She Hath Been Reading: Women and Shakespeare Clubs in America

By Fredlund, Katherine | Cithara, November 2012 | Go to article overview

She Hath Been Reading: Women and Shakespeare Clubs in America


Fredlund, Katherine, Cithara


She Hath Been Reading: Women and Shakespeare Clubs in America. By Katherine West Scheil. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012. Pp. 256. $45.00.

The importance of Women's Clubs and Literary Societies in nineteenthand early twentieth-century American life is documented in the fields of women's rhetoric, history, and education. These clubs provided intellectual stimulus for women, shaped American culture, and participated in public life in ways forbidden to the individual woman. Yet many of these clubs were general in their focus, and shared little common ground with hundreds of women's clubs across the country whose primary focus, in contrast, was quite specific. In She Hath Been Reading: Women and Shakespeare Clubs in America, however, Katherine West Scheil presents a nuanced vision of those women's clubs whose primary focus was the reading and analysis of the works of William Shakespeare. This portion of the national club movement has received little attention in other presentations of women's clubs. In her thoroughly researched and thoughtfully presented book, Scheil not only outlines the practices of these clubs, but also emphasizes their importance to the individual woman and to United States culture at large. Necessary reading for anyone interested in Shakespeare's role in United States culture, this book also contributes to the fields of women's history, literacy, and education.

In "Introduction: Origins," Scheil situates Shakespeare clubs among the national club movement and outlines these clubs' divergence from the more generally focused clubs meeting all over the country. She Hath Been Reading provides a vision of female life during this time, while Scheil positions Shakespeare clubs as a place of community and intellectual growth, arguing that these clubs created a role for Shakespeare in the American mainstream. Furthermore, these Shakespeare clubs provided women with opportunities that were otherwise unheard of at the time: continuing education, publication, and editorships. Thus Scheil argues that Shakespeare Clubs "were crucial for women's intellectual development because women discovered a world of possibilities, both private and public, in the works of Shakespeare" (2).

The first chapter, "Reading," focuses on the literate practices of the women in Shakespeare Clubs and illustrates the clubs' abilities to empower women through public speech and critical analysis. Scheil provides an in-depth look at the reading practices of a variety of clubs (extensive self-study, homework, solitary reading and memorization, literary analysis, performance, essay composition, book-talk, and communal reading). She then discusses the importance of the collaborative aspects of these clubs, arguing that the clubs' shared literacy formed strong bonds among members. Of most interest in this chapter are the snippets from the club archives, as, by including anecdotes and quotations that evidence the enjoyment these women found in their communal meetings, Scheil frequently allows the women to speak for themselves. This chapter also highlights the many ways Shakespeare Clubs allowed women to discuss taboo subjects and to analyze women's roles via Shakespeare's characters, specifically those of Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, and Portia.

Scheil's second chapter focuses on the "Home," claiming that the very existence of these clubs repurposed the home for their female members. With membership in a Shakespeare Club, the home transformed from a domestic space to an intellectual and literary one as well. Indeed, the creation of Shakespeare libraries in the houses of many of the women quite literally created an intellectual space where there had previously been only the domestic. Women even studied Shakespeare while completing their household duties. Homework, reading, and meetings took place in the home and thus Shakespeare became a part of these women's lives at home, but Scheil notes that Shakespeare Clubs also led women out of their homes via the creations of libraries and other community focused activities. …

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