Professor Katherine Scheil overturns traditional views of Shakespeare readers in America with her new book about 19th-century women's Shakespeare clubs.
Watching the Olympics' opening and closing ceremonies, Associate Professor Katherine Scheil noticed with some amusement the continuing idealization (and consequent defanging) of Shakespeare as England's "national poet": "The actual content of the plays is often at odds with the conception of the ideal poet," she observes wryly, "which makes for great fun for readers and audiences who discover Shakespeare's uncanny ability to connect with human situations, often on a very realistic level."
Continues Scheil: "My own students are usually pleasantly surprised at how many connections they have with the issues that preoccupied Shakespeare--love, lust, passion, jealousy, youth, age, etc."
In her new book She Hath Been Reading: Women and Shakespeare Clubs in America (Cornell University Press, 2012), Professor Scheil illustrates how numerous 19th-century and early 20th-century American women discovered in reading Shakespeare at once a challenge and an affinity which vaulted them into unexpected social and civic engagement. At the time, the group study of Shakespeare was considered a "safe" and acceptable activity for women--as opposed to clubs selfishly and dangerously focused on reading novels or fomenting social change. Yet it led women to, as Scheil writes, "read, study, write, speak, argue, and spread their enthusiasm for Shakespeare." It led to women acting together as a force for education (starting libraries, advocating for child labor laws, giving scholarships). And it led to women, from farmers in Kansas to settlers in California, claiming for themselves the space (and time) to grow intellectually and otherwise.
What did these women find so inspiring in Shakespeare? According to Scheil's research, they discovered indelible characters, such as Portia, and, through the characters, ways to talk about gender roles in society. Women used the study of Shakespeare's plays as opportunities to investigate geography, history, religion: the context of the work. They developed speaking skills by discussing and performing the poetic language of the plays. Black women, writes Scheil, "recognized the cultural power inherent in reading Shakespeare." Above all, perhaps, women readers took enough joy from the insight, drama, and occasional bawdiness of the text that they wanted to read, reflect, and discuss even after a long day of labor.
Scheil was writing about women in a different century and country when she first heard about American women's Shakespeare clubs. She had been discussing her paper on the Shakespeare Ladies' Club of 1730s London with another scholar, Mary Ellen Lamb, when Lamb noted tangentially that her mother had participated in a Pennsylvania Shakespeare club. "When I began to dig a bit further," Scheil relates, "I was astonished at the sheer numbers of women reading Shakespeare in nearly every corner of the country."
Scheil's research took her from major research libraries to a "Shakespeare's Closet" in a Georgia woman's home, from printed meeting programs to handwritten records. "The most rewarding part of the book," declares Scheil, "was being able to tell the stories of these women and their relationship to Shakespeare as an author who could provide the intellectual stimulation they eagerly sought, and to give these readers their due place in the history of Shakespeare in America.
"The prevailing story of Shakespeare in America, derived from Lawrence Levine, was that Shakespeare gradually became archaic and inaccessible to ordinary Americans as the 19th century progressed. The evidence that I found demonstrates that ordinary Americans, especially women, were reading and studying Shakespeare voraciously."
Scheil is bent on upending the image of Shakespeare "as the highbrow property of an elite and exclusive enclave" and that goes for the present as well as past centuries. "The Globe Theatre in London just completed the 'Globe to Globe' festival," she reports, "with 38 performances of Shakespeare in 38 different languages. Apparently 83 percent of audiences for these performances were first-time theatergoers, attracted to the productions because of the opportunity to connect with Shakespeare in new ways."
Scheil's next project offers another opportunity for fresh connections: she's looking at how Shakespeare's wife Anne Hathaway has been imagined by biographers, gardeners, playwrights, and novelists since her death. The fascination with Hathaway of course rests on the continuing interest in Shakespeare's life, and primarily the mystery of how this humble country boy went on to create plays that rivet audiences and readers 400 years after his death.
"I recently saw the 'Shakespeare: Staging the World' exhibit at the British Museum," Scheil describes, "and I'm still haunted by the final display of the exhibit. It was the complete works of Shakespeare known as the 'Robben Island Bible,' which Nelson Mandela kept hidden in his jail cell in South Africa where he was imprisoned with other ANC leaders. Each prisoner signed his name next to his favorite passage from Shakespeare. The exhibit ended with prisoner Ahmed Kathrada's comment, 'Somehow Shakespeare always had something to say to us.'"