I found notice of an intriguing variation of a Shakespeare reading group in 1891—it’s rather adorable: A letter to the editor of the journal Shakespeariana is entitled “A Club of Two.” The writer describes his Shakespeare reading club in which the only other participant he could find was one friend. At the time of writing they had been meeting for three years and had read and studied about twelve plays.
Eventually one member moved to another city, but they continued their program with lengthy weekly letters. When particularly puzzled, they wrote to a “specialist” in Shakespeare. They each kept a modern form of a commonplace book that, when filled with their own notes and criticisms, they then exchanged these books with each other. How I wish I could find those letters and commonplace books!
The writer’s inspiration for his Club of Two provides a testament to not only the power of Shakespeare reading to create community—even between a group of two—but also to the popularity and dedication of lay readers in that earlier time. The writer states: “To many persons the bare term ‘studying Shakespeare’ calls up in the mind’s eye visions of an ambitious reading club or Shakespearian Society, and being unable or perhaps unwilling to join such an association they end by doing nothing.”
The creative solution of this Club of Two not only indicates the pervasive passion for the reading activity, but also provides an important witness to the realization that “studying Shakespeare” at the time was commonly understood to take place among communities of general readers in their own parlors, not in universities. Just as many of us are doing right now. :-)
If anyone hears of the collection of letters these two friends exchanged, please let me know!