07/23/2014 08:07 am ET Updated Sep 22, 2014

Why Memorizing Lines From Shakespeare Is Worthwhile

Having thought about Shakespeare for most of my life, I have concluded that the best way to learn about his plays, his language, his themes and his stories with any real depth and integrity is to memorize a few passages from his plays so that you have them at your fingertips. Comedies, tragedies, histories, romances, it doesn't matter what kind of play you choose. From Much Ado About Nothing to King Lear, the result is the same. If you memorize some Shakespeare, it will change your life; and if you teach your children how to memorize Shakespeare, you will have given them the greatest gift a parent can bestow, the gift of learning.

Try it. Right now. Drop whatever you're doing and take just THREE MINUTES and memorize the following quip spoken by Sir John Falstaff in the play Henry the Fourth, Part 2.

I am not only witty in myself,
but the cause that wit is in other men.

Come on. How hard can it be to learn one sentence made up of sixteen words? Try it right now. The way to memorize it is to break it down into a few phrases and learn the phrases one after another, then join them up.

I am not only witty
I am not only witty
I am not only witty in myself,
I am not only witty in myself,

After saying that phrase three more times, add the next half of the sentence:

but the cause that wit is
but the cause that wit is
but the cause that wit is in other men.
in other men.
but the cause that wit is in other men.

Now put it all together: "I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men" -and harken to me (as Shakespeare might put it).

Shakespeare was the greatest writer that ever lived. Hands down. It's inarguable. Ask anyone who knows anything about learning and art and they'll agree. Ask Virginia Woolf, ask Robert Louis Stevenson. Ask J.K Rowling, ask Francis Ford Coppola. Shakespeare changed the entire landscape of English literature in a way that no one ever changed any art before or since.

The hard part about Shakespeare (and you're not alone, it's hard for everybody) is that trying to read his works for the first time is in many ways like encountering a foreign language. He lived 450 years ago and the language was a little different then. Not a lot different, but enough to make it challenging to read right off the bat without a little help. That help is available in the plays themselves, provided that (1) you have a good glossary by your side and (2) you take the time to learn what every word means.

Our children need some book-learning. In the age of the Internet, people believe, erroneously, that you know something because you can look it up. They're wrong. You don't know anything just because you look it up. All you know is the answer to a question or two. Education is the result of time and effort because then it sticks with you; it becomes part of you. And memorizing passages from great writers will insure that you have actually learned something that will stay with you forever. Shakespeare is a gateway to virtually all other literature in the English language, and if you know your Shakespeare, you have the springboard to learn everything else.

When Falstaff says "I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men," he is describing not only himself but he is mirroring the effect of great art. Shakespeare is not only witty in himself, he is also the cause of wit in all the writers and artists who followed in his wake. Who are Darcy and Elizabeth in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice but a later take on Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing? Who is Vito Corleone in the film The Godfather but Macbeth in the play that bears his name? Who are the misunderstood teenagers in the film Juno but the troubled couple in the eponymous Romeo and Juliet?

If Shakespeare is the gateway to all other literature in English, memorization is the gateway to Shakespeare. The reason memorization matters is that you can't cheat when you memorize something. Either you know it or you don't. And if you can say some Shakespeare, you're well on your way to understanding some Shakespeare. Yes, you have to look up a few words. (A good edition of the plays will have definitions on the facing page or the bottom of the page.) Yes, you have to go slowly at first to make sure you know what the sentences mean. And yes, definitely, you have to be alive to the fact that Shakespeare is always writing in metaphors: he's always telling you how one thing is like another thing. ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?") But with a little bit of work -- just a few minutes each day -- you can easily memorize some lines of Shakespeare and then teach them to your children.

I'm going to assume that you learned the first sentence: "I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men." Now learn another line. It's not even a whole sentence -- just half a sentence. It's from Hamlet, and I guarantee you that if you learn it right now it will change your life: it will give you an ear for great language; it will give you an insight into the human heart.

What a piece of work is a man,
how noble in reason,
how infinite in faculties,
in form and moving how express and admirable;
in action how like an angel,
in apprehension how like a god:
the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals...

No one has ever written like this before or since, and there is no reason to wait. Just memorize it now.

Ken Ludwig is the author of How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare [Broadway Books, $14.00].