Why did Shakespeare reading groups disappear?
In the late 1800s, several brands of cigarettes included collectible Shakespeare trading cards in their cigarette packages. In 1908, Ty-Phoo Tea boxes included a collector’s set of twenty-five trading cards, “Characters from Shakespeare.”
In 1914, Whitman Chocolates added an incentive to each chocolate box: a small, leather-bound edition of a Shakespeare play. Their first order of 15,000 copies of Romeo and Juliet was so successful that the following year Woolworth’s five-and-dime ordered a million copies of these miniature Shakespeare plays for sale in their stores.
In the 1920s, the Little Blue Books sold 125,000 copies a year of various Shakespeare plays (among their other classics) for a nickel or a dime. Their tag line was, “Improve your mind by reading at odd moments.”
Small and portable, containing almost no illustrations, [the Little Blue Books] were designed to be read (and passed on) amid the idle moments of a workday routine: during breaks, on bus transits, in stolen moments while infants were napping . . . in hospital wards, factory break-rooms, and prison cell blocks.
This era of Shakespeare being an integral part of popular culture was the result of two hundred years of people reading Shakespeare, most often out loud and in community. During this time, the preference both in America and in England was for reading Shakespeare over seeing it performed. In 1913, Alfred Graves wrote in the introduction to his small book, The Shakespeare Reading Circle edition of The Merchant of Venice, Arranged for Reading Aloud with Introduction & Notes:
“Indeed, it is the opinion of many, due, no doubt, to the failure of stage presentations of Shakespeare nowadays, that Shakespeare is only for private reading and not for the stage.”
Graves’ son, the British poet and classicist, Robert Graves, provides an intimate glimpse into his father’s personal experience with his Shakespeare reading group in 1911:
It went on for years, and when I was sixteen, curiosity finally sent me to one of the meetings. I remember the vivacity with which my utterly unshrewish mother read the part of Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew to my amiable father’s Petruchio. . . . I remember the lemonade glasses, the cucumber sandwiches, the petits fours, the drawing-room knickknacks, the chrysanthemums in bowls, and the semi-circle of easy chairs around the fire.
By 1900, one could choose from more than 40 expurgated editions of the work that were morally “safe” for reading aloud in a family or in a coed reading circle, in addition to 800 different editions of the collected works that had been published in the nineteenth century—approximately one new complete edition every six weeks for a hundred years.
Today there are six available editions of collected works.
Two movements began at the same time in the early twentieth century: 1) it became recognized and insisted upon that the plays were meant only for performance, and 2) Shakespeare began to be seriously studied in universities.
The first statement might sound odd today, but it was not always a truism that the plays were meant for performance. The actor/stage manager Henry Irving wrote about Shakespeare in 1890 in an introductory piece titled “Shakespeare as a Playwright”:
I daresay that it will appear to some readers a profanation of the name of Shakespeare to couple with it the title of playwright. But I have chosen this title for my introduction because I am anxious to show that with the mighty genius of the poet was united, in a remarkable degree, the capacity for writing plays intended to be acted as well as read.
Irving’s statement makes it abundantly clear that the public preference was for reading the plays and that Shakespeare was naturally seen as a literary author. This is a fascinating contradiction to Lukas Erne’s statement in 2003 in Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist:
It is often assumed that Shakespeare’s plays make for good reading despite the fact they were designed for performance. I am suggesting that they work well on the page because they are in certain ways designed for readers.
How quickly our history is forgotten—one iconoclast must insist Shakespeare is excellent on stage and another, a hundred years later, must insist they are also great on the page and that it is okay to read the plays.
Along with the nascent movement in the early twentieth century to recognize Shakespeare as a playwright whose works were meant to be performed was a growing insistence for the work to be included in universities beyond its then-current use as material for the study of philology and grammar. There was great resistance to include Shakespeare, or literature in general, into higher education—and this is a documented fact—because women did Shakespeare:
Throughout the past four hundred years, the historical record shows that it has been “some ladies indeed” who rescued “the admirable, yet almost forgotten Shakspear, from being totally sunk in oblivion,” as was noted in a letter in London’s Daily Advertiser as early as 1737.
Thomas Higginson pointed out in 1889 in an article in Harper’s Bazaar called “Women and Men: A Typical Women’s Club,” that “the women’s clubs have become to some extent the popular custodians of literature in America.” He also wrote:
It is a curious fact that, away from a few great cities, those Americans who do serious work in the study of literature are generally women. Whether it is due to more ample leisure or to the wish to superintend the education of their children, or from whatever source, the fact is unquestionable.
Let the most accomplished critic of Shakespeare . . . be announced to give a lecture on his favorite theme in a hall or a parlor, by day or evening, and it can be safely guaranteed that three-quarters and probably nine-tenths of his audience will be women.
Several thousand of the Women’s Clubs in America read and studied Shakespeare. There is much more evidence in the historical record than I can include here, but suffice it for now to recognize that when it came time for Shakespeare to be included in universities, there was great resistance: if women could read and understand and study Shakespeare, it obviously did not require the necessary intellectual rigor to be worthy of university consideration. Until the 1950s and ’60s, English studies bore the academic stigma of a “soft option" and as “a woman's subject,” as detailed by Dr. Scarlett Baron in her article, “A Short History of the [Oxford] English Faculty."
Thus began a movement to make Shakespeare difficult.
A small group now called the New Bibliographers began looking at Shakespeare scientifically, using a formidable array of “scientific” techniques, newly minted jargon, and editorial procedure to analyze textual evidence and the materiality of the book.
This new field combined with a growing and vociferous insistence that Shakespeare should not be read, but must only be experienced on stage, which in turn developed into the academic field called “performance criticism” that declares that Shakespeare’s plays only exist in performance. Together these two movements succeeded in destroying the personal relationships that millions of readers had enjoyed with the Shakespearean works and indeed with the characters themselves.
We no longer have a world in which one can be enticed to buy chocolate by the irresistible lure of the leather-bound Shakespeare play that comes with it, or in which you choose your cigarette brand because you want to collect the Shakespeare trading cards it holds. We are no longer encouraged to have a rich personal relationship with the text, with Shakespeare, with Rosalind and Volumnia and Richard and Benedick. Shakespeare was inadvertently taken away from the rest of us by well-meaning academics and actors. Do an online search for don't read Shakespeare to get an instant impression of how pervasive the belief is that the rest of us should not read Shakespeare.
And that, in turn, sadly makes a smaller audience for performance. I have seen the palpable effect of reading—every time we finish a close reading of a play, the entire group is eager, actually chomping at the bit, to see a performance or two. Reading Shakespeare creates an audience for performance.
Telling me I shouldn’t read the plays myself, that I should only see them performed, is like telling me I shouldn’t play the piano, but only listen to someone else play it.
So this is why we built this web site, iReadShakespeare.org, and why we are creating the Readers’ Editions of the plays. We want to return the personal interconnection to Readers; we want to encourage the discovery of the treasures in Shakespeare's plays ourselves; we want to develop a more critical mind in exploring the depths of the works. We want to talk about it with others; we want the ideas to permeate our lives more profoundly. We don't want to be merely passive observers of the actors on stage (who themselves were allowed to read the play!). We don't want to depend on being told what to think by academics or how to interpret a play by actors. We want to develop our own relationship with Shakespeare which we then gleefully augment with the wealth and beauties to be gleaned from the many brilliant academics and extraordinary actors who infuse the works with their personal insights.
With a smile,