Feature Stories/ Contents

Message from the Conservatory of Music


Around Tappan Square

Professor Norman Craig says farewell

In Brief

Student Perspective


Healing Power of Shakespeare



The Last Word

New Yourker cartoonist Bob Blechman '52 on reunion reality

Staff Box

One More Thing


www.oberlin.edu HOME




Write to : alum.mag@oberlin.edu


The Healing power
of Shakespeare

by Aaron Rester '99

"Have any of you ever seen a ghost?" With these words, William Hamilton '44 (above) embarked upon an unusual--and extraordinarily successful--educational adventure. The subject was Hamlet, and his fellow "travelers" were a group of people who had certainly seen more than their share of ghosts: 18 recovering addicts from the Salvation Army's 12-step recovery program.

Hamilton, a radical theologian and former university professor, had little idea of what to expect before teaching the eight-week-long seminar. His students were men and women, black and white, 30 years of age and up, and with varying levels of education. They spent their mornings at the shelter, where they lived and ate, in programs designed to help them deal with their individual addictions. One afternoon a week belonged to Shakespeare.

Hamilton himself had few preconceived goals for the class. He wanted his students to have fun, yet equally important was his hope that they enter into, understand, and make their own the world of Hamlet. "If you can be at home in that world," he told them on the first day, "you can be at home in any world."

Fortunately, said Hamilton, his students "plunged into the life of Elsinore as though Hamlet had been written just for them. Which it was." Aside from scheduled classes, the students spent many late nights on their own, watching and discussing various film versions of the play in their living quarters. As with any good seminar, differences of opinion made the discussions more lively. One man found Hamlet to be a true role model, while a woman participant was indifferent to the seminar and the play until she realized that she hated the melancholy prince.

At the end of eight weeks, everyone in the class--teacher included--emerged transformed by their experiences and by the power of Shakespeare's language. One sad example of the play's influence came at the expense of a very bright young woman. While discussing Polonius' advice to Laertes that if one finds true friends, one should "grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel," the young woman began to cry. It reminded her, she said, "that I have one marvelous friend who knows me better than I know myself. I truly miss him, but he is a drinking alcoholic, and if I turned to him and 'grappled him to my soul with hoops of steel, "I'd revert."

Unfortunately, she did indeed return to her friend, to the street, and to her addiction. "Love triumphed over recovery," Hamilton said,"and perhaps it should."

Luckily, the majority of the class members' experiences were positive. In effect, Hamilton says, it became "a kind of 13th step," provinding the students with a new kind of confidence in themselves and a new understanding of the world around them.

What does Hamlet have to do with the recovery program? Hamilton doesn't pretend to know the full answer to this question. He is sure, however, that "the road from powerlessness to power passes through the middle of this great Shakespearean tragedy."

Aaron Rester took a year off after graduation to work for OAM and Oberlin's Office of College Relations. He is now a graduate student at the University of Chicago's Divinity School.