Want Meaningful Prisoner Reform? Try Shakespeare, Says Margaret Atwood

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.

Margaret Atwood: People are very conflicted about what prisons are for. Are they to punish people and make them have the most horrible awful life possible? Or are they to open up other chances for them or possibly a combo? Now we would all agree that some people really need to be in there because they are a danger to other people. If running around outside and quite frequently a danger to themselves it's also quite true that some of them probably don't belong in prisons at all, they belong in institutions that would do something about their mental challenges that they're having.

Prison systems in Hag-Seed, which is a revisit in Prospero's novel form of Shakespeare's play The Tempest, it's kind of inevitable that you would be writing about prisons because there are so many of them in the play. So revisiting the play involves writing about imprisonment, coercion of various kinds. And everybody in that play is in prison, constrained, unfree in some way for some part of the play except possibly Miranda who although she's on an island she can't get off of doesn't know anything better so doesn't feel that she's imprisoned. I might point out that on this island there's no butter. They toted up the things they had to eat and they were fairly limited so you can see why Prospero might want to get back to Malan his hometown simply to have something better to eat, but that's an aside.

So I did look at prisons and I was involved earlier in a protest in Canada against the closing of prison farms where people had been learning to interact with and care for beings other than themselves, namely animals, which can be very therapeutic. Over the years prisons have gone through many forms. Were they to put your political enemies in so you could ransom them later? Were they to put criminals in in order to punish them? Were they debtor's prisons where you oddly put people in who couldn't pay their debts thus making it impossible for them to pay the debts? Their relatives would usually have to bail them out if they had any relatives. Then in the 19th century, a very reforming age, we got the idea that prisons should be improving, that people should be improved by them that they should learn skills that would be useful to them later on instead of prisons that got called penitentiaries and then some of them got called reformatories so you're going to reform people.

And in 19th century prison systems in North America, which I read a bit quite a lot to write my novel Alias Grace, which concerns a famous real life murder case, they talk illiterate people to read and write so that they could read the Bible. So they were very instructional in that way. Where we are now is we don't know. And it doesn't make sense to talk about the prison system. So which prison where? How does it see itself? What is it being used for? And who is sent there? I was at Bard College a little while ago and they do run a college degree system in an adjacent prison. And you can get your degree and in fact a couple of people graduated at that time because I was there for graduation. And as for teaching Shakespeare in prisons, that has gone on more than you might think.

There's a very good book called Shakespeare Saved My Life, which is about a female college professor who went into a maximum security all male prison and taught Shakespeare. She had to sit in isle to do it. And the people learning were in these little cubicles, but she said that she got better papers from them than she got from her college students because those people had been there and done that. They had assassinated Duncan. Those were the kinds of crimes they were in for. So they were able to speak from personal experience about Shakespeare's accuracy in portraying the emotions, you know how you feel. Is this a dagger that I see before me? Apparently you do except these days it's a gun. So that kind of thing. There is a book by an Italian man who did teach The Tempest in a prison. Found it transformative for the people in it. They actually put it on. And when he came out he wrote this book about it and is now currently building out the program of putting on Shakespeare in prisons. It has been done. And if it hadn't been done I wouldn't have been able to write in the book the way I did because I didn't want it to be completely implausible, you know, something in it that would never happened.

It has happened and it does happen. And from what I hear about it it should happen more because a lot of the people who are in prison are in there because they have not had the advantage of an educational system, they have not been able to learn usable skills and skills that they can actually get a job with and therefore they have drifted, not all of them but a lot of them they get absorbed into these other ways of making money.

The other thing that literacy and literature do, particularly what we call literary fiction or plays like Shakespeare's, you learn empathy because you learn what it is like to be another person. You learn what it was like to feel the emotions of another person. And 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.

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.

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