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This text has been submitted as an original contribution to cinetext on April 9, 2007.

Shakespeare Behind Bars: On Crime and Punishment, Literature, and Film Technology

Prison Days, Great Plays, Uncommon Praise

Shakespeare behind Bars

By Daniel Garrett

Visual art that is about more than one thing could beamong the richest works to think upon: and yet often films and videosare reduced to only one of their elements, such as the story, a moral,or film form.  With a video film documentary such as ShakespeareBehind Bars, a work about men in prison who put on a play, WilliamShakespeare’s “The Tempest,” and how that play inspires them to facefacts and feelings in their own lives, there is the opportunity not onlyto think about film—or film and video—and to think about film criticism,but also to think about the relationship of video to film, and therelationship of literature to film, and the uses of Shakespeare in film. The particular elements of the documentary ShakespeareBehind Bars, the men featured and their stories, are the beginning ofthe discussion, and their situation—their prison sentences, the natureof crime and punishment in society—is an important one, but that is notthe only area worth exploring.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the English writer ofpoetry, comedies, and tragedies, is for most writers of the Englishlanguage a high standard: and his range of ideas, characters, and themesare awe-inspiring.  Shakespeare provides a unique reference andresource.  His work stands behind much of modern storytelling, aprovider of heroes, plots, and symbols, an interpreter of socialexperience, a standard of artistry and excellence.  Is his worknaturally, inevitably, enriching?  Or must certain kinds of explorationsand requirements be met for his work to come alive, and work for us, ina significant way?

With the translation of a work, from one medium toanother, various kinds of questions arise: what is the essential part ofa work, its story and theme?  Its voice?  Its consciousness?  Itsmedium?  What must be translated, and what can be changed, and what canbe acceptably lost?

With the development of video and digital resourcesand techniques, there has been much talk about the challenges theyprovide to celluloid film—in terms of aesthetics, ease of work, andexpense.  Different people take on different aspects of the argumentregarding whether film might be dwarfed by these other technologies.

William Shakespeare has bequeathed to us characters,ideas, and stories with understood relationships and perceptiblemeanings.  The centuries have corroborated his insight and value.  It isfor us then to see if the created meaning, and the understood meaning,in his work correspond with or reflect what seems the meaning in thestories we tell and the way we live our lives: and the documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars is a good opportunity todo just that: and so, I think here about Shakespeare’s play “TheTempest,” about other, preceding films inspired by the play, about thedocumentary Shakespeare Behind Bars, and issuesof forgiveness, and a little about the technology that makes thedocumentary possible.

William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” 

William Shakespeare’s senses of character, oflanguage, of drama, of the complexity of the world, are all part of whatmakes his work rich and significant.  He speaks to different parts of ahuman being—and to different social concerns—at the same time: thephysical and the intellectual, the spiritual and the political, theaspirational and the practical.  To lose much of any of these elementsis likely to result in a loss of the Shakespearean atmosphere andmeaning.  William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” is whimsical anddisturbing, as it has comic scenes and tones, buffoonish behavior, theintroduction of spirits and gods, and at the same time features bluntdiscussion of betrayal, vengeance, and murder.  (I am referring to the1998 Signet Classic two-hundred and five page paperback version of theplay for reference, ISBN 0-451-52712-7.)  

“The Tempest” is a play in which family is—and isnot—important: it is important for the exiled duke and wizard Prosperoand for Alonso, the king of Naples, but not for Prospero’s brotherAntonio or the king’s brother Sebastian.  The play begins with a stormat sea, a storm overtaking a boat carrying Antonio, the usurper duke ofMilan, and Alonso, the king of Naples, their associates and attendants,and the boat’s crew.  They are returning from Tunis, where the king’sdaughter was married, to Naples.  The sea is nature, and an element oftransition and travel; and it is a great force, a distinct power.  On anearby island, not far from where the ship is being rocked, Prospero,the former duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda talk about the seastorm, and whether and why Prospero used his knowledge of supernaturalforces to conjure it.  The island, a place apart, lacks human societyand yet it is inhabited by spiritual forces, each of which haspersonality and power so that the island is not barren.  (One could see those spiritual forces as the elementsof human personality that become more pronounced in isolation.) Prospero has educated his daughter, and she knows many things but notwho she is—and she has vague memories of once being taken care of byothers.  In beginning to tell Miranda who she is, in beginning to answerher long-frustrated questions, Prospero recounts a tale of his brother’sbetrayal while Prospero, a beloved duke neglecting his official duties,studied obscure—now useful (magical)—texts.  (There is a lesson in howneglect of power can lead to its appropriation by others.)  Books canteach a man to go beyond his own nature; and thus Prospero has donethis: he has found magic, and assumed a godlike authority.  Hearing ofProspero’s brother’s betrayal, Miranda says, “Good wombs have borne badsons” (page 11).  (The plural “sons” is interesting.)  

