Shakespeare’s Plays in Prisons: Forgiveness and Redemption

A fundamental part of acting out Shakespeare’s plays for imprisoned actors is gaining knowledge about the ways of the world and learning to better and more deeply understand themselves. By understanding themselves, prisoners are able to control their emotions to an extent that allows them to change their actions for the better. Some integral themes of Shakespeare’s plays that allow for people to learn about and better themselves are forgiveness, revenge, and redemption. These themes are especially strong in Macbeth and The Tempest, and this is what has allowed prisons to run educational Shakespeare programs like Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB), which produced the documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars directed by Hank Rogerson, and the program that created Mickey B, which was directed by Tom Magill, be successful and gain recognition for their positive impact on prisoners. These educational Shakespeare programs are programs in which prisoners are encouraged to work together with others to rehearse and put on performances of Shakespeare's plays. 

No matter what nationality prisoners are of, educating them before they leave prison is integral to their success of staying out of prison and reintegrating with society. Implementing educational Shakespeare acting programs in prisons on a wider scale could lead to large prison reform that could cause significantly lower return rates and significantly lower rates of violence within the prisons themselves. Especially in the corrupted and already overcrowded prison systems of the U.S. it is more important than ever to keep prisoners out of prison. Not only are prisoners oftentimes imprisoned for the wrong reasons or kept in prison too long, but the imprisoned are also gathering up debt and missing out on valuable parts of their lives and time with their families.

No matter how much they wish to do so, prisoners cannot go back in time and change the crimes they committed. Prisoners may have, like Macbeth before he decides to overthrow Duncan, been known as noble and honorable men (Macbeth, 1.2.69) before they committed their crime(s), but upon being incarcerated, they are viewed by society in light of the worst deed they have ever done, which can make prisoners feel worthless to the outside world (Shakespeare, 2005). Oftentimes prisoners feel remorse and look for forgiveness from society in order to find redemption. What prisoners come to realize is that forgiveness is not easily given by society. Thus, some prisoners may be tempted to exert revenge on the people that have trouble forgiving them. This can lead to more consequences from society and longer prison sentences.

 The beauty of Shakespeare’s plays lies deeper than the elegant structure of the language. As Curt Tofteland, founder of SBB said, Shakespeare understands “basic human behavior” much more than most other playwrights (Shakespeare). Shakespeare was not the first to tell the tales of his plays. His versions were simply the ones that stood out amongst all the other accounts of the same tales . Shakespeare’s insight to human emotion allows him to induce catharsis in actors and audience members alike. In prison, prisoners need an outlet for their emotions. Most of the time, prisoners are confined to staying in certain areas and doing certain activities. Prisoners are also encouraged to keep their emotions subdued. Prisoners releasing too much of their emotions could end up in a different wing or section or in solitary confinement, which most prisoners do not want and could possibly lead them to a longer sentence. Acting allows prisoners to have an emotional outlet without consequences for showing their emotions and physically contacting/embracing others (Shakespeare). Acting allows inmates to have time to be vulnerable. Inmates also learn how to communicate with others while acting (Khokhobashvili, 2015). Some prisoners spent so much of their lives high or drunk before entering prison that basic communication can be an issue for them.

Prisoners should not be defined solely by the word prisoner. They are everyday people who have taken a misstep or two in their lives that has led them down a different path than most of society. In SBB, Ron, prisoner number 14005, demonstrates how important it is for people outside of prison “to be able to forgive someone no matter what the situation is” (Shakespeare, 2005). The contrast between the morals in the Mickey B film performance of Macbeth and the morals in Shakespeare Behind Bars performance of The Tempest show different roads that people can follow to deal with their struggles with society.

Macbeth illustrates that ambition can be destructive if taken too far, which can lead to dire negative consequences that will impact the rest of the ambitious person’s life and may even lead to death as in the case of the Macbeths (Macbeth, 5.7.58-64; 5.5.16). Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both have “black and deep desires” that ultimately lead to their destruction (1.4.51). Macbeth too quickly turns to the idea of murder when the three witches tell him the prophecy that he “shal[l] be king” (1.3.51), and Lady Macbeth is even quicker to take Macbeth’s ambitions to the next level. She claims Macbeth is “not without ambition;” however, Macbeth does not have the “illness” in him to do what needs to be done to usurp Duncan (1.5.17-18). Therefore, Lady Macbeth decides to murder the king herself. It is important for prisoners to realize that people can in an “eye wink” do crimes or deeds “[w]hich the eye fears, when it is done, to see” (1.4.53).

Alternatively, The Tempest is about how seeking forgiveness is a better alternative than seeking vengeance. Prisoners can explore these ideas with the characters they play. Inmates can relate with their character’s characteristics and personalities while rehearsing their lines and use that to get in touch with their own emotions and struggles (Khokhobashvili, 2015). Vengeance was an easy path for both Macbeth (1.3.51) and Prospero (Tempest, 1.2.120) to take, but the difference between the two characters shows when Prospero takes the harder road and forgives his “enemy” (1.2.21). When Prospero forgives his brother, Antonio, he gains redemption, finding that “what strength” he has is finally his “own” (Epilogue.2). By exploring various plays, prisoners can explore different human struggles, which allow them to better understand themselves and how to fit into society (Khokhobashvili, 2015).

Though the two films, Shakespeare Behind Bars and Mickey B, only show educational Shakespeare programs in adult, all male prisons, the usefulness of acting out Shakespeare plays with prison groups to help educate them and prepare them for reentering society is just as important for juveniles and women. Most importantly, prison reform to allow acting can use Shakespeare’s plays as educational devices to break the cycle of prisoners staying outcasts from society. Prisoners should be educated of the consequences of having too much ambition, taking what they do not have, and seeking vengeance. Although much more difficult, obtaining forgiveness is much more rewarding.




Khokhobashvili, Public Information Officer II, Krissi. "Inmate Theater Program Teaches Communication, Expression." Inside CDCR. N.p., 5 May 2015. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.

Mickey B. Dir. Magill, Tom. ESC, 2007. Film.

Shakespeare Behind Bars. Dir. Rogerson, Hank. International Film Circuit, 2005. Film.

"The Norton Shakespeare": Shakespeare, William. "Macbeth." The Norton Anthology. 3rd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katherine Eisaman Maus, and Gordan McMullan. New York: W.W Norton, 2016. 2721-2773.  Print.

"The Norton Shakespeare": Shakespeare, William. "The Tempest." The Norton Anthology. 3rd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katherine Eisaman Maus, and Gordan McMullan. New York: W.W Norton, 2016. 3215- 3266.  Print.