The masses read the classics in 19th and early 20th century Britain, writes Jonathan Rose in City Journal.
Until fairly recently, Britain had an amazingly vital autodidact culture, where a large minority of the working classes passionately pursued classic literature, philosophy, and music.
. . . Will Crooks (b. 1852), a cooper living in extreme poverty in East London, once spent tuppence on a secondhand Iliad, and was dazzled: “What a revelation it was to me! Pictures of romance and beauty I had never dreamed of suddenly opened up before my eyes. I was transported from the East End to an enchanted land. It was a rare luxury for a working lad like me just home from work to find myself suddenly among the heroes and nymphs of ancient Greece.”
. . . In the nineteenth century, Shakespeare could still attract enthusiastic, rowdy working-class audiences, who commented loudly about the quality of the performances. Caravans of barnstorming actors brought the plays to isolated mining villages. In response to popular demand, Birmingham’s Theatre Royal devoted 30 percent of its repertoire to the Bard and other classic dramatists. In 1862, a theater manager provoked a near-riot when he attempted to substitute a modern comedy for an announced production of Othello.
Via Erin O’Connor’s Critical Mass.