Prospero, with the spirit Ariel’s help, has caused thetempest, a windy sea storm, and a shipwreck, bringing Prospero’s brotherwithin Prospero’s vengeance.  Why does Ariel help?  We learn that Arielhad been imprisoned in a tree by a witch, and that Prospero freed himfrom that—and Ariel has been freed into Prospero’s service.  Caliban isalso a servant of Prospero, of a lower degree: a slave.  It is Calibanwho does all the hard labor on the island for Prospero and his daughter. When they had first met, Caliban had loved Prospero, had taught him theisland’s secrets, and Prospero had valued Caliban, even teaching himsome of the ways of civilization, such as language, but Prospero’sattitude to Caliban changed once Caliban tried to turn his sexualattention to Miranda.  (Caliban imagined peopling the island with theiroffspring.  Caliban’s simplicity—his openness to love and lust andraging resentment—are actually fairly recognizable as human traits.  Itis his lack of control that is dangerous.)  Caliban says to Prospero,“You taught me language, and my profit on’t/ Is, I know how to curse”(21); and Caliban does spend much of the play wishing various ills onProspero.  (Caliban’s wishing, unlike Prospero’s, has no power.)  

After the shipwreck of her father’s perceived enemies,in which those on the ship are separated from each other, Miranda andthe king’s son Ferdinand meet: each is beautiful and noble to the otherand is first mistaken by the other for a god or spirit; and Ferdinandproposes marriage.  Love for them is the recognition of the highernatures of each other, a recognition that inspires affection, humility,and sacrifice.  Prospero objects to Ferdinand’s proposal; and Mirandadefends Ferdinand to her father, who gives Ferdinand chores to perform.

On the other side of the island are Antonio and theking and the king’s brother Sebastian and a fellow traveler namedGonzalo, who soon after landing on the island, when talking, imaginesthe island as a place without rules: a vision that Gonzalo couldimplement only if he had the power to do so, power over others. Gonzalo, described in the notes before the play as “an honest oldcouncilor” (page 2), imagines a place with “no name of magistrate;/Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,/ And use of service, none;contract, succession,/ Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;/ Nouse of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;/ No occupation; all men idle, all;/And women too, but innocent and pure;/ No sovereignty” (33).  Withoutboundaries (“bourn”) or trade (“traffic”) or agriculture (“tilth”) oreducation (“letters”), it would be a society without much civilization:it is Gonzalo’s paradise, his utopia.  Antonio and Sebastian mock him. Antonio talks to Sebastian about the probable demise of the king’s sonFerdinand and the rights of succession should the king die: and Antoniosuggests the murder of Alonso so Sebastian can succeed Alonso as king,thereby basing one man’s fortune on another’s misfortune.  Sebastian iswilling.  It is stunning how easily the prospect of murder is suggested,considered, accepted.  One of the themes the play implies—asks of us—isthe matter of human limits: what are they?  Can a man decide his ownfate, and the fate of others, beyond common moral judgment?  (Antoniohas made decisions out of ambition, and his brother Prospero out ofvengeance: each accepts the probability of harming others.  The strandedaristocrats will be taunted, bespelled.  A vision of a feast will appearto the aristocrats—and disappear; and Ariel will appear as a harpy whoinsults the aristocrats, accusing them of crimes.)  

Meanwhile, elsewhere, Caliban offers his subjection,his service, to two other shipwrecked men, Triculo and Stephano, wholack distinction, which Caliban cannot see.  Caliban imagines having anew master and reclaiming the island, though the two men Triculo andStephano see Caliban as a monster, which they call him repeatedly to hisface.  Caliban will suggest the men murder Prospero.

Ferdinand performs the tasks set by Prospero: they area test of character and commitment; and Ferdinand confesses his love toMiranda again.  Prospero sees how Ferdinand behaves, and how Mirandareturns his affection, and he blesses their union, adding a warning—uponthe threat of a curse—not to have sex before marriage.  In all thatintense feeling, with all this sense of right and wrong, and belief ininhuman but powerful spirits, could Shakespeare besuggesting—intentionally, or unintentionally—the root of religion?  

