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Shakespeare & Beyond

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

Chicago Shakespeare Theater: The Taming of the Shrew
Chicago Shakespeare Theater: The Taming of the Shrew

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.”


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.

Rachel Bowen — February 19, 2019

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).

Arline Leven — February 19, 2019

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!

Mary Rodriguez — February 20, 2019

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.

Carol Brenner — February 20, 2019

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!

Sally W. Eilersen — February 21, 2019

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.

Suzanne H. Aplin — March 5, 2019

[…] goes to Dee Ryan, president of the North Shore Shakespeare Association, for her inspiration and consultation on this […]

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