Shakespeare in prison: How Richard II and Macbeth speak to those in solitary confinement

Shakespeare in Prison

Blood hath been shed ere now, i’ th’ olden time,
Ere humane statute purged the gentle weal;
Ay, and since too, murders have been performed
Too terrible for the ear. (Macbeth, 3.4.91)

What would a roomful of convicted killers see in Shakespeare’s Macbeth? What insight would they have on the choices that he makes, and the consequences for those choices?

For 10 years at Indiana’s Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, Laura Bates, an English professor at Indiana State University, led Shakespeare discussion groups among some of the most violent and dangerous prisoners.

Could Shakespeare be an effective tool for rehabilitation? Bates wanted to find out.

“On a deeper life-changing level you have to have criminals contemplating and reflecting on why they made criminal choices, and that’s where Shakespeare’s criminal tragedies come in so beautifully – and what I call his criminal tragedies are Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet,” she says.

Listen to this Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode to hear why she chose Shakespeare over other great works of English literature, how the inmates reacted to reading Shakespeare’s plays, and what impact the experience had on their life in prison.

Richard II is the first text that I distributed among the prisoners because I thought Richard’s soliloquy in Act 5, where he is literally in solitary confinement himself, would really resonate with these prisoners,” Bates says. The soliloquy begins:

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world,
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it. Yet I’ll hammer it out.
My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father, and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humors like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented. The better sort,
As thoughts of things divine, are intermixed
With scruples, and do set the word itself
Against the word, as thus: “Come, little ones,”
And then again,
“It is as hard to come as for a camel
To thread the postern of a small needle’s eye.”
Thoughts tending to ambition, they do plot
Unlikely wonders: how these vain weak nails
May tear a passage through the flinty ribs
Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls,
And, for they cannot, die in their own pride. (Richard II, 5.5.1)

Read more from this scene in Richard II on Folger Digital Texts.

More about Shakespeare in prison:

  • Our theater partner Chicago Shakespeare Theater recently organized a panel discussion on “Shakespeare in the Criminal Justice System.” Read an account on the City Desk 400 blog and find related resources on the Chicago Shakespeare Theater website, including a video of the Q Brothers performing Shakespeare in Chicago’s Cook County jail.
  • The Old Globe, our theater partner in San Diego, produces a touring Globe for All program that brings Shakespeare to many non-traditional settings, including correctional facilities. Its next play, Measure for Measure, begins performances November 1.
  • Our theater partner Shakespeare at Notre Dame hosted its second “Shakespeare In Prisons: In Practice” conference in January, part of the Shakespeare in Prisons Network.
  • Shakespeare Behind Bars, the subject of a 2005 documentary, brings Shakespeare to prisons in Kentucky and Michigan.

Do you know of other programs? Share them in the comments below.