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Bringing ‘the magic of Shakespeare’ to life

Erika Boeckeler (left), assistant professor of English, joined library staff in teaching local students about Shakespeare and the history of the book on Wednesday. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

On Wednesday morning, Snell Library at Northeastern University transformed into an interactive classroom for more than two dozen homeschooled students to learn about Shakespeare and the history of the book.

Erika Boeckeler, an assistant professor of English, and University Libraries staff arranged the event for children who are participating in a nonprofit educational program called All the World’s a Stage Players. The Littleton, Mass.-based program is focused on teaching homeschooled students about Shakespeare and facilitating full-length productions of his plays.

Members of the nonprofit program first learned of Boeckeler’s research interest in Shakespeare through an Internet search that produced a lecture on the playwright that she once gave to Northeastern alumni. The organization promptly invited Boeckeler to speak to students, but the professor offered the children one better: a chance to visit Northeastern for an interactive learning session using the resources available in University Archives and Special Collections.

“It’s exciting to see how the magic of Shakespeare’s language creates a natural bridge between the work and resources of our university and the interests of the local community,” Boeckeler said. “We loved seeing the young actors’ ‘wow!’ reactions as they discovered that the drama of book-making is what made Shakespeare’s dramas available for them to perform today.”

Through a series of hands-on workstations, students explored how books have progressed from the manuscript-to digital era. The displays included nine pieces from the library’s rare books collection dating from 1598 to 1787.

Students also learned about the invention of the printing press and how early book illustrations were done. At the digital book station, research and instruction librarian Amanda Rust explained how the footnotes in different editions of plays such as “Hamlet,” which the students are currently studying, change how the play is read.

The workstations were run by Boeckeler, Rust, assistant archivist Michelle Romero, professional bookmaker and former Northeastern linguistics lecturer Sarah Hulsey and English graduate student Kasra Gorbeninejad.

Prior to the interactive session, Boeckeler gave a lecture entitled “The Newfangled Media of Shakespeare’s Era,” in which she described the proliferation of books in the early modern period after the invention of the printing press. She described how Shakespeare’s works fit into the story of the book’s evolution – including how three very different versions of  “Hamlet” were printed during Shakespeare’s lifetime and shortly after his death.

Later, students compared and contrasted the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy in several digital editions of the famous play.

“This was a wonderful experience for our students,” said Leslie McLeod-Warrick, director of All the World’s a Stage Players. “This event has made this so much more real to them.”