“Nothing will come of nothing”

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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.

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Victoria-Bladen/100001440830872 Victoria Bladen

    Hi Nick,
    I just started a “Shakespeare Club” this year, based at The University of Queensland. It’s very casual, mostly comprised of past or current students from our Shakespeare course and some members of the public. The simple object is to read through a play, enjoying Shakespeare in a relaxed atmosphere, with drinks and cake afterwards. Our last event was a Shakespearean Sonnet Marathon; we sat in a circle under a tree by the campus lakes and each read a sonnet in turn; it took us about 2 hours.
    Have fun with your research!
    best wishes, Victoria Bladen, The University of Queensland

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Victoria-Bladen/100001440830872 Victoria Bladen

    Hi Nick,
    I just started a “Shakespeare Club” this year, based at The University of Queensland. It’s very casual, mostly comprised of past or current students from our Shakespeare course and some members of the public. The simple object is to read through a play, enjoying Shakespeare in a relaxed atmosphere, with drinks and cake afterwards. Our last event was a Shakespearean Sonnet Marathon; we sat in a circle under a tree by the campus lakes and each read a sonnet in turn; it took us about 2 hours.
    Have fun with your research!
    best wishes, Victoria Bladen, The University of Queensland

  • Nick Walton

    Thanks Christian – that’s great – I’ll follow that lead. Very much appreciated. Nick

  • Nick Walton

    Thanks Christian – that’s great – I’ll follow that lead. Very much appreciated. Nick

  • Christian Smith

    yes, I can now confirm that the Marx family and friend’s reading group in the 1870s in London was called the Dogberry Club. They met at the family house. There is a very gossipy letter from Karl to his daughter Jenny about one of these meetings on page 83 of vol. 46 of the Marx Engels Collected Works.

  • Nick Walton

    Thanks Christian – that’s a really helpful lead. This is exactly the sort of story that I’m interested in. At times it can feel that Shakespeare lies at the centre of one huge game of ‘join up the dots’ – so many people, organisations, ideas and events come back to Shakespeare. Thanks for the book reference – that has gone on my “to do” list for this week. If anything else springs to mind – just let me know.

  • Nick Walton

    Thanks Christian – that’s a really helpful lead. This is exactly the sort of story that I’m interested in. At times it can feel that Shakespeare lies at the centre of one huge game of ‘join up the dots’ – so many people, organisations, ideas and events come back to Shakespeare. Thanks for the book reference – that has gone on my “to do” list for this week. If anything else springs to mind – just let me know.

  • Nick Walton

    Thanks Zsolt. I lectured at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest some years ago, and have a number of Hungarian Shakespearians as friends. I will definitely follow up this lead – so thank you very much. It sounds as though there is an interesting story to dig out there.

  • Nick Walton

    Thanks Zsolt. I lectured at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest some years ago, and have a number of Hungarian Shakespearians as friends. I will definitely follow up this lead – so thank you very much. It sounds as though there is an interesting story to dig out there.

  • Christian Smith

    As you know, the Marx’s were all over Shakespeare. The youngest daughter, Eleanor, was a leading member of Furnivall’s New Shakespeare Society. There was also a Shakespeare reading club that met at Marx’s house in London. (David Mclelland. Karl Marx: His Life and Thought. New York: Harper and Row. 1973.) I think that the club was called the Dogberry Club. They would read the parts dramatically, with Karl Marx leading the readings of Shakespeare.

  • http://twitter.com/zsalmasi Zsolt Almási

    Thanks for the post and also for sharing the problems around this vast task of writing something coherent about Shakespeare Societies.

    I wonder whether something about the Hugarian Shakespeare Society would be of any interest for you in terms of its history, its role in the shaping of Hungarian cultural politics in the 19th century, its death for sometime and its several resurrections and its presence. I’m not an authority on this matter, but there are scholars working or having worked on this topic with English publications who may be contacted.

    Good luck for this project.

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