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World Lit teacher uses theater to teach Shakespeare

By Jon Bishop

AYER — “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause,” Hamlet observes in his most famous soliloquy, as he wonders whether to kill his uncle or let him live.

Seniors in Melanie Wittmier’s Honors World Literature course at Ayer Shirley High School brought this line to life on Thursday — and not once, but twice.

For an assignment, they had to cut the play to about 40 minutes and modernize it. The all-guy cast set theirs in Washington, D.C., making the titular character the vice president. They called it “Good Night, Sweet Prince.”

The girls brought theirs into the world of high school basketball, with coaches and players and cheerleaders, and they titled it “Hamlet, the Basketball Player,” turning the Prince of Denmark into a star point guard.

Wittmier said that it’s a way to get the students engaged in the reading and to help them understand that plays are meant to be performed.

“I like to teach drama as drama,” she said.

Too often, she said, teachers will have their students mechanically flip through plays, as if they are novels. That destroys their purpose, she said, and thus students don’t gain access to the true meaning of the work.

“Plays are supposed to be entertainment,” she said, and Shakespeare’s “not supposed to be boring and analyzed to death.”

Also, having them adapt ‘Hamlet’ “forces them to really analyze the play.” And the cross-dressing showed them what Elizabethan drama was like.

Her class loved the assignment.

“It was a blast,” said Danny Baldino.

But it was also challenging.

“You’ve got to memorize all your lines,” he said.

Kayla Timmons agreed, calling it “nerve-racking.”

Cyan Herrera said it was also a little said, because it was the last time they’d all do such a thing at Ayer Shirley High School.

Herrera said that Wittmier really opened her up.

“I was a very big introvert before her class,” she said, adding that she’s now considering taking drama courses in college.

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