Well that was interesting.

I went to prison last night and, to my great surprise, they let me back out again. It was quite an experience to watch a group of convicts — many of them serving extended sentences for very serious crimes — perform Shakespeare. Quite honestly I’m still trying to decide what I thought of it. It wasn’t the best Shakespeare I’ve ever seen, though many of the performances and several of the scenes were jaw-droppingly good.

Over the years the Shakespeare Behind Bars troupe has performed a variety of different Shakespeare plays, many tragedies (Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Othello, Macbeth) but also comedies (The Comedy of Errors, Measure for Measure, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice). This year’s show, Richard III, was I think the first of the history plays they’d performed. You won’t be surprised to discover that the histories are generally my favorites, especially the so-called “Henriad”: Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. So…no surprise that I was keen on seeing it.

The thing about the history plays is that they’re really also tragedies, so they play well in a prison, meditating as they do on themes like ambition, conquest, violence, betrayal, justice, regret and redemption. Maybe it was all the concrete, armed guards and silvery loops of barbed wire out the windows, but I found it impossible to separate the performance from the surroundings. At all times you’re keenly aware that most of the men standing and performing with feet of you are guilty of murder. It lends a unique gravity to what they say.

I was especially struck by this famous soliloquy from Act V. In it Richard, once a happy, gleeful manipulator and tyrant, starts to see the writing on the wall. He’s just had a nightmare in which the angry ghosts of all the men and women he’s killed come to curse and torment him on the eve of battle. He wakes up in a cold sweat and says:

What do I fear? myself? there’s none else by:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the high’st degree
Murder, stem murder, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, Guilty! guilty!
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul shall pity me:
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?
Methought the souls of all that I had murder’d
Came to my tent; and every one did threat
To-morrow’s vengeance on the head of Richard.

Unfortunately pangs of conscience mixed with vain self-delusion are as close to salvation as Richard gets before he’s killed in battle the next day. He’s never really redeemed. As for the real-life killer who played him…who knows? And that’s the rub about Shakespeare Behind Bars. You wonder a lot about that both during and after the play. To what degree are the actors internalizing lines like this? I would think quite a bit if they’re performing it this well. I’d think they’d have to.

Certainly plays about crime (Richard III) imprisonment and isolation (The Tempest) and guilt (MacBeth) make for easy pathos when performed by convicts. Yet I found myself wondering what I’d rather have these guys thinking about during their time in the slammer. Basket weaving? Among Shakespeare’s many gifts was his ability to show the way in which all human action has what we moderns might call “blowback.” No act is committed in a vacuum. Everything we do to someone else we do also to ourselves, our families, friends and the community at large. I could think of much worse things for convicted criminals to meditate on year after year. This may be why, while national recidivism rates rage from 50%-75% for released convicts depending on the type of crime they commit, the 18-year recidivism rate for SBB participants is just over 6%. It’s a very small sample of prisoners of course, but still it seems as though The Bard is having an effect.

On a personal note, I’ll say I was bemused to find that one particular inmate who appeared in the film, a quite creepy fellow who killed his wife by dropping a plugged-in blow dryer into her bath tub, was in last night’s cast. It was disturbing to see him there. However I’ll say his was one of the most striking scenes in the play. He played the role of Lady Anne Neville, a widow of a noble that Richard III kills in the first act. Kneeling over her husband’s bloody body with tears streaming down her face, she cries:

Cursed be the hand that made these fatal holes!
Cursed be the heart that had the heart to do it!
Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence!
More direful hap betide that hated wretch,
That makes us wretched by the death of thee,
Than I can wish to adders, spiders, toads,
Or any creeping venom’d thing that lives!
If ever he have child, abortive be it,
Prodigious, and untimely brought to light,
Whose ugly and unnatural aspect
May fright the hopeful mother at the view;
And that be heir to his unhappiness!
If ever he have wife, let her he made
A miserable by the death of him
As I am made by my poor lord and thee!

The tears were real. It was a profound moment. Still I couldn’t bring myself to get near him nor shake his hand once the play was over, and I shook quite a few hands afterward in the receiving line, for the audience was made up mostly of family members of the cast. There was a lot of hugging, kissing and tears, further reminders of the consequences serious crimes have on the people that the perpetrator loves the most.

So it was a complex evening. Will I go back next year? Probably, since next year they’ll be doing Much Ado About Nothing, which is a terrific comedy. And I wonder what the effect of that will be on my views on incarceration.

4 thoughts on “Well that was interesting.”

  1. This sounds very interesting. I had read Shakespeare for some time before I actually saw a play performed (Macbeth). What a revelation! These works were meant to be seen. I understood so much more after I saw the plays.

    Not just Shakespeare, but many other writers vividly show how a person’s actions can have an impact on someone else and indeed society at large. Theodore Dalyrmple is a British doctor who worked mostly in prisons and he has written about how so many inmates are detached. For instance they will say “the knife went in”, not “I stabbed him” They simply don’t see themselves relating to the larger society at all.

  2. I’m glad they let you out without delay but if they were *smart* they would have sentenced you to an hour or two on kitchen duty… ;>

    1. Would you believe that muffins from the grocery store are considered a delicacy there? Actually I’m sure you would. But I could be a king! 😉

      Thanks, Rainey!

      – Joe

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