In my early twenties I worked for a theatre company which toured American prisons. I discovered that prisons are places of natural, intrinsic theatre. “Everyone in here’s wearing a mask”, commented one inmate describing the need to put on a protective front while living in prison. The mask is, of course, the most ancient and universal theatrical symbol of all.
Shakespeare’s plays are constantly being read and performed inside.
The murder, madness, vengefulness and emotional extremes of Macbeth, Hamlet and Prospero are things prisoners know all too well. It's commonplace for prison teachers to say they get better commentary on Shakespeare from prisoners than from college students. And I will never forget a man performing in Macbeth in HMP Pentonville with such gusto it brought tears to my eyes. In that wild moment of self-expression, this young convict had paradoxically escaped incarceration.
Because prison is a place of the mind as much as a physical place.
This is what Shakespeare understands. His plays are shot through with references to the concept and psychology of imprisonment. For Hamlet, “Denmark's a prison”, a place of such intense surveillance that it drives him mad. In The Tempest, Prospero’s island is a prison where he can exert total control of the inhabitants and make them believe things which aren’t true. In King Lear prison becomes a place to retreat from the harshness of the world and live in a fantasy:
"Come, let's away to prison; We two alone will sing like birds I' th' cage"
Like Lear’s musical refuge, Prospero’s imprisoning island is also a place of imagination. And in prison some offenders have creative opportunities they’ve never had on the outside – opportunities to study, read and perform, to fabricate, to stitch and create.
When Hamlet says “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space”, he evokes the mind’s power to triumph over confinement and the paradoxical creativity that emerges from sorrow and from prison itself, he evokes the mind’s power to triumph over confinement and the urgent, live connection between Shakespeare and prison, which we’re now celebrating with two new Shakespeare Quote cushions chosen by Emma Thompson and Felicity Kendall.