Monday, May 10, 2010

Join Me: The Shakespeare in a Year Challenge

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.


  1. I wish you all the best on this tough challenge. I will look forward to hearing what you have to say about each show...who knows I might even chime in every once in a while. I picked my favourite show for your first (Titus Andronicus). I hope you enjoy this incredible journey you are about to take. What are you going to see when you come out to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival?
    Aaron Kropf
    Social and Online Media Coordinator
    Stratford Shakespeare Festival

  2. I have two trips scheduled to Stratford this year. In late July, I'm seeing The Tempest, As You Like It, Kiss Me Kate and Winter's Tale. In August, I'm coming up with friends, and I'll see a few of the same shows, plus Two Gents. And I'll probably be back again in September or October; Stratford is one of my favorite places on earth!

  3. Good luck Ashley! I'll be watching and reading along with you.

  4. Wonderful post! I discovered Shakespeare fall of last year, as a college senior (computer science major no less, I must add): I saw the Little Shop Around the Corner, I went on a wiki binge re early Hollywood, found the pompous Laurence Olivier, found his 1948 Hamlet, decided to read the play first, and found myself laughing out loud at Polonius when he berates his leaving son. Since then I've been unable to stop reading Shakespeare.

    And so, we will surely end up reading the same play at the same time at some point. And surely too I'll comment on any play I've already read. I would re-read all 13 already, but with another 20 or so to go, I've no time yet.

    Up and atom!

  5. That sounds wonderful! I can't wait to hear your thoughts on the plays.

  6. Cool project! I just found out about your blog from a link from "The Shakespeare Teacher"- I'm actually doing the "Shakespeare in a year" thing and blogging about it myself (at, but I just started in January. Enjoyed stopping by and reading some of your thoughts on the plays!