Prospero refers to Caliban as a devil: “A devil, aborn devil, on whose nature/ Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains,/Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost!” (71).  (Caliban’s mother wasa witch, his father a demon: that is specified, as is Caliban’s bestiallook, though his parents might have been any strange and transgressivecouple and he might have been anyone who looked and acteddifferently—though I think it is important that Caliban, the blending ofthe human and inhuman, the savage and the civil, the dangerous and thepathetic, should be so other.  He is anembodiment of the violation of human limits.)  

The spirit Ariel comments on the discomfort of theshipwrecked aristocrats, suggesting sympathy: and Prospero says, “Therarer action is in virtue than in vengeance” (75).  Prospero is nowwilling to forgive, and contemplates burying his magic staff anddrowning his magic book.  Prospero goes out to meet the shipwrecked, andAlonso, who dominated Milan after Antonio became duke, asks Prospero’spardon.  (Antonio and Sebastian do not.)  Prospero, while recognizingthe offenses that have harmed him, speaks words of forgiveness. Ferdinand and his father are reunited.  Prospero claims Caliban as hisown.  Ariel is given a last assignment and freed.  What will happen toProspero?  Following his daughter’s anticipated wedding to Ferdinand inNaples, he says, “retire me to my Milan, where/ Every third thoughtshall be my grave” (86).  With his daughter well placed, and his needfor vengeance resolved, Prospero is ready to die.

Prospero’s change of mind seems to occur followingAriel’s affirmation of Prospero’s power over his enemies and Ariel’sobservation of their discomfort.  Still Prospero’s change can seemarbitrary.  It’s fascinating how Shakespeare’s suggestion of motive canmeet the rigors of logic and sense and still indicate human mystery.

Shakespeare on Film 

William Shakespeare is a formidable presence infilms—film scholars might think of Laurence Olivier’s HenryV, Joseph Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar, andKurosawa’s Throne of Blood; and others mightthink of more recent films such as Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet,Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, OliverParker’s Othello, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, and Julie Taymor’s Titus.  To decide to take a Shakespeare story asthe subject of a film is to affirm his value, to borrow some of hissignificance, to challenge one’s own sensibility and talent to rise tohis level, and to challenge one’s audience’s comprehension andappreciation (intelligence and taste), and to risk pretension andboredom and incompetence.  To change an element in Shakespeare’s play“The Tempest”—to change a motivation, an action, a statement—can be tochange—to subvert, even to eliminate—meaning.  

Judith Buchanan’s two-hundred and eighty-eight pagestudy of the interpretation of William Shakespeare’s work on film,published (ISBN 0-582-43716-4) by Pearson Longman last year, in 2005,discusses such films from the silent era to now.  Buchanan sees thethemes of Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” as including exploration,speculation about the New World (America), power, and colonization; andhow the play has been seen has much to do with whatever is going on insociety at the time.  Shakespeare gave his island some of theassociations his contemporaries attached to the new world (the phrasebrave new world occurs in the play, a phrase that can refer also tomodern life).  Public and personal issues can be found in the play. “Despite its cultural versatility, however, TheTempest cannot be cut loose completely from its origins.  It dramatisescontemporary debates from the early seventeenth century aboutexploration, the New World, political and dynastic schemings, the ethicsof colonialism, the role of language-learning in the establishment ofempire.  It gives expression to topically-charged fantasies about how tobuild the perfect society and how to redeem society from its own worstinclinations,” states Buchanan (Shakespeare onFilm, page 151).  

