What happens when Shakespeare goes to prison? His works humanize prisoners and open them up to reform in a way that the prison system fails to, says author Margaret Atwood.
In Margaret Atwood’s new novel Hag-Seed, the protagonist Felix loses his job as a theatre director and is exiled to teach in a prison. Exiled? You betcha. Atwood’s latest work is a re-telling of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
This is how Atwood has come to know these two seemingly at-odds subjects so intimately and, in this video, shows us where such strange bedfellows intersect.
First she asks the most fundamental question: what are prisons for? Are they to inflict punishment for wrongdoing? To teach a lesson? To keep the public safe? To correct someone who has walked dangerously off course? Each era in history has had its own motive, and in the 19th-century the emphasis turned to reform. "We got the idea that prisons should be improving," says Atwood, "that people should be improved by them; that they should learn skills that would be useful to them later on. Instead of prisons, they got called penitentiaries, and then some of them got called reformatories."
Reform got off to a good start, but the U.S. has drastically lost its way. The systems purpose is confused. Data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2005 to 2010 show that within three years of release, 67.8% of released prisoners were rearrested. The incarceration climate is clearly not conducive to a fresh start. Until more seismic shifts are made at a systemic level, there is one thing that can help prisoners – or rather one man: William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare's works have been taught in prisons, and some of it is well documented, for example the memoir Shakespeare Saved My Life, by Laura Bates, a college professor who went to a maximum security, all-male prison to teach the inmates stories by the Bard. Bates found that they related to the plays deeply, and the papers she got from them were better than the ones she got from her college students. Why? Because those men had lived Shakespeare’s brutal plot lines. Revenge, murder, sick bargains, madness, maiming: it spoke to them on a level many of us may (fortunately) never fully appreciate.
These stories also have a transformative effect on prisoners' empathy, because literary fiction has the power to firmly move you into someone else’s shoes. "If you've been in a very constricted sort of life in which your main idea has been just to keep yourself alive and keep going you often just don't think of what you're doing to other people and how they might feel," Atwood says. Shakespeare speaks to the incarcerated, and humanizes them in a way the prison system fails to.
Margaret Atwood's new book is Hag-Seed.