John Ogden

A friend and a greatly admired and retired theatre teacher in the Loa Angeles Unified School District wrote this wonderful, in depth review. I couldn’t be more pleased!

On “Lessons from Shakespeare’s Classroom: Empowering Learning Through Drama and Rhetoric”

As the new Humanism spread through the European mainland in the fifteenth century, the British Isles remained something of a northern outpost, largely impervious to the strong currents of erudition on the continent. But as Robin Lithgow demonstrates in her remarkable book, “Lessons From Shakespeare’s Classroom,” England would compensate massively in learning and culture during the latter part of the sixteenth century. Robin has Shakespeare in her genes, having watched during her youth each of his plays produced by her father Arthur Lithgow at his theatre, “Shakespeare under the Stars,” on the campus of Antioch College. Her interest in writing about Shakespeare’s education as a child was to establish the degree to which the Latin Grammar Schools throughout England based all learning on the arts in general and especially on the performing arts.

In her capacity as a teacher and head of The Arts Education Branch of The Los Angeles Unified School District, Robin Lithgow was a devout believer in “engagement before information,” a phrase used by her colleague Eric Booth. In Shakespeare’s childhood, the colloquies of Dutch writer and philosopher Desiderius Erasmus were frequently used in the Latin Grammar Schools to encourage engagement and confidence in boys. Their conversational Latin gave rise to humor and enjoyment among the boys who performed them and their audiences of peers and were presented in conjunction with the formal Latin of classical dramatists such as Terence and Plautus. While the strict reliance on Latin may have been a holdover from the medieval reluctance to adopt English as the nation’s universal language, it was nonetheless a valuable link to the European Renaissance, which had been slow to cross The Channel.

In the later chapters in Lessons From Shakespeare’s Classroom, Robin Lithgow advocates an infinitely more comprehensive emphasis on arts education in our contemporary schools. She bases her conclusion on the need for students to find delight in the classroom. She laments the fact that engagement is not frequently considered in the curriculum planning of most contemporary schools, including those in our city. Erasmus died in 1536 but his impact on English Humanism was felt throughout the sixteenth century. However, as Ms. Lithgow informs us, no one was more influential in the early education of boys than Richard Mulcaster, Headmaster of The Merchant Taylors’ School in London. ‘Misogyny’ is a term in current use, though given the fact that girls and women were universally undervalued, it can’t apply to the late fifteen hundreds. Mulcaster though, championed the learning potential of girls and contributed to their advancement in higher education; and in a stratified society, he supported availing opportunities for the children of the poor.

But as Mulcaster was ahead of his time, he had to settle for training the boys from families of comfortable means to act out humorous two-character scenes for their classes and ultimately large adult audiences. Perhaps his most enduring contribution, as Robin points out, was to advance the English language as the basis for education in classrooms throughout the country, thereby questioning the notion that the mastery of Latin was indispensable.

I have considered myself an aficionado of the history of England during the Elizabethan era, but had never known of the boys’ acting companies—performing for the royal court, for London audiences in general, and in the countryside—until reading “Lessons From Shakespeare’s Classroom.” I discovered that ultimately, as the sixteenth century drew to a close the adult companies supplanted the children, performing the works of Shakespeare and his stellar contemporaries: Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, John Webster, Thomas Dekker, and others.

The value of this book is not restricted to the view we are given of the early education of history’s greatest playwright. It is reading of inestimable value to contemporary educators. Robin Lithgow’s devotion to education matches her love of William Shakespeare. She wishes, as I do, that those who determine curriculum in the twenty-first century would grasp the fact that for young people to learn they must have play—both in-class recreation and actual plays: that performing comedic colloquies is fun and enhances self-confidence, and that making art happen gives a young student a sense that he or she has explored a previously unknown realm. This experience ignites learning of all stripes. Robin Lithgow’s “Lessons From Shakespeare’s Classroom” is compelling reading for history buffs, lovers of The Bard, teachers, and those who work at the Beaudry building in downtown Los Angeles.


John Ogden is a classical actor and a retired theatre teacher in the Los Angeles schools. I am so appreciative of his enthusiasm for my book and his thoughtful and erudite reading!


My grand and ambitious purpose in writing this book was to change the focus of education from “for the benefit of test scores” to “for the benefit of the commonwealth,” and to make it stick by promoting joy.

To quote from the conclusion:

My plea to everyone concerned about the physical and emotional health of young people in this post-pandemic, digital age (and I hope that is everyone) is to make room for joy in our schools. Not just joy in play: joy in learning. My greatest hope as an educator is that the era of drill, kill, test, and repeat will end.  If you think “kill” is too strong a word in the context of educating children, consider that one can kill enthusiasm. One can kill exploration, motivation, and joy. The testing industry has made a fortune off or our innocent kids. It’s time for a re-examination of the purposes and parameters of standardized testing, opting instead for authentic assessment that is supportive of growth.

The jabs of my small spear in this effort are just barely beginning to be felt by the policy makers, but you, my readers, can help by spreading the word.

Last week Susan Cambigue Tracey, of the Music Center’s Education Division, generously hosted my first reading, and we had great fun featuring performances of some of Erasmus’ hilarious colloquies. Colloquies were short scripted playlets used in schools to teach the important art of conversational (as opposed to classical) Latin. Both classical and conversational (colloquial) were taught intentionally in the Latin grammar schools that Shakespeare and thousands of his peers attended. Latin was the lingua franca of businessmen, clergymen, lawyers, ambassadors, and other travelers on the continent In the 16th century. Travelers had to be able to chat, joke, and negotiate with their peers all over Europe. Classical Latin was for the university. Colloquial Latin was for business.

And colloquial Latin was very much in Erasmus’ realm. Talk about joy in learning! Erasmus invented it!

If you think about your school years, all of the most memorable learning moments were probably accompanied by either pain or joy. My aim is to diminish the power of pain in learning and elevate the power of laugher and joy. I stand with Erasmus on that.