Who Reads Shakespeare?

Who Reads Shakespeare?

During a recent road trip to New York, I listened to “Act V,” an episode of WBEZ’s This American Life with a mythical reputation as one of the best in the radio show’s long history. As an avid listener of the show, it was time to experience the episode myself.

“Act V” tells the story of “one of the most evocative productions of Shakespeare done anywhere in 2002,” not on Broadway or the West End, but at a high-security prison in eastern Missouri. Arranged by an organization called Prison Performing Arts, the prison staged one act of Hamlet every six months. “Act V” portrays the prisoners’ preparation for and production of Hamlet’s final climactic act.

So how can prison inmates, many of whom have never finished high school, stage a production of one of Shakespeare’s most philosophical plays? As we listen to the prisoners rehearse and transform into their characters, we challenge our own notions of who can read Shakespeare and why we read Shakespeare.

This American Life logoIn many ways, the inmates at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center are better suited to perform Hamlet than any traditional actor. Why? Because, in the words of reporter Jack Hitt, “this is a play about a man pondering a violent crime and its consequences performed by violent criminals living out those consequences.” Hamlet spends the play considering whether or not he will avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius, his father’s brother and murderer.

The inmate actors, many of whom are serving time for assault or murder, know this internal struggle all too well. “I have experience hurting someone – you know, to the point of their life may be in danger,” one inmate said. “I was a very confused and angry person. And you know, it escalated into. . . me shooting two people and leaving them for dead.”

But the act of interpreting and performing Hamlet together with fellow inmates allows the prisoners to grasp their potential and to see the world they inhabit in a new light. Brat Jones, one of the inmates playing Hamlet, says,

“This gives me an opportunity to see a society beyond what I’m used to. . . [It] lets me come back to something that I’m not familiar with. You know, let me get into something else. You know, that did open my eyes into getting into reading Sylvia Plath and Frost and Wadsworth and different other people.”

Inmate James Word recalls his own powerful experience onstage performing the role of Laertes in Act IV:

“[T]hat feeling for me was just – it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt. It was like the day my daughter was born. And it made me want to be better. Not just in acting. I mean, it just opened up a whole world for me, you know? Like, man, if I apply myself, I can pretty much do whatever I want.”

“Act V” is a living, breathing lesson in the power of shared reading. When we ask ourselves who reads Shakespeare, we think immediately of scholars in the university. But Shakespeare is not reserved for professors and students of literature. Often, it’s those we’d never imagine – like inmates in a prison – who bring the most profound and thoughtful insight to a text.

“Act V” demonstrates that novels, plays and short stories have abundant value far beyond the classroom. Reading and discussing a piece of literature can show you who you are. James Word threw himself into the role of Laertes; as a result, he better understood James Word. “Do you feel like you can be Laertes because so much of Laertes is inside James Word?” reporter James Hitt asks. “I am Laertes,” Word responds. “I am. I am.”

Images: John Austen, Hamlet, from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Selwyn & Blount), 1922, [Fair Use] via WikiArt.org

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Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan is a Development Communications Associate at the Cleveland Orchestra and a part-time member of the Books@Work team. She continues to write posts for our blog.