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