Between High School and College – What I Did on My Summer Vacation
A series by three recent graduates of Pawling High School and the Trinity Pawling School.
In his half-century of life, William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, two epic poems, 154 sonnets, and sundry apocrypha. Many of us call ourselves fans of the Bard, but how much have we actually read from him? This summer, my friend Angela Sawatzky and I have taken it upon ourselves to read all 37 masterpieces, one per day, from June 14 to July 20. A Shakespeare play per day for 37 days sounds downright insane – and we guess it is. But it’s also insanely fun, and when we surface for a breath on July 20, we’ll surface 884,647 words smarter.
Thirty-seven days. Two girls. One huge challenge.
I’ve always loved reading – when I was 13, I started loving Shakespeare – and by the time I was a sophomore, I considered myself a full-fledged enthusiast. It was always tough for me to find the time to read Shakespearian plays. I tended to think of them as dense and draining (although rewarding in the long run), so I kept putting this project off. I’d read about six or seven by the time I turned 18, but I felt like I needed to take on a few more before I could consider myself a true fan. I was embarrassed that I’d never actually read Romeo and Juliet, or Hamlet for that matter.
That’s when it struck me – Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be performed. Therefore, reading a play cover-to-cover shouldn’t take more than two or two and a half hours. I knew I wanted to read more, and nothing spurs me on like deadlines, so I drafted up an ambitious schedule and christened the challenge “37 PLAYS IN 37 DAYS.” I managed to get my very close friend Angela on board with me, and a few other friends agreed to read what they could. I was like a bull at the gate waiting for the 14th.
And then, we were off!
The pace was fantastic. Angela is very modest, so she probably won’t mention that she’s doing this challenge while working nine hours a day! Me, I’ll just sit on my behind all summer and tear through the plays. Oh, I adore them. It’s so much more fun than you’d think! There is no pressure to understand all the intricacies and historical background, and sometimes I just glaze over a few lines because I simply can’t grasp them (I’m reading most of these sans footnotes). It’s totally okay. I get the gist and I thoroughly enjoy the language and the plot lines.
Angela and I decided to do two history tetrologies pretty early on: Richard II, Henry IV P1, Henry IV P2, and Henry V; then, Henry VI P1, Henry VI P2, Henry VI P3, and Richard III. So they sound pretty dull, and to a degree, they were. But there’s also a lot of intrigue, murder, fight scenes, and betrayal. They’re all pretty fast-paced. There are a lot of characters, which is tough to keep up with, but ultimately worth it. I enjoyed them more than I thought I would.
The comedies are absolute gems – the ‘chick flicks’ of classical literature. Most involve romance, mistaken identities, and some magical element. They’re very quick reads and they always make me laugh. It’s unbelievable how clever Shakespeare was. He makes jokes (most of them off color) that are still very real and very funny in a contemporary context.
The tragedies, although sometimes a little boring, are for more serious-minded readers. Their plots are generally simple – Timon of Athens is a case in point – but they are excellently written. It’s good if you’re looking for intelligent reading.
Favorites so far? A Midsummer Night’s Dream is far and away my favorite piece of writing of all time (and yes, I did act it out in front of my mirror and do voices this year). I had particular fun rereading Macbeth, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I liked Henry V a lot. All of the comedies thus far, from Taming of the Shrew to All’s Well That Ends Well were really delightful. I guess my least favorites were a handful of the Henrys although Angela and I really got into the whole “War of the Roses” aspect. We like York way better than Lancaster.
It’s also interesting to look at the plays that are generally accredited to Shakespeare, but actually have dual authorship. Some weren’t even written by him, just edited. The differences between these plays and his other works are very apparent and very intriguing. For example, want to read a play that is so horrendous it’s comical? Try Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Random pirate attacks, corny dialogue, a bizarre case of incest, overdramatic grieving, and lots of women-of-ill-repute don’t begin to describe how epically bad Pericles is. But really, plays like that are few and far between in this great gamut of 37.
These plays are terrifically quotable, vividly limned, and utterly fun to read. This has been a fantastic experience thus far, and I can’t wait to continue! If anyone else would like to join along, feel free to contact me to get a schedule. I’m off to finish up Titus Andronicus!
I began my quest to read all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in 37 days at the prompting of my friend Christine O’Neill. She asked for a reading partner and I readily agreed, although in retrospect I probably should have given it more thought first. I proceeded to forget about the challenge for the two weeks leading up to it, blissfully unaware that I had taken on a mammoth project, though it has turned out to be a fun and rewarding experience.
June 14th, the day we’d agreed to start our read, arrived almost by stealth. I didn’t remember until late in the evening that I was supposed to be perusing Henry IV part one. Unfortunately, I hadn’t prepared for the 37 Days challenge ahead of time and I did not have a copy of Henry IV anywhere at hand, so I decided to start with a play I actually owned: a coffee stained copy of Twelfth Night. It seemed like a safe bet as I’d seen “She’s the Man“. Despite the obvious differences between the play and the movie, I found the film helped me understand what I was reading, which was a nice way to begin the challenge. It can be difficult to understand Shakespearean English as first, but I found the words gained clarity as I continued reading. A few acts into the first play and I felt almost as comfortable with the language as I do modern English.
Going into the reading challenge, I’d read a total of four of Shakespeare’s plays and seen two others live. I’d only read the four because of school and, although I enjoyed studying them, I’d never felt the need to read any more of them on my own. A few days into the challenge I found myself enjoying the fact that I could understand what was going on without having to stop and analyze everything. Focusing on the story itself, I realized Shakespeare really knew how to cook up an entertaining plot, and I’ve never seen such well- crafted insults as those in a Shakespearean play. Calling someone a ‘canker blossom’ is apparently very derogatory, as one can well imagine.
Now, half way through this journey, I’m glad I agreed to try it. Shakespeare was a master wordsmith and has a lot to teach people, especially aspiring writers, about good composition. Besides the educational benefits, the biggest draw for me to complete the challenge has been the massive literary bragging rights. I look forward to saying I have read every last one of Shakespeare’s plays. So for now, it’s back to work. Next up is Taming of the Shrew.
*Christine O’Neill is a contributing junior writer for PPR. She graduated this past June as the Salutatorian of her class at Pawling High School, where she was the recipient of a college scholarship from the Pawling Shakespeare Club.
Angela Sawatzky lives in Saskatoon, Canada. She will be attending graduate school this autumn at the University of Alberta after having graduated from the University of Saskatchewan. She has a degree in Linguistics and hopes to become a Speech Pathologist.