Film Review: Shakespeare Behind Bars (2005)

This documentary looks at a program with that title that has prisoners tackle Shakespeare’s plays. The program began in 1998 and has spread to several prisons. Each year the inmates work on a single play, starting in the fall and rehearsing through the year before performing it the following spring, both for members of the community and for other inmates in their own prison and at other prisons. This documentary looks at the 2003-2004 year at a prison in Kentucky

I was a bit disappointed that the year that the film directors chose to make the documentary featured a production of The Tempest. This is a play that I have never read and had a bad impression about. I think it was because when I was in middle school, as part of English classes they used as a text a book called Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare. This book consisted of highly simplified synopses of the stories in a collection of plays, essentially just the plots. When read that way, The Tempest comes across as completely dopey, what with monsters and spirits and the like. As a young boy, the lasting impression for me was that I did not like the play, reinforcing the suggestion that one should be introduced to Shakespeare by seeing the plays performed and, failing that, reading the full text and discussing it. Reading synopses does not serve the plays well because the plots are largely just a framework, pegs on which to hang language and ideas. But having seen this film and listened to the inmates’ discussion of what it all means, I am now interested enough to want read it.

The documentary follows the inmates as they grapple with the play and its meaning and relate its message to their own lives. Interspersed with it are segments where the prisoners talk about the crimes that landed them in prison. One is startled by fact that these people who seem so genial, thoughtful, articulate, good-natured, and dedicated to acting also committed some heinous crimes. Despite that knowledge, when some of them go up for parole and are declined, one feels a genuine sadness because you feel that they have reformed. Apparently one year an inmate who was in a play went up for parole and was about to be granted it but told the parole board that he would like to have his release delayed so that he could see the play through to the end. So they deferred it by two months.

The program claims that its alumni have far lower recidivism rates (about 5%) than the national average (about 70%). One can see why. Working together on things like plays builds a sense of community and the many messages that they get from Shakespeare’s plays resonate with their own lives. For example, many of them comment on the fact that the characters in this play are trapped on an isolated island they cannot escape from, similar to their own plight of being locked up in a remote area and shut off from the outside world.

Here’s the trailer for the film.


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