I’ve been asked to write the entry on “Shakespeare Societies” for the forthcoming Cambridge World Shakespeare Encyclopedia. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve buried my head among archive materials relating to this topic held deep down in the vaults of the Shakespeare Centre. It’s always exciting beginning work on a new research topic – it has something of the buzz of making new acquaintances – those initial conversations where there is so much to find out, so many questions to be asked, and so much to surprise and mystify as you get a feel for what makes people who they are. Of course, there’s always the danger that research can become an obsession – an addiction even – and one risks becoming a crashing bore, seeing all invitations to parties dry up in a matter of weeks! I’m not quite there yet, but I do know a lot more about the history behind the formation of Shakespeare Societies than I did a couple of weeks ago – but there is still lots more work to do – “nothing will come of nothing”.
As I stared at the masses of material before me, I decided that I’d set out to answer a number of questions. When did Shakespeare Societies first come into existence? Who created them? Who joined them? Why were they seen as necessary, or a good thing? Which countries were among the first to create such groups? How many members does it take to sustain a Shakespeare Society – what do they do –and what is their future? Obviously, some of these questions are easier to answer than others. As I’ve begun to dig through our archive I’ve been fascinated to discover the number of Shakespeare Societies that have sprung up across the globe over the last 200 or so years. Naturally, as Executive Secretary to the International Shakespeare Association I was already familiar with the work of many national organizations, but I have been somewhat surprised to discover the existence of much smaller societies that have had Shakespeare at their centre. Reading through the minutes of one such society from the 1840s (which had 12 members in all) I was amused to see that concern had been registered for the fact that some members seemed more interested in the free tea and biscuits on offer, than in discussion of Shakespeare’s works. I’m yet to discover whether this was grounds for Shakespearian excommunication!
At the risk of sounding too much of a ‘Shakespeare Societies’ bore, I would be interested to hear from anyone who belongs to, or has created a Shakespeare Society (big or small). I’ve been getting a good idea of what Shakespeare Societies have meant to people in the past, so it would also be interesting to hear what they mean to people today.