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Shakespeare & Beyond

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.


My 2016 book “Prison Shakespeare: for these deep shames and great indignities” (Palgrave) surveys the history and spread of Shakespeare in prisons. It discusses several dozen different programs around the world, based on literature, media, interviews with practitioners and prisoners, and first-hand observations of programs on three continents. I also started Australia’s first prison Shakespeare project, which has been running since 2006.

Rob Pensalfini — October 6, 2016

Marin Shakespeare Company has run Shakespeare in prison programs since 2003. As of 2016, we have produced 15 full-length Shakespeare plays with inmates at San Quentin and Solano State Prisons. We are currently working on 5 Shakespeare plays at 3 prisons to be performed in 2017, including Folsom Women’s Facility. We have also produced several performances of original theatre written and performed by inmates. Video of most of these, plus video interviews with inmates can be found on the Marin Shakespeare website.

Lesley Schisgall Currier — November 1, 2016

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