Judith Buchanan’s Shakespeareon Film discusses several treatments of “The Tempest,” such as DerekJarman’s 1979 film The Tempest, Paul Mazursky’s1982 film Tempest, and Peter Greenaway’s 1991film Prospero’s Books.  (I have seen only thelast: so my judgments here are informed by Buchanan’s arguments anddescriptions; and my judgments can be only provisional, not final.)  ForJarman, critical aesthetics and financial constraints influenced hisinterpretation, which presented Prospero as the dreamer of the play,with the dream as a nightmare of fear rather than a fulfillment ofprivate wishes.  “Jarman’s Prospero has only an erratic control over hisworld.  The storm alarms him, Ariel unnerves him and Miranda deceiveshim,” observes Buchanan (163).  Jarman’s interpretive changes include anovert insistence on a homosexual reading of the play, so that Calibanrepresents Prospero’s repressed homosexuality, and Caliban’s sexualityis seen as liberating to the other characters, a reading with whichBuchanan is sympathetic.  “Initially, Caliban is the only sexuallysuggestive and overtly camp influence on the island.  Gradually,however, he has a widening circle of influence, as his earthy enjoymentof his own sexuality is reflected in increasing numbers of places byincreasing numbers of people” (165).  I am not sympathetic to Jarman’sinterpretation as Buchanan reports it.  For one, in Shakespeare’s play,Prospero’s disaffection for Caliban grew after Caliban wanted Mirandafor sex.  For another, the sexual atmosphere renders the entire subjectof the play a private one, psychological and physical, whereasShakespeare’s play had a much wider range of concerns, including thecontemplation of various forms of power.  It is the multiplicity oftemperaments and values in Shakespeare’s work that is part of hisdistinction.  Jarman’s interpretation and Buchanan’s approval of itseems an unfortunate triumph of the “experimental” and the “politicallycorrect,” each of which has the potential to embrace genuine thought andsympathy—or their opposites: substituting image, sensation, rhetoric,and rootless speculation for informed and significant thought.  In whatis seen as avant-garde or experimental work, a betrayal of logic andsense, and of original intentions and established motives and values, isoften celebrated as radical invention—and in liberal discourse intendedto be politically sensitive, politically correct, especially regardingminority populations and viewpoints, various transgressions aretolerated, and even supported, though they may travesty logic, sense,and taste: and those two profoundly anti-intellectual biases toward theexperimental and the politically correct seemed to have been combined inJarman’s film and its reception.  Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is aboutfamily, love, culture, ambition, power, vengeance, spiritual forces, andforgiveness, and the Prospero we meet in that play has control of almostall within his realm, and that is not so in Jarman’s film.  Jarman’sfilm is presented as Prospero’s dream, and Buchanan says, “Prospero’sdream becomes increasingly saturated in gay images as the plot continuesto elude his firm control” (166).  

Paul Mazursky’s comic and contemporary treatment, Tempest, is one Buchanan finds fault with though,as she describes it, it seems more understandable to me than Jarman’sfilm.  Buchanan finds, “From Mazursky’s attempt to coax the play intosome degree of compatibility with his own cinematic preoccupations, Tempest emerges by turns minutely attentive to,and extravagantly negligent of, its Shakespearean precursor” (168). Buchanan asserts that Mazursky invokes rather than presents the play inhis interpretation, which makes the island one of self-chosen exile,inspired by a wife’s sexual betrayal rather than a brother’s usurpationof position and power.  That reduces the implication of power’sseduction and use in the film.  The island itself is considered apossible alternative, another way to live, though in the end a return tocity life will be more suited to the lead characters.  Caliban is now alocal Greek island man (called Kalibanos, and played by Raul Julia, thePuerto Rican actor, with the changes in character and the castingreflecting consciousness of western history and the west’s relation toother and poorer peoples).  “As many stage Calibans have been over thepast three decades (although no other screen Calibans), Kalibanos is onoffer here as an exploited, displaced native of specific and knowableorigin,” writes Buchanan (170).  Caliban might be read as a third worldfigure.  I understand that interpretation, the political allegory,though the representation of a bestial figure as a third world figureseems questionable to me.  People in the third world may have been readas bestial by westerners but that does not mean they actually werebestial.  Caliban might be read also as an emblem of a Europe nowsubject to American economic, military, and political power.  The film’spresentation is interesting, provocative, and yet may be toonarrowing—it is relevantly political but lacks the broader philosophicaland spiritual resonances that Shakespeare’s Caliban has.  Buchanancontinues, “Where Shakespeare displaced European courtiers to a spacethematically and poetically evocative of the new World, Mazurskydisplaces rich Americans to an island in the Old World inhabited by onelone European.  Thus the East to West Renaissance colonialism of theAmericas that obliquely comes under scrutiny in the Shakespeare play isinverted in the film” (170).  The film, in which Prospero takes the nameof Phillip, contains a comment on colonization, and the possibility ofidealizing and transforming self and other.  Buchanan writes,“Mazursky’s film deliberately queries the premises upon which aUtopianism may be developed, and repeatedly exposes as hollow Prospero’sclaims to have built Paradise on the island.  Everything about theisland—from its stones to its personnel—is expected to assist Phillip inindulging his dream.  It is Kalibanos’s refusal neatly to exemplify thepastoral purity that Phillip wishes upon him that reveals most clearlythe romantic inadequacy of the dream” (172).  (Doesn’t this film stillsound as if it is more honestly related to Shakespeare than Jarman’sfilm?)  However, Mazursky’s attempts at interpretive realism—Buchananinsists—seem to diminish what occurs in the story, turning a story withsocial resonance into too personal a story, one about individuals ratherthan forces.  “The film emasculates much of the dramatic materialinherited from the Shakespeare play by trying to render the actionplausible in a modern world.  Phillip is presented as a believably realman—weak, fallible, insecure.  He is accompanied by his believably realdaughter, Miranda—obstreperous, pubescent, bored—and by a nearlybelievable real local, Kalibanos—opportunistic, materialistic,sympathetically engaging” (173).  What a terrible problem:believability.  The film’s concept of Phillip (Prospero) may bequestionable (Buchanan’s description of him makes him seem both willfuland weak: which inscribes something from Shakespeare and attachescontemporary assumptions about personality).  The film’s apparentrejection of public concerns in favor of personal concerns also begs thequestion of the disproportionate meaning most people now—inthe late twentieth century and early twenty-first century—give to theirprivate lives: don’t we see the private as more important than thepublic (and more important partly because it is more controllable); andif this is so, isn’t Mazursky’s interpretation, though it does notexactly replicate Shakespeare, in tune with Mazursky’s own time?  Wouldthe story of betrayal have been better, or more accurate, had itoccurred within a political dynasty, a corporation, or within a circleof European aristocrats, rather than within an American marriage? Possibly, but would it resonant as much today?  Probably not.  Thematter is certainly worth more thought; and it may be a problem, acultural problem, larger than a single director can manage.

