Wednesday, January 1, 2020

A year to read The Bard -- Jan. 2, 2020 column


It’s finally 2020, and impeachment, presidential politics and the election threaten to drown us in a sea of negativity.

I like covering and writing about politics, but for the New Year, I’m carving out part of each week for a respite from the day-to-day unpleasantness.

In the spirit of new beginnings and hope, I’ve resolved to do something in 2020 I’ve long wanted to do: read Shakespeare’s complete works.

Well, wait. To be honest, I’ve long wanted to have read all of Shakespeare. The actual reading got off to a bad start. I read “Julius Caesar” under duress in high school.

I’m embarrassed to admit it’s possible to navigate through college and earn a master’s degree in English from a well-respected university in Charlottesville without taking a course on Shakespeare.

This, I soon recognized, was a mistake, a self-imposed gap in my education. On my first trip to England in my 20s, I made a pilgrimage to Stratford-on-Avon and brought home a book of the sonnets.

I’ve come to enjoy Shakespeare and have sought out the experience of seeing his plays performed onstage. I’ve read the plays to enhance my theater-going.

So, when a friend mentioned on Facebook the Shakespeare 2020 Project, reading all of the Bard, I was intrigued.

Shakespeare 2020 is a public reading group with no fees, rules, tests or grades. There’s a reading list and a schedule you can download onto your calendar. You can read as many, or as few, of the works as you wish.

Folger Shakespeare Library digital editions of the plays are available to read or download free. Those who prefer to hold paper copies can find the Folger or other versions of the plays at their library or online. There’s no definitive version of the plays, although it helps to have notes that explain antiquated language and references.

With Shakespeare 2020, there’s no pressure – except the nagging that comes from within. But in these early, hopeful days of the year, I feel positive and almost confident.

This surely isn’t one of those flashes in my resolutions pan – like writing in my journal for 30 minutes every morning (2019), making pies from scratch (2017) or learning Italian (2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 . . . ).

I signed up for the Shakespeare 2020 emails (no more than two per week, the group’s founder promised) which provide background materials, videos and other reading aids. I joined the Facebook page and have begun reading.

First up: “Twelfth Night.” We will read about a play a week, with the sonnets and other works sprinkled through December.

Several friends also decided to give it a go. In all, more than 2,100 people have signed up for the emails, and 1,600 have joined the Facebook group.

It is heartening to be part of such an enthusiastic gathering. People post pictures of themselves reading, sometimes with their dogs, and video clips of their favorite scenes from stage performances. One man recited the Hamlet soliloquy in front of his bathroom mirror. Others write about youthful interactions with Shakespeare gone wrong.

I have no illusions reading all of Shakespeare will be easy. When I first settled down with “Twelfth Night,” I fell asleep on three occasions. I found I needed to start earlier, remain upright and drink coffee; then I was fine.

And, although this project is reading, it also helps to see the play in performance.

My public library in Alexandria participates in the Kanopy video streaming service, and with a library card, patrons can watch four movies a month free. This is a wonderful resource, since among Kanopy’s offerings are BBC productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

Kanopy also operates in many colleges and universities. Or you can also find the plays and university lectures on YouTube. 

Our next challenge is the long slog through the history, “Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three.” That will be a test of stamina and caffeine.

I invite you to join Shakespeare 2020. If Shakespeare isn’t your thing, I hope you’ll find something new this year to transport you out of the daily grind. I’ll let you know how Shakespeare goes, and I’d love to hear from you.

Happy New Year!

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