“The day that I came knocking on his cell door,” Bates explained, “his life had been so desperate, so bleak for so many years that he was literally at the point of suicide. And so in that sense by Shakespeare coming along, presenting something positive in his life for maybe the first time, giving him a new direction, it did literally keep him from taking his own life.”
Is such redemptive artistic power special to Shakespeare? To an extent, yes. The themes and characters of Shakespeare’s plays—overflowing with ambition, greed, love, deceit, betrayal, and revenge—naturally have particular resonance for criminal convicts.
“Shakespeare’s tragic figures are very much imprisoned by both their circumstances and their choices,” says Scott Hayes, an associate dean in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Liberty University and a seasoned Shakespearean actor and director. “Prisoners connect deeply with that sense of imprisonment. The consequences of choices made by Shakespeare’s characters are tremendous, and the prisoners truly understand and connect to the power our choices have to reap tragic consequences.”
Imagine how well the convict understands when Hamlet says, “Denmark’s a prison,” or this line from Merchant of Venice: “Truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long.” Clearly, Shakespeare knows something of the rebel’s heart. It’s a marvel, observes Shakespeare Behind Bars founder Curt Tofteland, that his “head didn’t end up on a pike on London Bridge. Shakespeare was subversive, but he did it in such a way that allowed him to have a voice.” By creating complicated, three-dimensional characters and letting them voice their innermost thoughts in detail, Shakespeare’s dramas help prisoners to give voice to long unnamed aspects of their interior lives.
Of course, some of these qualities of Shakespeare’s works are true of most great literature. Cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley writes about the transforming power characteristic of fiction in general in Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. Oatley’s research showed that readers of fiction changed the way they saw themselves more than did readers of non-fiction. He theorizes that engagement with artistic writing results in “an identification effect” and “a transcendent effect.”
First, readers of fiction experience empathy for the protagonists and then “compare their own lives and decisions with those of the characters.” Second, readers are “taken out of themselves, out of their usual ways of being and thinking,” thus freeing up the “habitual structures of selfhood.” Literary language, with its metaphors and metonyms and indirection, is more than gratuitous rhetorical flourishes, Oatley explains. Literary language reflects “ways of thinking” that are replicated in the mind of the reader through the act of comprehension.