiliar, even to adults. Shakespeare’s sentence structure sounds odd to our modern ears; and Shakespeare is constantly speaking in complex metaphors that can be difficult to understand if you don’t start out with a little help.  But you can learn this language quickly if you follow the method outlined in the book.

            In total, the book presents the first 25 passages I taught my kids, ordered in a specific sequence to make learning them as easy as possible. As each passage is discussed, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Hamlet (with many more plays in between), I talk about the stories, the characters, and the meanings of the works. Ultimately the kids who learn this way get the kind of knowledge of Shakespeare they’ll need to become great students, great thinkers, great teachers, and yes, great actors. The moral: All actors should learn how to speak the language of Shakespeare. And if they’re lucky enough to learn it early, they’ll retain it for the rest of their lives.

Excerpted from