The World of the Shakespeare Societies
Shakespeariana. Grand Rapids Shakespeare Society. Scrapbook, compiled 1959. Folger Shakespeare Library.
In the age before mass media, many Americans entertained themselves with hobbies, crafts, and clubs, often intended as a means of self-improvement as well as a chance to socialize. Shakespeare societies, formed by people with a mutual interest in Shakespeare’s plays, began appearing in the mid- to late 1800s. The societies varied as much as any other type of American club. Some were a specialized variety of the women’s literary clubs that were common at the turn of the century; others were limited to men. Most of the societies read and discussed the plays, like a modern book club. Some also enjoyed guest lecturers and performers.
A number of the societies still flourish today, kept together by the pleasure of sharing Shakespeare with like-minded friends. Among them is the Philadelphia Shakspere Society (whose name honors one of several original spellings of the playwright’s name), which once published scholarly works as well as holding elaborate annual dinners with Shakespeare-themed menus. Founded in 1861, it remains all-male. The Wellesley College Shakespeare Society, established in 1877, stages annual Shakespeare productions as well as readings and other events.