Grandiose claims have been made for centuries about Shakespeare as an improving influence, a civilizing literature that will enlighten and ennoble its readers, with precious little evidence to support these theories, or even a good definition of what an improving influence might be. It is rare to find any study that takes a look at what effect of this sort Shakespeare can have, if any. Shakespeare Behind Bars, directed by Hank Rogerson, is one of these few, a documentary following the rehearsal process of a theatre group comprised entirely of prison inmates (with the exception of the director) as they gear up to a production of The Tempest.
The Tempest may not seem the most obvious play for a group of inmates to put on; when one thinks of criminals and Shakespeare, the mind automatically goes to Macbeth, Othello, perhaps Titus– what one critic once called the "tragedies of blood." But this is not the troupe’s first play; many of the actors are veterans of the program, and several of them will soon be coming up for parole. The choice was therefore made for the play that most concerns itself with something these inmates all require – forgiveness.
This is a unique cast: I know of no other production in which Prospero, for instance, is played by a man who killed his wife and managed to make it look like an accident for a full ten years, during which time he brought up their daughter on his own. To see him and the others grappling with their own issues through the lens of Shakespeare is a fascinating look at the power of literature and drama to offer ways into a person’s conscience, as well as an affecting one. There is raw emotion on display as the inmates discuss what has led them to jail, the courage of facing up to what they have done and accepting that they owe society a debt. What comes up again and again is the sense they have that forgiveness is not something that can be paid for, only something that can be given, and that before they can ask society to forgive them, they must manage to forgive themselves. They find in The Tempest starting points from which they can have this conversation, one that will hopefully lead them to the point where they can receive that grace.
Where their conversations lead them is especially fascinating. Like anyone engaging with Shakespeare, they interpret the text by their own lights. Particularly interesting, is their refreshing take on Caliban. For most of the past half-century Caliban has been seen only in the light of post-colonialism, being defined by his oppression and his reaction to it. Not once do the inmates mention the word "oppression," however; how they see Caliban – all of them – is as a newly-arrived prisoner who has not yet realized why he is imprisoned and that he is responsible for his own rehabilitation. They draw a distinction between convicts and inmates, the former being unregenerate criminals who once they are freed will soon be back in jail, the latter those who have accepted that they must try to change and are actively attempting to do so. All of the actors started out as convicts, and only slowly became the inmates they are; and they see that journey taking place in Caliban. It is a powerful testimony to the universality of Shakespeare’s themes.
How successful the program can be considered is a matter of opinion; few of the actors who go up before the parole board achieve parole; others are banned from the production for various infringements of the rules, not all of them even proven. Between the making of the documentary and the release of the DVD, one of the inmates we meet hanged himself with his shoelaces. But it is still heartening in many ways to see a poorly-educated inmate with two separate editions of the complete works of Shakespeare in his cell.
Most of the film is made up of interviews with the cast and director and views of the rehearsals, and little of it shows the final performance, but what is seen is highly interesting, a lesson in minimal props use – the opening storm, for instance, requires only sound effects and a model ship for Prospero to shake. The performances will admittedly never win any awards, but knowing what went into them gives them a depth one would not necessarily notice. And it does include what is without a doubt the funniest version of Caliban’s freedom song I have ever seen.
What the film cannot answer, of course, is whether there is something specific to Shakespeare that has this effect on the inmates, or whether any playwright might allow their development. There are after all many similar theatre programs in prisons throughout the world, and not all of them choose Shakespeare for their plays. But what it does prove is that there is nothing elitist about Shakespeare, that anyone can understand and appreciate his works, and that he can still touch and entrance audiences who know nothing about him and may have almost no education whatsoever. Shakespeare Behind Bars is evidence of Shakespeare’s continued relevance, and a good answer to the often-asked question of why anyone should still bother with him.
For further information see www.shakespearebehindbars.com.