NORMAL — As an English professor at the University of Iowa, Adam Hooks teaches a class dedicated to the workings of William Shakespeare, an English poet, playwright, and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language.
Every year, he gets the same question from at least one of the English majors in class.
“Somebody will tell me that they just want to learn how to write like Shakespeare,” he said Sunday, as part of a panel of experts at Milner Library at Illinois State University, celebrating Shakespeare. “The first time it happened, I laughed and just said that I didn’t think we were going to be able to accomplish that in one semester, and of course, we didn’t. You will not be able to read and write like Shakespeare, but you can learn to read and write like Shakespeare was taught to do.”
That can be done on the sixth floor of the library in what ISU assistant professor Tara Lyons calls the most secure place on Illinois State University’s campus. It is known as the Special Collections room where a handful of rare items, including books from Shakespeare’s time, are on display. Those items were featured Sunday, along with several other rare and fine books during a program that gave visitors a rare glimpse into Shakespeare’s world. About two dozen people attended Shakespearience, with the chance to see books that might have influenced Shakespeare or his peers.
“One of the really neat things about Bloomington-Normal, is the Shakespeare Festival which gives people in this community an opportunity to learn about Shakespeare’s works,” Lyons said. “But not everyone knows about this gem on the ISU campus, and we have some fascinating books here.”
Visitors were allowed to hold and touch the books — after a complete washing of the hands first, of course, Lyons said. They also had the chance to practice writing with a quill pen, using the alphabet that was used in Renaissance England.
Lyons and Hooks were joined by DePaul University’s Professor Megan Heffernan. All are considered experts on Shakespeare and share a mutual love for ancient books and literature.
“All of us kind of drool when we can go to conferences on rare books or Shakespeare,” Lyons said. “We go with smiles on our faces, and it’s very exciting to be able to share some of that knowledge with people who are eager to learn more about Shakespeare and the times that he grew up in.”
“It’s a common perception that Shakespeare was a solitary genius,” Lyons added. “Most people believe that he just kind of locked himself in a room and wrote, and yes, he did that sometimes, but he was interacting in the world. He was a businessman. He was a shareholder in the local theater. He was writing plays to get people into the theater and so he had to know the culture and be a part of the culture. But he also read a lot and interacted a lot and those are things that influenced him.”
“He was a special kind of talent and was brilliant at what he did,” Heffernan said.
Visitors to the event said they continue to be impressed by Shakespeare’s work and are always trying to learn more.
“I’m a fan,” said Jenessa Spivey of Normal. “You can always learn something and it’s nice to meet different people with a different view.”
The event was the second one where the special collections were showcased and Lyons said she would like to do more.
“I think having small groups of 20 or 25 people is perfect because it gives us a chance to interact with the attendees and they get to have their questions answered and learn something they may not have known before,” she said.