In Peter Greenaway’s 1991 film Prospero’sBooks, starring John Gielgud as Prospero, Prospero is not a dreamer buta writer of what occurs, mouthing various characters’ lines.  “In fact,Greenaway configures Prospero as a scholarly Renaissance doge, anamalgamation of Shakespeare’s Prospero and Shakespeare himself (and amore distant allusion to the creative presences in the film of bothGreenaway and Gielgud as well), composing “The Tempest” and scriptinghimself into his own play as its central powerful protagonist” (174),Judith Buchanan clarifies and speculates.  Greenaway’s film—which Irecall as abstract, beautiful, cool, and full of images and ideas (JohnGielgud’s aged and intelligent face gave Prospero much of hisauthority)—explores Prospero’s library, his reading influences, thethings that shaped his mind and character.  Buchanan notes, “The film isstructured around a series of non-Shakespearean interpolateddescriptions of twenty-four books, descriptions which puncture theprogress of the Shakespeare drama” (175).  When the moment offorgiveness occurs, Prospero breaks not his magical staff but hiswriting quill—and thus the drama is driven toward not a moment offorgiveness but toward a moment of giving up control.  Prospero freeshimself and his characters by giving up authorship.  (As with Jarman’sinterpretation—this is one that also might be considered avant-garde orradical—the meaning that is imposed seems to go against logic and sense. The meanings that are imposed, in the Jarman film and the Greenway, interms of Prospero’s motive in one and his act in another, seem trivial. What is admirable or wonderful about life as an orgy, or a creatorgiving up creating?)

In her book covering twentieth-century filminterpretations of great theatrical literature, Shakespeareon Film, Judith Buchanan notes, “Over the course of the century,Prospero’s island, as presented in film interpretations, has becomedecreasingly a geographical space in which external conflicts may beplayed out between people, and increasingly apsychological space in which internal conflicts may be played out within one character” (178).  It may be time toask what has been lost.  In Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Prospero seeksthen gives up vengeance, seeing the virtue of a rare compassion andforgiveness, and he finds a way for his daughter to have happiness andwealth, and himself is able to return to a city he loves: he and hisdaughter rejoin human society.  There is in that not only art but atransmission of wisdom.

Rogerson and Spitzmiller’sdocumentary Shakespeare Behind Bars

Shakespeare Behind Bars, afilm by writer-director Hank Rogerson and producer Jilann Spitzmiller,with cinematography by Shana Hagan and music by James Wesley Stemple (itwas edited by Victor Livingston), is set in the Luther LuckettCorrectional Complex in Kentucky, a prison that houses more thanone-thousand men though it was built for four-hundred and eighty-fivemen.   The documentary was shot on a Sony DSR570 camera (DVcam 16 x 9)and edited from about one-hundred and seventy hours of footage.  Thelook of the video film has dimension: the rooms and other locations wesee seem to contain height, width, angles, volume; and they seem to bespaces we can walk into and not merely pretty surfaces (they do not looklike paintings or photographs: we do not look at them, but into them). The documentary Shakespeare Behind Barsfeatures the visiting and volunteer theater director Curt Tofteland’swork with prisoners in the production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” aplay about family, age, loyalty, vengeance, and forgiveness./p>

