Update from Italy: The Shakespeare Project

Yes, friends, come let us talk about plague reading.
Retrato de hombre hacia 1610, atribuido a William Shakespeare

It continues to be a great regret of mine that my high school senior year schedule precluded my enrollment in British Literature. We read Hamlet and Macbeth and Othello in AP English but I never had a proper Shakespeare survey. I tried to make it up in college in a world literature survey course, and then another (its continuation), and the courses were good. Very good. But no more Shakespeare. My Shakespeare education really blazed in my sophomore year of high school. It was a heady year, capping off Rome + Juliet and Julius Caesar, culminating with my role as Moth (a barely-speaking fairy part) in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the very cafeteria where I’d suffered fatal casualities on Clarinet Hill a mere four years before.

I have tried, in different years, to pick up the bard’s thread once more. I read Romeo + Juliet again a few years ago. I tried to read a Henrysomethingsomething. I watched The Hollow Crown, the Henriad produced by the BBC a few years back in honor of a notable Shakespearan anniversary. I watched a very outdated Twelfth Night starring Joan Plowright (was there ever a more Elizabethan name and surname), who was impressive as the twin siblings. I looked her up and saw that she was the wife of Sir Lawrence Olivier. Birds of a theatrical feather …

Of course I had seen the same titles on the merry-go-round of remakes. Romeo + Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, Midsummer Night. Propero’s Books. Lather, rinse, repeat. (Ok, Baz Luhrmann’s R+J is still the best. Plus that soundtrack! O GenX!) But the bard wrote 42 plays. What of the other titles? I have never seen Cymbeline, or Two Gentlemen of Verona, or (wait for it) King Lear. Much less Titus Andronicus (I will try once more to watch the Ralph Fiennes reboot).

Shakespeare is the English Cervantes. I remember reading excerpts of Don Quixote as an undergraduate and again in graduate school, grinding away my pre-parental evenings with an M.A. reading list. A professor brought to tears in a class in the early nineties, telling us how as a child he loved the Quixote for its adventures and battles, but as an older man he read it for its wisdom and perspective. What! I remember thinking. Literature is not single-use? I can return to and reread different works again and again and each time, they will be richer and more varied for my revisit? O blessed literary classics! Every time I read Shakespeare, no matter how lazily, it improves my own writing. Elizabethan writing vitamins! Is Shakespeare too not worth revisiting at different stages of life, filling in holes and finding new perspectives? Yes. He is indeed.

So in this year, which kicks off with more Covid and remote learning and quarantine drama, finding me at home far more than would be to my taste ina normal year, I might call Silver Linings, and which many other cultures will recognize as the year of the Water Tiger, I have decided to do it, and made a list accordingly. Shakespeare, the son of the glover, had seen plague and restless constituents, had dreamed of life abroad and read widely in the literature, was married and a father, and maybe not always the best person under stress. He may have known a thing or two about the times in which we continue to find ourselves.

Every week from now to November 7, I’m taking the Bard’s plays in order, one per week, to read, review, watch, listen. It’s not going to be the most in-depth study ever – I am not trying to be a Shakespeare scholar here. Marry, yon that ship has sailed! I have found many resources on Amazon and Spotify – I am lucky to have subscriptions to both – and in interest of expediency, determined that an audio resource was the equivalent of a film. I am trying to move quickly through the tried and true titles, lingering longer on the bard’s B-list and back list. I am just going to read/watch/hear all 42 plays this year, one per week, whatever that brings me.

I asked around to see if anyone wanted to do this too. The responses ranged from “I have a job” to “too busy” to “you are crazy.” (My original idea was to do a study in tandem by pairing the films of Almodóvar with the plays of Shakespeare to mine whatever insights might be found between the two, but this idea proved perhaps too ambitious for the moment.)

I’ve listened this week to a BBC production of Two Gentlemen in Verona and a few relevant scholarly commentaries. (Takeaways: needs a rebrand, something like “Two Tools in Milan,” smart women finish last, rape is OK, brah culture, #metoo needed to happen 430 years ago.) I will be back with updates about my Shakespeare project.

2 Replies to “Update from Italy: The Shakespeare Project”

  1. You have embarked on a great adventure. I did take a Shakespeare course while a university student and never regretted it. I still find watching some of his plays to be quite challenging at first, but almost always I am fully engaged by the end. Had I known of your year’s ambition, I might have signed up, at least for part of the journey. Let me bid you clear sailing and lots of fun!

    Liked by 1 person

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