The Shakespeare 2020 Project: A plan to read through the complete works in one year

Folger Editions HamletAs the author of books that retell Star Wars in the style of Shakespeare, I am often asked, “If you were stranded on a desert island and you could only take the complete works of Shakespeare or the Star Wars movies, which would you want?” The choice has never been difficult: Shakespeare, hands down. There are always new things to discover in Shakespeare, and my experience of his plays changes as I age.

I first read Shakespeare’s complete works in 1999, a year after graduating from college. Having loved Shakespeare since being introduced to Othello (and iambic pentameter) in my freshman year English class in high school, and having read many of Shakespeare’s plays in high school and college, I wanted to complete the cycle.

Since 2012, my writing career has been built on works that borrow Shakespeare’s style—as well as I can—in books like the William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series, the Pop Shakespeare series, and MacTrump. People often ask whether I read Shakespeare frequently to maintain my Shakespearean chops. The honest and embarrassing answer is no, I haven’t read Shakespeare in depth for years, and—other than brief passages or seeing the occasional show—I haven’t revisited most of Shakespeare’s plays or poems since 1999.

But for the past year, I’ve been planning to reread the complete works and to invite anyone who was interested to join along. These were the seeds for what became the Shakespeare 2020 Project.

Folger EditionsIf I am interested in revisiting Shakespeare, I suspect there are others like me. Like many people, I have my favorite Shakespeare plays, but there are many I have only read once (in 1999) and have never seen performed. I know this is true for many people. Reading these works together throughout 2020 will give us all the opportunity to both become familiar with plays and poems we don’t know well and revisit our favorites.

At the same time, the Shakespeare 2020 Project isn’t about pressure. No one who joins in should feel guilty if they don’t read everything. In fact, people are encouraged to join for just a few plays or poems if they want. This might be an opportunity to read something you haven’t read before, or to revisit an old favorite.

The schedule of plays mixes comedies, histories, tragedies, and poems in rough presumed chronological order of composition within genre. In other words, you’ll encounter the tragedies in roughly the order Shakespeare wrote them, the comedies in roughly the order Shakespeare wrote them, and so on. Along the way, the plays will match the calendar when possible:

  • I moved Twelfth Night forward in the schedule to coincide with the feast of Twelfth Night on January 5. (Besides Twelfth Night, the other exception to chronological order was moving The Merry Wives of Windsor to fall between the Henry IV)
  • Julius Caesar will be read from March 14-19, to coincide with the ides of March.
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream is scheduled during midsummer.
  • Henry V is on the schedule from October 24-31, to coincide with St. Crispin’s Day (October 25).
  • The Winter’s Tale is scheduled in December, as winter begins.

The schedule offers at least one day’s break between works and avoids many U.S. holidays.

One note about the act of reading: It is frequently said that Shakespeare is meant to be performed, not read. While I agree Shakespeare is best in performance, it’s not always possible to see his plays—and certainly not his complete works—on stage. Live theater is often expensive, and good luck finding a local production of King John in most communities. Reading Shakespeare may not be ideal. But it is possible, which is an important start.

I will be reading the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions of the plays, which are also available free online. I’m eager to see how the Folger Editions vary from other editions I’ve encountered. In addition to the written word, the Shakespeare 2020 Project will be a multimedia experience. Throughout the year, the project will include videos of actors performing speeches, images from theatrical productions, artwork inspired by Shakespeare, and introductions from Shakespearean scholars.

There are plays I remember not loving the first time. For example, part of the reason behind reading the plays in chronological order is to finish the Henry VI plays early on. Through this year’s exploration, though, I’m hoping to find something new in them that I didn’t appreciate the first time around. Henry VI is a good example; there are people who are very passionate about these plays, comparing them to Game of Thrones. I’m looking forward to hearing what they love about the Henry VI cycle that I didn’t see the first time through.

You are warmly invited and encouraged to join the Shakespeare 2020 Project for the whole year, a play or two, or whatever you want. The details are at Happy reading!