The moving picture ShakespeareBehind Bars follows a year in the life of the prisoners and the play’splanning and production.  The documentary shows how the men—who havecommitted robbery, rape, and murder—come to see their reflections in theplay’s characters, reflections that cause contemplation and even allowmoments of insight.  (Tofteland has worked with prisoners for aboutfourteen years, and almost exclusively with Shakespeare; and Toftelandsees human behavior as consistent between Shakespeare’s time and now. Tofteland’s comparison of then and now is similar to Gonzalo’scomparison in the play of Renaissance Tunis to ancientCarthage—historical parallels of personality and activity.)  There aremoments when the prisoners behold their own experience and see againwhat it has cost them, their victims, and their friends and families,when they see what they imagine the meaning of their experience to be. It is a privilege to be able to share those visions of men whose livesare otherwise confined and controlled.  In her March 10, 2006 New York Times review, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote,“The filmmakers, Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller, encourage us tomarvel at the transformative power of art.  In ShakespeareBehind Bars, the most restricted people in society find freedom inperformance and release in words.”  That seems very cavalier, veryoptimistic, to me: there is still a lot of constriction and tormentvisible in the faces of the men, in their voices, in their lives. Writing for the internet publication,Patricia Freeman may have come closer to the film’s purpose andachievement when she said that the work and men within it “force viewersto consider extreme states of our human existence and to reconcile howboth society and man struggle to embrace felony and felicity, reproachand redemption, vice and virtue, punishment and pardon” (in an articleavailable November 22, 2005: I first saw the article March 10, 2006; andsaw it again September 6, 2006).

Early in the documentary, the warden says that prisonshould make a difference: he believes in rehabilitation, and the prisonhas more than sixty educational programs, with the theater program beingmerely one of them. “I’m a warden who hates prison,” he says.

In Shakespeare Behind Bars, wesee and hear actors’ discussions, rehearsals, set building, and aspectsof human life and prison life, such as eating and laundry detail andbody checks for weapons by guards.  Although we do not see the prisonersperform all of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” their discussion of thecharacters and relationships in the play—and their connection of thosecharacters to themselves—reinscribes the depth and the importance of theplay.  The play is what the men are thinking about, feeling, doing—andthe play is what we see through them.  (If prison is one form, the playis another, and the documentary we see one more: a form within a formwithin a form.)  That the men can see Shakespeare through their owndifficulties—and that Shakespeare can see them through some of thesedifficulties—is an affirmation of the playwright and the players: and anaffirmation that is not simple nor perfectly cheering.  

The film’s and play’s cast of characters includeLeonard as Antonio, Sammie as Triculo, Hal as Prospero, Red as Miranda,and Big G as Caliban.  We meet a longtimer, there for twenty years:Sammie.  Meeting him is interesting as he is articulate, has beenparticipating in rehabilitation programs, and has a job lined up forwhen he is freed.  Sammie recounts his past: he had suffered sexualabuse, and felt rage; and as a man he became involved with a woman whohad what he describes as an abusive, demeaning nature, and they had avolatile relationship—he felt inadequate—and in the midst of one oftheir arguments he strangled her.  There are tears in his eyes as herecounts that.  What are the tears of a murderer worth?  Are justice andforgiveness possible?  We then see Sammie in rehearsal.  He is not atfirst bringing the appropriate emotion to his scene—and he iscriticized, and once criticism makes him aware of his choices andtechnique his theatrical expression improves.  Can his artisticexploration mean anything in light of his past?  What does moral errorhave to do with timeless art?

“Shakespeare would have adored this group—theaterpeople used to be scandalous,” says the play’s director Curt Tofteland. It’s mentioned that “The Tempest” with its theme of forgiveness is anappropriate one for the assembled actors, and that several of the bard’splays have to do with transgression and the difficulty offorgiveness—“Othello” and “Titus”—and that they lead to “The Tempest,”which takes place on an island—and a prison is like an island.  We learna bit about the play and its lead character: the character ofProspero—whose power was usurped, who was banished; and who hasresources of magic that bring him new power—causes a shipwreck. Prospero will be played by Hal, who has a pleasant face—handsome,responsive, and even wise—and who comments on new regulations in theprison by saying, “New rules mean new restrictions.”  Hal also doesprison journalism, which includes writing about changes in rules.  It isa surprise to hear that he is in prison for killing his wife—though weknow this is a prison, the film is full of such shocks: human beings,not monsters, commit crimes.  Hal says that his childhood family wasfull of silences and resentments and his wife was like his mother.  Hethinks not talking, not being able to communicate, landed him in prison. It is not the first time we hear or see how ordinary anguish,confusion, and pain led to something awful.

