‘Gangsta’ Shakespeare

“It will be like catching butterflies in the dark,” a colleague of mine commented.

He was talking about my signing up to teach a course called “Shakespeare in Prison” at the Hampshire County Jail, in Northampton, Mass. It would have a total of 30 students, half inmates and half Amherst students, and focus on the sonnets and a handful of late plays, including King Lear and The Tempest.

“The endeavor is laudable but impractical,” my colleague added. “Language is an impediment. You will be disappointed.”

I understood his message. Reading, in and of itself, is a chore for the young. Add to it a 400-year-old text, and the result is likely to be mind-numbing.

To prepare for the task, I familiarized myself with other efforts at bringing the Bard to the incarcerated population, including listening to Episode 218 of This American Life, titled “Act V,” about staging the final act of Hamlet on death row at the high-security Missouri Eastern Correctional Center.

In truth, nothing could prepare me for the experience.

Inmates, at least the ones I convene every Wednesday afternoon for a couple of hours, appreciate Shakespeare in full, sometimes in more distilled fashion than do the students from the outside world. Prisoners get the literalness of the language, as well as its metaphorical dimension.

These inmates are experts in raw emotions. They constantly — and sincerely — thank Shakespeare for delineating them (revenge, treason, rivalry, forgiveness) with such precision. They also get his syntax in astonishing ways.

One inmate memorized a soliloquy from Hamlet (“Ay, so good-bye to you.—Now I am alone. O, what a rogue and pleasant slave I am!”), then chanted it as if it was a rap song. He sounded like Snoop Dogg.

Soon after, a group of students rehearsed one of the exchanges where King Lear, the Fool, and Kent are in the heath, in a storm. Their dialogue felt like a conversation among three homeless men fending off police abuse.

I was stunned. So often, the media portrays inmates as lost souls rotting in prison, folks barely able to concoct a plausibly correct sentence. The approach is condescending: This segment of society, we are told, is broken without repair.

Baloney! “The fool doth think he is wise. …”

Each student in the course is required to write several creative pieces: memoir, fiction, plays, or essays. These pieces are centered on a Shakespeare prompt, such as “To thine own self be true,” “Nothing can come of nothing,” or “Death, the undiscovered country.” The task is to tie the argument to something personal, that is, to use the Bard’s words as a springboard to examine one’s own life.

One inmate wrote a diatribe about patiently waiting to leave jail in order to get back to his long-standing heroin addiction. The language he used mixed street jargon with Shakespearean lines like “deprive your sovereignty of reason.”

Another has been turning his creative pieces into a long narrative about a bunch of school dropouts in Holyoke who do everything to evade adulthood. In their moral dilemma, they oscillates between instinct and idealism, between Ariel and Caliban.

Perhaps the most ambitious of all written assignments is by a twenty-something inmate who didn’t finish high school and claims never to have been asked to write anything of substance before. He rewrote the entire plot of the Danish Prince — arguably the favorite of all Shakespeare plays among inmates — as “a gangsta tragedy in the hood.” A masterful composition!

A week ago, I showed a few of these examples to my colleague who had expressed skepticism about my endeavor at the outset. I told him that not only is language not an impediment, but the inmates completely grasp, and feel inspired by, Elizabethan and Jacobean English. I told him my students had caught the butterflies in the night.


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