Shakespeare in prison stories reliably move me. There’s been a radio show, a film, youtube videos, articles. Whatever the medium, it has a predictable ability to make me cry or touch my heartstrings in some way. At one time, I thought this pointed to some internal calling to work on Shakespeare in prisons. I thought, perhaps, I was meant to be one of those brave women who go into horrible circumstances and make space for beauty and insight. I have had my fill of horrible circumstances by now and if beauty or insight happens there, it’s only because beauty and insight can happen anywhere. So that no longer seems to be the reason for the impact Shakespeare prison stories have on me.
I taught a residency around a production set in a prison and the director explained his choice. He felt that the play’s worldview could only really still exist in the extremity of prison-life – that nowhere else in contemporary society had the rigid hierarchical structures or rivalries or factions. This makes me wonder if the Shakespeare work in prison isn’t so much about the power of Shakespeare to transform prisoners as the prisoners’ power to illuminate Shakespeare. Or maybe those two are one and the same.