One of the actors, the prisoner Leonard, a man with areflective manner and somewhat sensitive face, a man whose crime will bean unpleasant shock, just the opposite of the decency such a mannersuggests, says that Antonio, his character, is a villain who does notget what he deserves (severe punishment, I imagine).  Leonard describesAntonio as a pompous ass and says those kinds of characters are alwaysfun to play.  He admits that he himself has sometimes been arrogant.  Hesays he has received a fifty-year sentence.  What could he have done? Leonard says, “If there’s no forgiveness—there’s moral anarchy.”  (Onecould substitute the word justice for forgiveness.  Is Leonard consciousof such substitutions?  Is he making them intentionally?)

One man does laundry and practices the lines ofCaliban, Big G (Big G is frighteningly large): he says that Caliban is asavage and he has to regress to play him; and he says that when he wasyounger he did not understand choices—and made bad choices, such asselling drugs.  He thinks he was, and Caliban is, like many prisoners: asavage.  He says this rather honestly and pleasantly: and one has adifferent sense of what it means to be a savage: a lack of understandingof choices, a lack of thought, a failure of human imagination, anabsence of empathy, an intolerance for (an inability to manage) conflictand pain.  One develops a monstrosity not of look or manner but of mindand spirit.  (Society’s limited language for—and limited provision ofpublic forums for—discussion of male vulnerability, especially when thatvulnerability has no practical value, may be a large part of theproblem.)  Caliban is described by the director as angry; and it is saidthat Caliban is hurt, not self-consciously monstrous.  We learn that theactor Big G, at twenty-one, had a shootout with the police and killed apolice officer.  “To tell the truth is hard,” says Big G: “I used tothink acting was lying.”  Prospero, who tried to teach Caliban, saysthat nurture cannot replace Caliban’s nature.  Caliban, the child of awitch and a demon, looks beastly and is half-civilized.  Is Caliban ableto be transformed?  Caliban ends the play after plotting Prospero’smurder, still in Prospero’s power, and promising to seek grace.

Some of the prisoners, such as Hal, are usuallyperceptive: they would please a literature professor.  Mothers are oftenmissing in Shakespeare, Hal remarks, before comparing his own love forhis daughter with Prospero’s affection for his daughter Miranda.  Halsays Miranda gave Prospero a reason to live.  Then we learn that theslim, smooth, brown-skinned young man, Red, who will be playing Miranda,had a white father; and we will learn later that Red is bisexual. (Red’s own concerns with father and gender shadow his performance inthe play as a woman with a powerful father and an identity she is tryingto decipher.)

The documentary—showing us likable people recountingmostly dislikable transgressions—returns us to Leonard as Antonio: “Asyou from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.” But that quotation is actually a borrowing by Leonard of Prospero’slast lines in the play.  Leonard talks about redemption with tears inhis eyes.  I think it is at this point that he says that all of us needto be redeemed in some way.  (Isn’t it true: isn’t redemption a commonhuman dream, whether or not we have transgressed or transgressedseriously?  To have our lives matter, our efforts made meaningful?) Then, Leonard, whose sentence is fifty years, is asked why he is inprison: “I sexually abused seven girls, the worst thing I’ve ever done.” I would hope so.  Leonard says he wants to undergo treatment and beparoled, that he wants to live honorably, make amends, and redeem hislife, so he’s not remembered for the worst thing he’s done.  “The peoplewho need mercy the most deserve it the least,” he says.  How cansomeone’s mind rise so high and hands reach so low?  (“If these guysreally are good actors—and, truth be told, a few appear trulytalented—are they playing a part while they justify themselves?” askedJoe Leydon in his online January 21, 2005 Sundance-related Variety magazine review, published in printJanuary 24, 2005.)  Watching the documentary, and seeing and hearingsomeone such as Leonard, is like trying to figure out a puzzle: but thepuzzle is one of human mystery, and it may be unsolvable.  Or maybe not. Suddenly, there are rumors and gossip about Leonard, who is beingtransferred to a maximum-security facility.  Leonard was looking atsomething on computer—probably child pornography—that got him intotrouble.  Someone, Rick, replaces Leonard as Antonio, and Rick claimsgratitude for the creative opportunity: how deep does his gratitude go;and can it replace his habits?  Rick says that as soon as he was offeredShakespeare he quit his nefarious activity.  (I understand thetemptation—boredom, unmet needs, anger—but it is a kind of absurditythat one would be in prison, in punishment for one’s past acts, and evenin prison would continue to act badly.  I think the word for that isincorrigibility.)  Rick tells his story: he killed two of his personalacquaintances who had themselves killed Rick’s stepfather, and Rickreceived two life sentences without parole.  (We will learn later in thefilm that Rick violates one of the prison rules—by getting a tattoo,thereby interrupting his participation in the play and inconveniencingthe other men.)

