Shakespeare book clubs: the pleasures and frustrations of diving into the plays with a group

There are book clubs — and then there are Shakespeare book clubs.

In the late 19th century, Shakespeare clubs sprouted up all over America, giving their members (who were primarily women) the opportunity to read and discuss Shakespeare and pursue a life of the mind not always available to them in a traditional educational setting.

In her book She Hath Been Reading: Women and Shakespeare Clubs in America, Katherine West Scheil argues that not only did these clubs “embed Shakespeare into American culture as a marker for learning, self-improvement, civilization, and entertainment for a broad array of populations,” they often led women to “actively improve their lot in life” and take “action on larger social issues such as women’s suffrage, philanthropy, and civil rights.”

For Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s 2017 production of The Taming of the Shrew, playwright Ron West created a new framing device that both celebrated and parodied these women’s clubs. Set in 1919 on the eve of women’s suffrage, the “Chicago Women’s Society” is determined to beat their rival organization, the “Columbia Women’s Club,” and complete the canon by performing Shakespeare’s fraught play. It was a handsomely produced piece with a top-notch and diverse cast, and the framing device allowed the audience to examine the status of Shakespeare’s characters through the prism of women in 1919 and see how much (and how little) has changed.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater: The Taming of the Shrew
Mrs. Olivia Twist (Kate Marie Smith) and Mrs. Dorothy Mercer (Heidi Kettenring) prepare to rehearse THE TAMING OF THE SHREW in the parlor of the Club. Photo by Liz Lauren. (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

Today it’s not unusual to see theaters sponsoring monthly or semi-regular meetings devoted to reading and talking about Shakespeare’s plays: Colorado Shakespeare Festival and Nashville Shakespeare Festival are two examples.

In Boulder, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival offers the Bard’s Book Club, a five-evening series in which members read and chat about the plays being produced that season. Now in its second year and part of a larger program of informal lectures and presentations, Colorado Shakes’ book club takes the form of a kind of two-hour classroom discussion led by director, dramaturg, and teaching artist Heidi Schmidt. In a recent conversation, Heidi told me she begins by asking her attendees what questions they have about the play or about the upcoming production, and discovered after the first year that her book club members wanted “more context…more teaching” because, though they enjoyed it, they occasionally felt “a little bit left at sea when it was purely ‘read the play and talk about it.’ They wanted a little bit more framing.”

Nashville Shakespeare Festival takes a more interactive approach. Shakespeare Allowed! gives “people the chance to say ‘I’ve read every one of Shakespeare’s plays’ [and] to offer non-actors the joy of saying Shakespeare’s words in a low-pressure situation,” according to Nashville Shakes’ executive artistic director Denice Hicks, who began the program in October 2008. On the first Saturday of every month, no fewer than 16 and frequently as many as 50 people gather in a local library and read a Shakespeare play aloud, round-robin style, so everyone who wants to gets a chance to read. Key to this program’s eleven-year success seems to be the joy of discovery for the members who never know what line they’re going to read until it’s their turn — and keeping the lecturing to a minimum. “I’ve discouraged scholars and teachers from lecturing at the readings,” Hicks explains. “I really want people to get what they get [from the plays] without feeling like they need someone to explain or translate for them. This has empowered and encouraged people to come back for years—developing an ownership of their own opinions and relationship with the works.”

People participate in these programs for all sorts of reasons, but for theatre organizations it’s a wonderful way to investigate Shakespeare in an informal environment, place productions into a historical or cultural context, invest in their current audience, and develop future Shakespeare-savvy audiences. “It’s a free program,” says Hicks of Nashville Shakes’ monthly book club, “and we work on making it as welcoming and unintimidating as possible…to all kinds of people!”

Some people, of course, just form their own groups in the privacy of their living rooms. I myself am part of the grandly-named North Shore Shakespeare Society, an incredibly elite organization consisting of only my wife and I and two other couples, divided in equal thirds between practitioners, civilians, and academics. What the NSSS gives me is the opportunity to read and discuss Shakespeare in a fun environment where there’s no pressure to interpret the play, or be tested on it, or to in any way get it right. We’re simply free to dive into the plays and explore them for all the pleasures (and occasional frustrations) they can bring — and to discover themes I hadn’t considered and unique perspectives offered by my fellow NSSSFits. We also drink.

This month our Shakespeare book club is discussing Love’s Labors Lost — what better play to read right around Valentine’s Day! We meet next Tuesday, the 26th. All are welcome. Bring wine.

Are you or your organization involved in a Shakespeare book club? How does yours work, and what pleasures does it bring? Let us know in the comments below!