There was never any question about where to begin the Shakespeare Project. The only possible choice was Romeo and Juliet. It’s the one story from Shakespeare everybody knows. I understand from various sources that it is now the standard introductory Shakespeare play in schools—a huge improvement over the previous incumbent, Julius Caesar. (I’ll say why in due course.) It’s fast-paced and full of both sex (underage at that) and violence (three murders, two suicides). It’s funny, witty, and probably Shakespeare’s dirtiest play. Rarely is his love of language more powerfully in evidence. It even features Shakespeare’s characteristic ambiguity. Is it a tragic tale of young love or a slyly ironic catalogue of the dangers of youthful unformed passion? Romeo and Juliet shows Shakespeare off to advantage in every way.
No wonder Shakespeare in Love revolves around the writing of Romeo and Juliet. No wonder it was the first play to be enacted on Twitter. So, choosing where to begin: easy. Actually beginning? Not so much.
I had intended to kick off the Shakespeare Project on April 23, 2009, the date traditionally held to be Shakespeare’s birthday. (Let me hold off any pedants among you; I know we don’t know when Shakespeare was born. We know that he died on April 23, 1616 and that he was baptized on April 26, 1564, so he could have been born three days earlier but there is no reason to assume this other than that we want it to be true. Just this once there’s no harm in that.) But as my friend William Gaddis said, life is what happens when you’re making other plans. As an underemployed freelance writer and editor, I was hard put to pay the rent that month. If anybody had stolen my purse, they would indeed have stolen trash. And so, shaken by rough winds, I began the Project on May 15.