When it comes to mayhem, the Ninja Turtles have nothing on William Shakespeare.
Consider these scenes acted out by students in a classroom at Harford Heights Elementary School in Baltimore yesterday:
* Three witches dressed in black, chanting spells over a caldron.
* A king stabbed to death in his sleep by a power-mad nobleman.
* A bloody ghost at a banquet table, confronting his murderous host.
* The dead villain's gory head stuck on a pike.
Written and performed as popular entertainment, Shakespeare's plays often wrap universal truth in drama exciting enough to grab the most television-sated 10-year-old.
"This was the soap opera of the 16th century," declared Matthew Hornbeck, the teacher-tutor at Harford Heights who directed a troupe of fourth- and fifth-graders in an abbreviated production of Shakespeare's "Macbeth."
And by exposing students to Shakespeare early, said Hornbeck, teachers can demystify a playwright too often seen as "difficult" by those who encounter him for the first time in high school. "The neat thing about these kids is, they don't know they're not supposed to like Shakespeare," said Hornbeck. His actors, all part of the school's Gifted And Talented Education class, are perfect examples.
In April, they performed the shortened version of "Macbeth" -- complete with simple costumes and the original Elizabethan language -- for fellow students at Harford Heights, which has an enrollment of 1,800.
Today, they take their show on the road, visiting the Waxter Senior Center in the Mount Vernon section of Baltimore. And if all goes according to plan, Harford Heights next March will sponsor the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, open to students from throughout the city.
The festival, to be funded through a $2,000 grant from the Fund For Educational Excellence, calls for some 300 students and 30 teachers to converge on Harford Heights in an all-day series of performances.
A trainer from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington will work with local teachers and others interested in bringing Shakespeare to schoolchil
Why should an urban school system put such emphasis on an English playwright who has been dead for nearly four centuries?
"It's extremely relevant to their development, to their self-confidence, their public speaking ability, their understanding of language," said Hornbeck, who approaches Shakespeare with the zeal of a missionary.
Though the language seemed difficult at first, the actors quickly mastered the words -- and brought their own insights to the play.
"The excitement is in the live performance and the rhythm and the lyricism," said Hornbeck.
And the play's contemporary parallels were not lost on the young performers.
The classic tragedy "was real violent," said Shanette Campbell, a fourth-grader who acted in the play. "People were conning people into killing people, they were setting up murders and stuff."
But "if you pay attention to it, it will tell you about a lot," said Darrell Trusty, a fifth-grader in the production.
Amid all the intrigue and swordplay is a powerful lesson, he said: "You shouldn't be too greedy because you might get yourself in trouble."