DU professor brings ‘Hamlet’ to life

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Photo by Taryn Allen

Dr. W. Scott Howard, an Associate Professor of English at the University of Denver, recently gave a presentation entitled “‘Stay, illusion’: Shakespeare’s First Folio and the Ghost Quartos of ‘Hamlet.’” It was a brief lesson that combined history, theatre and English into a survey of William Shakespeare and of “Hamlet’s” origin.

The lecture was held in a small classroom of Sturm Hall on the morning of Oct. 28. Only nine people attended Howard’s lecture, but each was responsive and focused. This comes as no surprise, though, as Howard made the lesson interesting, engaging and interactive.

For example, in the beginning, Howard produced a fake skull, an iPad and a pair of headphones. He silently arranged the skull on the table up front, framing the headphones where ears would be, and pressed play on the iPad before turning to address the attendees.

“We have our friend Yorick here listening to Shakespeare’s sonnets.”

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Photo by Taryn Allen

Howard was met with small chuckles from those who recognized “Yorick” as the name of a character—or skeleton, rather—in “Hamlet,” and he then segued into the start of his lecture.

Howard began with a short account of Shakespeare’s life and soon moved into the history of his writing. He discussed the questionable and largely unknown beginnings of most of Shakespeare’s works; each play has an untraceable path through manuscripts, transcripts, annotations, performances and more.

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Dr. W. Scott Howard // Photo by Taryn Allen

These different pieces and versions of “Hamlet” and other plays have been compiled into many versions over the course of centuries, each with different errors and unique words. No two versions are identical.

During the lecture, Howard briefly discussed how these different versions have been named “quartos” and “folios.” He reviewed the distinctions between all six quartos of “Hamlet” and the first folio from 1623.

The Yorick skull also was not the only relic that Howard brought to his lecture. Sitting on the table in the center of the room was “The Norton Facsimile of the First Folio of Shakespeare.” The massive book, a replica of the first folio, belonged to Howard, and it was clear that he treasured it. He was proud to be the one to bring a First Folio replica to DU, calling it fate that he ended up with a copy.

“This book found me,” he said with admiration.

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Photo by Taryn Allen

To further engage his audience, Howard created a BINGO-style game to complete throughout the lecture. He named it “Horatio!” (after a character in “Hamlet”) and had guests keep a tally of when they heard him speak certain phrases or names. Everyone who finished and shouted “Horatio!” was entered into a drawing for a new copy of “Hamlet.” Two winners were chosen randomly and awarded copies of the play.

Howard provided multiple resources for further studies of “Hamlet,” as well, including places to visit that involve Shakespeare, related works of theatre and data bases on early English texts.

To end his lecture, Howard tied the lesson back to the title, “’Stay, illusion’: Shakespeare’s First Folio and the Ghost Quartos of Hamlet.” “Stay, illusion” is a line from Hamlet, and Howard found it appropriate, since it encompassed so well the message of his lecture: there is no true version of “Hamlet.”

“A stable text of ‘Hamlet’ is an illusion, a ghost, in itself.”

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