When I think about Shakespeare, I imagine booming voices, wooden stages and yellow spotlights. When I think about Shakespeare’s sonnets, I picture tissue-thin paper from anthologies printed using florid, 8-point font. My concept of Shakespeare himself involves white stockings, feathery caps and rhyming, existential angst. I studied abroad my sophomore year of college and made sure to visit the re-created Globe Theatre. Standing in the pit, where the groundlings would have paid a penny to watch a performance, I looked up at the polished timber stage and the brown, thatched roof. At the time, I thought it was the closest to Shakespeare that I ever could be.
Little did I know that a small theater company in New York City would reimagine Shakespeare, bringing the Bard closer to the modern day. The Sonnet Project is an endeavor to film all of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets using 154 different actors in 154 different New York City locations. Created by the New York Shakespeare Exchange and headed by Producing Artistic Director Ross Williams, its mission is to demystify Shakespeare’s work and create “fresh points of entry . . . so that modern audiences will be exposed to the intrinsic power of Shakespeare.”
Sonnet 16 was filmed in front of the Bowery Graffiti Wall in Manhattan. Behind the vibrant backdrop, musicians play the electric bass and beat drums as hip-hop artist Devon Glover recites, “But wherefore do not you a mightier way /Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?” Other examples include Sonnet 13 in Yankee Stadium, Sonnet 27 over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Sonnet 46 at the New York State Supreme Court Building and Sonnet 50 at the John F. Kennedy International Airport. Actors clutch coffee cups, umbrellas, steering wheels, baseballs, suitcases. Ross Williams says that sonnets were matched with locations based on their “imagery and rhetorical arguments.”
Essentially, Williams hopes that by re-creating the sonnets in contemporary situations and familiar places, viewers will see the plain and vibrant humanity in Shakespeare’s writing, rather than regard his work as something you’re tested on in school or pay a pretty penny to watch on stage. Shakespeare’s work isn’t some archaic art form meant only for ivory-tower scholars, battered high school textbooks and velvet-draped theaters. “[Shakespeare’s] no good to us on a pedestal,” reads the Sonnet Project’s website; Shakespeare can still be found in our modern-day relationships, transcoded through text messages and Facebook posts, in the spaces we fill as we buzz about our lives. That’s why, in a bid to reform and reconnect the Bard to anyone and everyone, the Sonnet Project—in addition to providing videos on its website—has a mobile app for iOS and Android. Viewers can watch the short films on their chosen devices and tap through to learn the history of that location. Additionally, there is a mapping tool that allows the user to find other sonnets filmed nearby.
Perhaps I didn’t have to major in literature, fly all the way to London, navigate the Tube and stand inside the Globe Theatre to reach Shakespeare. He wrote for the masses in 1602, and the masses of 2015 can still relate; and now his existential body of work is accessible with just the click of a button.
Did You Know?
Because Elizabethans didn’t have the same standard of spelling and record-keeping that we do, the spelling of William Shakespeare’s name varied wildly. Even the Bard himself abbreviated his name differently from signature to signature. Examples include Shakp, Shaksper, Shakespe, Shakspere and Shakespere.