Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why "Shakespeare in a Year" Matters

For weeks, I've been struggling with what to say in this "wrap up" post. After a year of Shakespeare immersion, I feel pressured to say something profound about what I've learned and how it has affected my life. A project like this has immense value; I know this deep down, but it's hard to explain.

The most obvious effect of the "Shakespeare in a Year" project is my (somewhat obnoxious) ability to use Shakespeare quotes in arguments. When my husband says, "We really don't need that," I can counter, "Oh, reason not the need! Our basest beggars are in the poorest things superfluous." Sometimes that argument even works.

Another obvious result of this project is that I am, unquestionably, more knowledgeable about Shakespeare and his work than I was before. When I first started attending the Stratford Shakespeare Festival five years ago, I was awed by the Bard-related conversations I heard around me at restaurants and theaters. (Yes, I'm a chronic eavesdropper.) Now, after this project, I feel right at home amidst these Shakespeare lovers.

In fact, when I attended Merry Wives of Windsor a few weeks ago, I was shocked to hear a woman behind me say, "Now, who wrote this play again?" Her companion must have looked at the playbill. "See here," she said, "it says Shakespeare." How that woman got to the play without knowing who wrote it, I'll never understand.

At intermission, the woman next to me said to her husband, "Huh, I thought Falstaff died offstage at the beginning." Wrong play, honey.

Now, I don't think these playgoers were representative of the festival crowd, which in general is quite well-informed. But those two incidents made me realize that I am now safely among the well-informed playgoers, which is a nice accomplishment on its own.

Some Shakespeare scholars are accused of "bardolatry," i.e., blind worship of the Bard. When I started this project, I was guilty as charged. Now, however, my perspective on Shakespeare is more balanced. Yes, I'm still awed by King Lear and Hamlet. On the other hand, I can say without reservations that Merry Wives of Windsor and Troilus and Cressida are terrible plays, that I really don't care for Shakespeare's narrative poetry, and that there is something deeply wrong with the so-called "problem plays." Shakespeare was a literary genius, but he wasn't infallible. Unlike some of the scholars whose work I read this year, I'm not going to make excuses for, or try to explain away, Shakespeare's mistakes.

In the end, why does it matter? After four centuries, why is Shakespeare's work still relevant, and what does it have to teach us? To answer, I must borrow a phrase from Harold Bloom: Shakespeare teaches us what it means to be human. More than any other author, he shows us the "mingled yarn, good and ill together" of our consciousness. With Shakespeare, as in life, there are never any easy answers.

It is bittersweet to know that I have read every extant Shakespeare work -- that I will never again hang on tenterhooks to know whether Romeo and Juliet live happily ever after or whether Benedick and Beatrice get together. I know all of the stories now, and there's something sad about that.

On the other hand, with a Shakespeare play, knowing the plot is just the beginning; the Bard "borrowed" most of his plots from other sources anyway. Now that we've read everything at least once, we now need a new goal: to mine the rich depths of every play, to continually explore new possibilities and perspectives.

This blog will remain active for that exact purpose: To chronicle my ongoing Shakespeare journey through re-readings of the play, exploration of scholarly analysis, and ongoing reviews of Shakespeare productions across the globe.

This summer, look for updates from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, the American Players Theatre in Wisconsin and the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. Join me on a week-long London theater extravaganza, which will include David Tennant's Much Ado About Nothing and Kevin Spacey's Richard III. And, join me at Oxford University for a week-long continuing-education course about Shakespeare's London.

We've come to the end of our "Shakespeare in a Year" project, but the real education is just beginning.


  1. Thank you for doing this, Ashley. I'm still playing catch up but hope to be complete this time next month. It is a great accomplishment and I'm not giving up until I'm done. I've enjoyed the experience, but with my memory the way it is, I will never be able to quote Shakespeare. In fact in about 10 years u can probably go back and read many of them and they'll be almost new to me! :)

    Again, thanks! Great time!

  2. I'm just starting my own "complete works" blog project. NOT in one year though as that is a bit ambitious. Well done to you for doing it! i look forward to going through your archive.

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