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  • Writer's pictureKirk Jenkins

The Shakespeare Project - Enter Chorus

Enter Chorus.[1]

Why Shakespeare?

My Shakespeare project began in the aftermath of a health “challenge.” At the time, I’d written three books in quick succession, starting each one just as soon as I finished the one before. I’d been working on a Lincoln book, but then I got a kidney cancer diagnosis. I was lucky – non-aggressive, no chemo, no recurrence – but in the months that followed, I had my first experience with writers’ block. I had piles of research for the Lincoln book, but I wasn’t writing. Susan and I were flying to Arizona for a vacation, and I was reading Julie Powell’s book Julie and Julia. Susan said “Maybe you need to go back to what turned you into a writer in the first place. Try Shakespeare. Go through all the plays and watch every movie you can find. Do it all in a year and write about it as you go.”[2]

My first thought was that reading thirty-eight plays and watching God-knows-how-many DVDs in a single year was going to be a tall order.

But I thought about it. And I started to think she might be right. I’ve always loved Shakespeare. Politics, war, jealousy, love, sex – what’s not to like? I took Shakespeare in junior high. Read Julius Caesar, like most of the South.[3] Wrote parodies of several of the plays -- I don't have any of the scripts anymore, thank God. That year, I saw the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet with my class. My thirteen-year-old reaction to the semi-nude bed scene? I remember arguing with my teacher, insisting that that bit wasn’t in the play, and it was just appalling that Zeffirelli would add something like that. She rolled her eyes and told me to read it again. I was obsessed with Macbeth for a while in college. My Civil War literary novel was structured like the Shakespeare histories -- Shakespeare figured out four hundred years ago that the rhythm of war is best captured in small, not in grandiose set pieces. All of the human experience, in thirty-eight plays. And Omigawd what a writer.

Okay, Shakespeare then.

I had no idea how many Shakespeare films there are. After an hour on the sofa with a guide to Shakespeare on film, it’s obvious I’m going to have to set some ground rules. There’s a reason those books are five hundred pages long.

What about the movies based on Shakespeare’s plots? Does West Side Story make the cut? How about 10 Things I Hate About You, a Heath Ledger movie from about ten years ago that’s based on Taming of the Shrew? Romeo & Juliet vs. The Living Dead?

I decide they’re out.[4] If the point is the writing, then it’s only productions using – more or less – Shakespeare’s words. Most of Shakespeare’s plots were lifted from other sources anyway.

Would you believe there are silent-movie productions of Shakespeare’s plays? I can’t imagine a more completely pointless exercise. Shakespeare without speaking is like Picasso: The Audio. Out.

I finally put together a list of movies I think I can find, either on DVD or video tape.

Well, to cut to the chase, I did it. A hundred and sixty Shakespeares in three hundred sixty-five days. And lemme tell ya, seeing Hamlet sixteen times in thirty days is as close to an out-of-body experience as you can have without, shall we say, recreational pharmaceuticals.

A few weeks ago, I decided I wasn’t writing enough – thus this website and blog (my fourth). Because when you are already publishing two hundred four blog posts, ten to twelve newspaper columns and assorted speeches and panel discussions each and every year – not to mention maintaining a full-time law practice – as Henry V says of Hotspur, “he . . . kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots as a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, ‘Fie upon this quiet life! I want work.’”

And it occurred to me that the Shakespeare project would make perfect material for this blog. So in our recurring Shakespeare posts for this blog, we’ll be talking about every Shakespeare production we can find. Sometimes, it’ll be an updated version of a review from the book project. Other times, we’ll be watching productions that postdate that book.

So away we go . . .


[1] In Shakespeare, the Chorus is the actor who comes out first and tells everyone what's going on. Mike Myers renamed the character Basil Exposition for the Austin Powers movies. Incidentally, Shakespeare's plays are full of footnotes too. They're called "asides."

[2] Susan has suggested the subjects of all my books. It’s a wonder the woman talks to me at all.

[3] Know why most high schools teach Julius Caesar? It's one of the few Shakespeare plays with no sex. Granted, a bloody assassination and a civil war, but hey, everybody keeps their togas on. You can tell a lot about a country by finding out what stuff they're offended by.

[4] Okay, we're doing the last one.

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