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!


  • Today, March 5, 2019, is the 117th birthday of the Lawton Shakespeare Club. Seven women met on March 5, 1902 and established the club in what was a rough and tumble Oklahoma frontier town. The Lawton town site was established in August of 1901, so by March of 1902 many of the families who settled there were still living in tents while awaiting the construction of permanent housing. Today the club meets twice a month from September through April and covers two plays each year. Members respond to roll call with a quote from the play being studied and, until recently, our custom has been to read one act each meeting in a round-robin style followed by discussion. One member presents a research paper on Shakespeare, his time, or his works at each meeting. We have now begun to move into the realm of technology and have discovered some wonderful DVDs of on stage presentations by Shakespeare’s Globe. We do still individually read the text prior to the meeting and we love that the DVDs also offer the option of captioned text to help us follow along. Early club members helped to establish the first library in Lawton and over the years members have donated funds for scholarships for students and for books to schools and libraries. The Lawton Shakespeare Club has always worked to further the love of literature and to expand education in the area.

  • I am part of a reading group that has been meeting for 10 years. The Rollicking Readers. It started with Jane Austen and a goal of reading classics – books we may have read in school but might not have liked, or books we probably should have read. We love it. We meet monthly with a potluck, discussion (with printed questions!), and then watch (and critique) a film version of the book. I wasn’t an original member, but in the first year when they were looking for someone who would have a DVD of Midsummer Night’s Dream, they came to me. I’ve been an active member ever since. We start each year with an Austen, and read a Shakespeare every summer and attend a live performance. We even toss in a contemporary book once in a while. 5 of us traveled to Britain last May and attended the Globe – an item off my bucket list! With over 100 books and plays read, it’s amazing to realize how much more in depth our discussions are now than when we started. Women who were afraid to read Shakespeare now have favorites. We compare and contrast characters and authors and themes. Everyone should be in a book club!

  • I started an esoteric Shakespeare reading group over a year ago. I say esoteric because we are all of the same mind that Francis Bacon is the true author of the plays. So we read the plays from that perspective. Myself and another member have many books on the topic including the cypher books. We are reading, studying and performing scenes from one play a month as we work through the canon in the order of the First Folio. We meet on a Saturday in my home, and I serve a gourmet breakfast which helps get people here on time. I assign scenes for members to rehearse and perform and we watch excerpts from a film of the play to close our meeting. I would like to gain more interest and widen our net to include more people.

  • In our senior apartment building I organized “The Shakespeare Gang”, a group of 6-10 residents who met weekly to read aloud our favorite Shakespeare plays. Because some were a bit hesitant about their recollections or understanding of the plays I began by writing a synopsis of each play and a cast list before we began. (I later discovered that I could find excellent ones online so I was able to eliminate that part of my planning! I also found cast lists with the number of lines for each character, so we could divide them fairly equally. ) We each chose the roles we wanted to read, and any discussions were spontaneous as we thought about and questioned various aspects of what we had read. We also shared articles, reviews, etc. as we happened to find them. This lasted for about three years, but because we were not a young group, we gradually lost members to illness, death, or just inertia and we finally gave it up. We often reminisce about it, though, and remember it with pleasure. As with most amateur theater groups, we always had more women than men and I loved the opportunity to play some of my favorite characters such as Hamlet and Othello!

  • I have organized and started two Shakespeare reading groups in retirement communities in Sarasota, Fl. Both are thriving. They meet weekly, assign roles, read one act each week, and then discuss what is happening here…who, what, when, where, why. What is Shakespeare saying, how is he expressing what it means to be human? One of the purposes is to make Shakespeare less intimidating, and to enjoy the language. I’ve watched people open up, and come to understand and learn what they didn’t know. (Disclosure : I was a teacher, but not literature).

  • There are many reading roups here in the areainland from Nice and Cannes. many are for English speakers, but the organisers want to dominate and tell you what to think. I have been wanting to organisr one myself, but owing to the pressure of work, I haven’t yet done it. You’ve given me a new lease of thought. I’ll have to get cracking.

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