John Pruitt, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Rock County, pruittj @ uww.edu
Not too long ago I read Katherine West Scheil’s book She Hath Been Reading: Women and Shakespeare Clubs in America, which uncovers archival research in order to to show us the role that Shakespeare, and literature in general, played and still plays in the social and political lives of ordinary people. Among more than 500 Shakespeare clubs meeting across the country in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Scheil lists 12 in Wisconsin, including the Mary Arden Shakespeare Club in Superior, the Shakespeare Society of Kenosha, and the William Shakespeare Club of Marinette.
I contacted a number of local and regional historical societies in order to locate records of these clubs and received some interesting news clippings from the Cambria-Friesland Historical Society about a community service project that took place in the 1930s.
In the fall of 1936, the women of the Cambria Shakespeare Club agreed to collaborate with the Cambria Cemetery Association to collect donations to erect a Memorial Chapel. And it was about time! According to the announcement, “The need of such a structure which would provide, in addition to its ordinary function, a receiving vault, has long been realized in the community.”
After months of fundraising, the city gathered for the laying of the cornerstone in October 1938, a ceremony including a poetic dedication to the Shakespeare Club.
After this dedication, Mrs E A Rowlands, the club’s president, announced the articles deposited into the cornerstone, including a number from the Shakespeare Club plus newspapers, photographs, programs, and the dedicatory poem.
In May 1939, the Memorial Chapel was dedicated, and the Shakespeare Club received its due acknowledgement.
You’ll notice that Shakespeare himself (and his oeuvre) is absent from this project, or at least from these accounts. As Scheil argues, “Shakespeare” seemed to be an umbrella term for a number of activities, and with more research, perhaps we can discover how the Cambria Shakespeare Club and others around the state connected Bardolotry to its community involvement.
How do you and your students connect Shakespeare to the civic life of your school and community?