THE BOOK SHELF: Ken Ludwig on Shakespeare, Peter Filichia on Musicals, an Encyclopedia of Jerome Kern

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14 Jul 2013

Cover art
Cover art

This month's column looks at Ken Ludwig's primer on "How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare," Peter Filichia's chronicle of Broadway musicals, "Strippers, Showgirls and Sharks," Thomas Hischak's "Jerome Kern Encyclopedia" and the Amy Herzog plays 4000 Miles and After the Revolution.


"Brush up your Shakespeare, start quoting him now," advised Cole Porter, "and the women you will wow." Wowing the women is clearly not what Ludwig has in mind in his new tome, "How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare" [Crown], but then I don't suppose that was uppermost in Porter's mind either. Not, that is, to compare Ludwig with Porter.

Ludwig, as playgoers are aware, is the contemporary playwright best known for his farce comedies Lend Me a Tenor and Moon over Buffalo, as well as the Gershwin-derived musical Crazy for You. A lawyer by training, it also turns out that he is steeped in Shakespeare — so much so that he naturally found himself drumming the Bard into the impressionable minds of his now-grown children, back when they were in the first grade.

The conceit of the book is that if your children (and you) memorize 25 speeches from the Bard, the rewards will be everlasting. Said rewards including a sense of accomplishment, the mastery of memory; a better understanding of human nature, as represented by Shakespeare; and a more comfortable appreciation of the plays themselves — plus, giving his children a repertoire of passages so they can "spout them whenever the occasion presents itself." That could wow the women, yes, but it is more likely to have a practical payoff in school tests, admission essays and the like.

Memorization brings more than memorization, of course. Ludwig's method is to explain — and in a way, translate — the passages, on the theory that the more you understand, the easier the words. Intimate familiarity with specific passages — four from both A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night, five from Hamlet, plus selections from another six titles — will make you infinitely more at ease with those plays. And with your memory carrying around hundreds of lines of Shakespeare, you'll be less likely to be intimidated by Troilus and Cressida, won't you? (For readers who discover they have a special facility for this sort of thing, Ludwig lists another 55 passages to tackle.)

The immediate question is (at least, my immediate question was): Is he kidding? That is, is the purpose of this book to "teach your children Shakespeare"? That suggests that the book is intended for parents of pre-teens, or more specifically the teeny subset of parents who have Shakespeare on their personal radar to begin with. While I am not much on market research, I expect there'd be an infinitely larger audience out there for, "How to Teach Your Children Soccer."

I expect — though Ludwig might demur — that this book is for you. You being the general, reasonably-educated reader who is capable of enjoying an evening of Shakespeare but never acquired the tools to intellectually participate in the plays. Go through the first few chapters and walk away with Oberon's "wild thyme" speech, Bottom's Dream, and Puck's "what fools these mortals be" on the veritable tip of your tongue. You might well notice a difference in your relationship with the Bard, namely more enjoyment with less effort.


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