Our revels now are ended: Reflections on the Shakespeare 2020 Project


Ian Doescher reading The Tempest
Photo courtesy of Ian Doescher

Editor’s Note: Shakespeare & Beyond readers may remember Ian Doescher’s announcement in December 2019 that he would be reading through all of Shakespeare’s works in 2020, inviting anyone interested to join him. Many of our readers said yes! The Shakespeare 2020 Project used the Folger editions of Shakespeare’s works (freely available online), with Ian sharing related images from the Folger’s digital image collection among other resources. We asked Ian to return to the blog and reflect on his year of reading Shakespeare with others amid all the turmoil of 2020.

“This project has made me feel more connected to others. Being ‘trapped’ in our own worlds, it’s been so uplifting to share Shakespeare with others as it reminds me that, despite the quarantine boundaries, we are all still connected by Shakespeare’s universality. Just when we all reach that level of frustration where we feel like asking ‘To be or not to be,’ this project reminds us why we all need ‘to be.’”

The Shakespeare 2020 Project was a plan to read through the complete works of Shakespeare throughout the year. All were welcome to join our low-pressure reading group.

I would have been thrilled if 100 people had joined me, but as 2020 ends, we have a Facebook group of nearly 5,000 members and an email list of about 3,000 members (for a total, given the overlap between the two, of roughly 6,000 members).

In March, 2020 took a twist none of us expected. The COVID-19 pandemic and the worldwide quarantine it created made the Shakespeare 2020 Project one of the few group activities people could still engage in. This was a lifesaver for many group members. “This project has meant consistency to me during the pandemic,” one member wrote. “I have made virtual friends here that didn’t need to talk politics or pandemics because we had the common language of story.”

The best part of the year was, of course, diving into Shakespeare’s works. What a joy to rediscover old favorites (Hamlet! Macbeth! The Tempest!) and discover new loves (The histories! Coriolanus! All’s Well that Ends Well!). Along the way, we shared books and film adaptations, and many of us tuned in as The Show Must Go Online performed the entire First Folio canon via creative Zoom performances over an astounding 36 weeks.

For my own education and the benefit of group members, I wanted to have a scholar, director, dramaturg, or other professional introduce each play or poem. That call was answered, even by those who received an email out of the blue from me. I was thrilled to receive introductions from Shakespearean heroes like Emma Smith, Ayanna Thompson, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, Jane Kingsley-Smith, and Murray Biggs. Every play and poem received its own introduction, which will live forever on the Project website (iandoescher.com/shakespeare).

On June 30, I sent out a message to the group to mark our halfway point. I commented that, so far in 2020, we had experienced:

  • Trust and mistrust of government leaders.
  • Public confusion and disorder.
  • Issues of race that have raised all kinds of issues of justice.
  • Protest and violence in the streets.
  • Questions about the limit of authority.
  • Issues around whether family, extended family, or friends are safe to be around.

The point of this list was to illustrate that these experiences can refer both to the plots of Shakespeare’s plays and to the events in the world this year. Shakespeare continues to be relevant, and we encountered modern resonances regularly.

As one group member wrote, the Project “offered a way to navigate the pandemic and political issues with relevance, grace, and historical perspective. The many and varied resources offered here piqued my interest in several other fields. I am grateful to the botanist who told about the plants in the plays, the chefs who offered recipes, the actors, writers, historians, musicians, artists, educators, and all who lent their expertise, resources, and experiences to this endeavor. This was my ‘band of brothers,’ socially distant, but close to my heart.”

The Shakespeare 2020 Project exceeded my boldest hopes. There was something truly unique about encountering the plays at the same time as other people, sharing our insights and discoveries, and then moving on to the next play together. As the year ended, people were still requesting to join the Facebook group and announcing their intention to stretch the schedule into 2021.

Now, toward the future. I’m stepping down from administering the Facebook group in 2021, while I embark on my own four-year reading cycle of the plays and poems (the histories in 2021, this time in their historical order rather than the order in which they were written). To everyone who joined me and supported the Shakespeare 2020 Project, “I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks; and ever thanks.”

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