Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Shakespeare Behind Bars

Shakespeare Behind BarsAs I nurse my sore and purple toes, I've been reading haphazardly and watching films on Netflix.  One movie I especially want to share with you is the extremely moving Shakespeare Behind Bars.  This documentary tracks inmates of Kentucky's Luther Luckett maximum security prison as they prepare for a performance of Shakespeare's The Tempest.  It is a profoundly heart-wrenching and thought-provoking film which I highly recommend.

The inmates are brought together under a prison program run by an open-hearted teacher/facilitator who not only helps them understand Shakespeare's language and themes but explore their own identities and their own pasts.  The characters in The Tempest share a surprising amount with the prison inmates.  Like Prospero, many of the incarcerated men suffered from abuse or cruelty which led at least in part to the rage that allowed them to commit the crimes for which they were imprisoned. They too are isolated on an imprisoning island, removed from the outside world.  Just as Prospero must let go of his defense mechanisms in order to reintegrate into society. 

Many of the men involved in this production of The Tempest are facing parole hearings in their very new futures.  As they struggle to make sense of their anger and their guilt, as well as their ability to imagine themselves within the framework of humanity, they turn to the bard's words to help them grow.  What they eventually find through their work with the Shakespeare play is a script for redemption. 

As Prospero declares in his final lines,

As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.


  1. Inmates and Shakespeare seem so contradictory, but I recognize that that is my own prejudice shining through, so it sounds like this is a book I should read.

  2. I hope your toes are feeling better! I had put this movie in my queue on Netflix, and school was cancelled today (lots of snow and ice), so I might spend some time with it! Thanks for reminding me of it!

  3. Falaise: The film has really stuck with me these last couple of days. I find myself thinking about it far more than I usually do with movies.

    Trisha: It is a documentary, available through Netflix and probably other sources. Interestingly, I just discovered a book with the same title about women in prison putting on Shakespeare. Can't wait to look at it!

    Read the Book: My toes are quickly healing. I am SO glad we are not getting lots of snow and ice here in DC right now. Here's sending some warm rays your way. Can't wait to hear what you think of the film.

  4. There are a lot movies like this too, of course (prison, or inner city school, or what-not), and I never thought too much of it, until someone I knew who grew up in an inner city school and a terrible neighborhood made a joking comment to the effect of how one such was just another film about the nice lady who came to teach all the poor kids how to be rich white people. He was being facetious of course (and was actually quite culturally broad in his own interests), but the comment did point out to me that, in some sense, the way that we think of these kinds of movies isn't so different from, say, the way that a turn of the century British colonialist thought of the 'noble savages' - humans in need of the education that our superior brand of culture offers. This isn't to say kids shouldn't learn Shakespeare. Just something I've worked around in my head, since then.


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