William Shakespeare wrote his first play around 1589 -- more than 420 years ago. In the intervening years, humans have invented vaccines, airplanes, Rubik's Cubes and blue jeans, but our human nature, it seems, has remained fundamentally the same. The issues Shakespeare addressed, such as jealousy, inter-generational conflict and the power of love, are the issues we experience in our own modern lives.
My first experience with Shakespeare's plays was in high school, when my freshman-year English teacher walked us through Romeo and Juliet. This was a teacher whose definition of poetry was "The cat / sat / on the mat," so you can imagine how well that went. The next year, we studied Julius Caesar, which seems to be taught in every American high school, mostly because there's no sex in it.
During my junior year, thanks to a teacher named Miss Jenkins, I finally discovered Shakespeare. She walked us through King Lear, and then she took us to see a university production of the play. Seeing the performance helped us break through the complicated, unfamiliar language and connect with the characters -- who, rather unfortunately, end up as dead bodies strewn all over the stage. It was heartbreaking. I was hooked.
In the decade since, I've become what my friends call a Shakespeare groupie. I studied the Bard in college and wrote my senior thesis on his plays. I've visited Shakespeare's grave in Stratford, toured the rebuilt Globe in London, and snickered at tourists at "Juliet's" balcony in Verona. I've seen dozens of Shakespeare productions at theaters like the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Still, there are many plays I've never read, let alone seen. To be fair, nobody reads Coriolanus. The average person has never even heard of it. Let's just be honest.
But I'm going to read it -- and 37 other plays -- in the next 12 months. I hope you'll read them, too. As Harold Bloom wrote in How to Read and Why, "You can read merely to pass the time, or you can read with an overt urgency, but eventually you will read against the clock." Reading all of Shakespeare's plays has long been on the list of things to do before I die, and it's time to cross something off the list.
As we go, I hope we'll uncover new insights and have plenty of lively debates (Romeo and Juliet: stupid or sweet? Falstaff: love him or hate him?). I'll also be posting updates from my travels to Stratford, Ontario; London, England; and many of the Midwest's best Shakespeare experiences.
Officially, the Shakespeare in a Year project begins June 1. In the meantime, add this to your blog reader, sign up for an e-mail subscription, and vote in the poll at right to help us get started. This is going to be a challenge, to both my schedule and my intellect, but it's going to be an incredible journey. Join me.