The Shakespeare Ladies Club
Jonathan Hainsworth

The Shakespeare Ladies Club

It is well known in many accounts of how in 1741 the actor-manager, David Garrick, debuted as “Richard III” and caused a theatrical sensation with his dynamic and realistic acting style. The usual one-two punch is that William Shakespeare was a popular poet in his own Elizabethan-Jacobean times but his reputation – or even public knowledge of his works – was perilously close to falling into obscurity before Garrick’s stardom rebooted The Bard as, eventually, the National Poet, and beyond that as the greatest writer in all of recorded history.


However, in rescuing The Bard, there is a vital link missing between Shakespeare’s death in 1616 and Garrick’s overnight stardom in the 1740’s: The Shakespeare Ladies Club. They should be equally well-remembered and celebrated, yet apart from pockets of academia they are unjustly forgotten by the public and mass culture.


Formed in 1736 the club was a quartet of “Women of Quality”; three from the aristocracy and one a writer who ran a stationery shop, all educated and so enraptured by the plays of William Shakespeare that they met to read and discuss his transcendent genius. Not content with these sessions, they used their power and influence to successfully campaign for a statue of their literary idol to be placed in Westminster Abbey – and shamefully to this day their efforts remain overlooked, as credit for the statue is still given to a group of men.


 Indispensably, Elizabeth Boyd, Mary Cowper (later Baroness Walsingham), Mary Churchill (Duchess of Montagu), and led by Susanna Ashley-Cooper (Countess of Shaftesbury) lobbied theatres to not only put on the Shakespeare plays they loved, but also to perform them as originally written. Almost worse than being neglected, The Bard’s masterworks - when they were performed at all - had been ‘updated’ with music, dancing, special effects and, most damagingly, extra scenes and characters. These included altered endings in which Macbeth repents, Romeo and Juliet do not die and a sane King Lear reconciles with Cordelia, et al.


These women, at least the two who were affluent, put their considerable wealth behind their lobbying for more Shakespeare plays; they convinced theatre managers to put on the original versions by promising to underwrite any financial losses. They also had to overcome a post-Puritan, prudish culture that believed theatre to be immoral and no place for respectable women. By attending the Shakespeare plays themselves the SLC set a trend in motion; respectable women could comfortably attend the theatre and enjoy well-rounded female characters on stage.


Setting the groundwork for Garrick’s success, the Shakespeare Ladies Club were Patriotic Whigs (the political ancestors of Liberals) who adored the working-class author for his robust patriotism, his three-dimensional dramatizations of women (and men), and for his vivid, witty dialogue about passion, love and sex (in all its permutations). While no documentation has survived as to what they specifically talked about in their club’s meetings, we can make an educated guess from the letters, poems and novels they left behind as well as the plays they requested. Our book will showcase a series of chapters each of which focuses on a particular theme illustrated by quotes from the plays by The Bard which, we argue, must have thrilled these educated, worldly women in their inspiring and frank depiction of human relations.


The SLC had an agenda beyond just saving The Bard; they wanted to rescue all of British culture from the clutches of pathetic pantomimes which depicted women as fools and tarts, and men as rakes and cowards. They contributed to the revival of quality writing that would dominate the rest of the 18th Century, including by a growing legion of acclaimed female authors.


 At the first Shakespeare Jubilee, David Garrick thanked the Ladies – by then all but one was deceased - for their invaluable service, yet since 1769 only this undoubtedly great, male actor is regularly ascribed credit for rescuing the greatest works in literature. This book seeks to redress this sexist imbalance; The Shakespeare Ladies will receive their long overdue credit for kick-starting and shaping the glories of the Shakespearean culture we enjoy to this day.


Book Details:

  • Author: Jonathan Hainsworth
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Jonathan Hainsworth

Jonathan Hainsworth

Educator and author Jonathan Julian Hainsworth is a high school History and English teacher with over thirty years experience. Australian born, Jonathan was raised in Adelaide and is a graduate of the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia. Jonathan’s first book, an academic work was essentially an exploration of Scotland Yard Chief Sir Melville Macnaghten and his involvement in the “Jack the Ripper” case. This book received positive reviews and television, print and radio attention. Jonathan has a passion for historical investigation and the testin...
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