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The Folger Spotlight

“Make not your thoughts your prisons”: Prison Shakespeare in the Real World

Central to the plot of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed—a retelling of The Tempest—is a Shakespeare course taught to incarcerated men at the fictional Fletcher County Correctional Institute. This framing device draws on the very real work being done in correctional facilities across North America. For a further exploration of these programs, Dr. Laura Louise Nicklin (University of Wolverhampton) shares her insights from experiencing them firsthand as part of her doctoral research.

Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is an engaging and intriguing novel set in a fictitious prison. Though increasingly removed from reality in its more dystopian concluding action, it brings an exciting and very much real-world phenomenon—the use of Shakespeare programs in correctional facilities— to a completely new readership. Several US prisons host Shakespeare programs and there are even Shakespeare programs within the juvenile system that serve as alternative court-mandated sentences. In this blog post I want to share insights into the prison Shakespeare phenomenon from my own PhD research, an ethnographic study of US Prison Shakespeare.

Shakespeare-focused prison programs have their own rich history worth exploring. Housed within prisons as supplementary program groups, the groups I worked with focused on positive goals, personal reflection, and individual progress and change using Shakespeare as a primary subject matter. Spending time within these programs, I discovered that these groups were no ordinary drama clubs, but rather groups exploring real-life, reflection, and development with the potential to impact those affected by prison, both within and beyond prison walls. 

For some participants, Shakespeare was at the heart of both their most positive experiences and their greatest challenges. Within the program, Shakespeare served a range of purposes, from written texts to his perceived presence and impact. Shakespeare was explored as a writer, a teacher, a voice, a brother, a group member, and more. His texts provided matter within which participants could identify and reflect on themselves or their situations, opening a potential window into themselves and humanity. Shakespeare’s characters, situations, personalities, and decisions were consistently reported as vehicles for personal development. Furthermore, many participants described themselves as having to “wear a mask,” and claimed that Shakespeare created opportunities to work out who they really were or wanted to be.  Shakespeare’s language was also highlighted as a “useful” language they had discovered, with a sense that Shakespeare’s plays said what participants “needed to hear” or “are trying to say” in exploring or expressing their own experiences. 

For some it was not necessarily Shakespeare, specifically, that made the experience beneficial for them, but the combination of practices and structure within the program delivery. I heard about and witnessed how the groups’ work supported participants in broadening their perspectives, experiences, and emotional dexterity by challenging their preconceptions and aiding in (re)building relationships with families, friends, and wider society. In engaging in these activities, participants reported a developing ability to build trust and challenge their self-perceptions and perceptions of others, and then utilizing these skills to connect to the world beyond bars.

Each perceived outcome fed into an overarching thread of “humankind,” being seen as and identifying oneself as a valuable human being. People who are or have been in prison are often placed in a position of dehumanization across mainstream society, treated as “less than” society-at-large. Even as children, the “good/bad guys” binary is embedded in our cartoons, comic books, and stories. Nobody asks what happens after Gotham PD takes Batman’s latest capture away. Not only is the reader not expected to care what happens next, but they are left to assume Batman’s nemeses will return to their criminal behaviors. There is a cyclical recurrence in the stories our society tells of characters offending, being caught, and reappearing with a similar plan. We do not question this, as that is all we expect from them.  

Returning to the real world, participants told me that they know this is how society often perceives them, and indeed, they have perceived themselves. Post-prison life opportunities (e.g. employment or housing) are significantly limited, and though the justice system expects people to live a better life post-incarceration, society rarely facilitates this. The Shakespeare program, however, reportedly supported participants to be recognized, and recognize themselves, as human beings and thus part of society, building towards positive legacies and future contributions to humankind.

There is powerful potential within prison Shakespeare that can be used to contribute to life while imprisoned and post imprisonment. The more exposure such programs get, including through fictional representations such as Hag-Seed, the more awareness can be raised about their potential.  There is phenomenal potential for Shakespeare programs to achieve what many participants reportedly never found in another approach. It may not work for everyone—not even the practitioners claim that it is a miracle fix—but for those whose lives it has positively affected, it has provided a lifeline and vehicle for change that, in my opinion, is too valuable to be overlooked.

This has been a whistle-stop tour based on experiences generously facilitated by well-established prison Shakespeare groups in the USA. As much as I would love to thank them by name, I cannot due to ethical restrictions. But, I do want them to know that as ever, I am beyond thankful to them for letting me into their circles. There is so much to know and learn about the power of this work, far beyond what I can possibly share in a blog. The links below are to some excellent organizations that I have discovered throughout my journey for you to explore further.

For further reading see also: Nicklin, L. L. (2017). ‘Make Not Your Prisons Your Prisons’: Participant-perceived Potential Outcomes of a Shakespeare Focussed Alternative to Juvenile Incarceration in the USA. Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, 22(1), 2-17.

Smiling woman with long blonde hair, white top and black jacketDr. Laura Louise Nicklin is currently a Psychology Research Fellow at The University of Wolverhampton. Prior to this she successfully completed her PhD in Education surrounding a US Shakespeare in Prisons program, in addition to spending the last few years as a Research Fellow, Associate Lecturer, and Seminar Tutor in UK Universities. She previously gained her BA (Hons) Language and Literature in Education from The University of York in 2012, followed by her MA in Shakespeare and Education at The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham in 2013.