The documentary’s return to men we have already met islike the unpeeling of layers; or maybe the adding of layers, since welearn things we could not know, or be sure of, otherwise.  In returningto the play’s Prospero, Hal, we learn that in junior high school hesuspected his own homosexuality, but he entered Christian service andmarried.  However marriage—or sex in marriage—“opened a sexual can ofworms.”  (How’s that for metaphor?  For phallic imagery, lack ofcontrol, and revulsion?)  Hal started having clandestine sexualencounters with men and the tension in him and in his marriageincreased.  He and his wife had a daughter, and he suspected his wifewas pregnant again.  He says his wife started acting like his mother: “Inever knew how to handle my mother’s pain.”  Hal cries—and then he sayshe dropped a hair dryer into his wife Lisa’s bath, electrocuting her,which seemed an accident, and was believed an accident by others for tenyears.  It is the coldness of the act that is shocking: so unlike whathe seems to be.  Did prison change him; allow him more reflection andsensitivity?  But how does one explain the coldness of his wife’smurder?  Hal will describe being pained by his part as Prospero: it iscausing him to think and feel much.

The doors to love and sex have been opened wider: andthe next opened door is when we learn that the actor who plays Miranda,Red, is bisexual; and he also says that quick love is not hisexperience.  Someone else—an actor playing Ferdinand—says he fallsquickly.  In “The Tempest,” Miranda and Ferdinand, Prospero’s daughterand the prince, fall quickly in love but Prospero tests him beforeblessing their union—and issuing a threat should they have sex beforemarriage.  (It would be an invasion of privacy to learn more about whatthe men do for sex in prison, but it would be interesting to know howthey think of the emotions and ethics of that part of their lives.)  Redand Hal are friends; and Red mentions how controlling Hal can be.  Halthinks Red is working out his frustrations with his father on Hal.  Itis scary how disfiguring family relations are: how haunting.

Advice to actors: Try to create truth in the moment—ifyou can’t, move on to the next moment.  The men become more intimatewith their parts.  They compliment and complain about each other.  (’s Patricia Freeman thought thefilm failed to explore fully conflicts between the prisoners.)  Thereare dress rehearsals.  A rap, begun in fun, has been incorporated intothe play.  The play is on, and visitors—family and friends—come; andthere is communal cheering, and a standing ovation.  (It would have beeninteresting to have interviewed family and friends for theirperspectives on the prisoners and the play.  More than interesting,useful for perspective: before the crimes that brought the men toprison, did the men commit reckless errors then show great remorse?  Dothe viewers see the play as anything but “play”—or do they see it aswork, art, or confession?)  The play is performed for fellow prisonersand at other prisons.  (There is “no denying the [picture’s] overallimpact as a compelling study of art as a source of transcendence,”published Variety’s Joe Leydon in January 2005,but is what we see transcendence?  Or is it simply reflection andconfirmation: aren’t most of the men who and what they were, and wherethey were, when we met them?  Patricia Freeman wrote, “In the end,Rogerson’s film reaches a paradoxical yet profound conclusion.  He isable to offer the audience hope, but he never allows us to forget theprisoners’ despair.”)

Sammie, who had been sexually abused and who killedhis woman lover in an argument, supervises a prison computer lab.  Hewas twenty-six when locked up (he is obviously middle-age).  He isworried: will he get parole?  If he does get parole, what will he belike on the outside?  The warden will say that when and how the menleave form the prison’s product: and “they can put us out of business ifthey don’t come back.”  One man, after twelve years, Howard, is rejectedfor parole; and Sammie cries when he hears the news.  Is Sammie thinkingof himself?  (Did Howard’s victim—or an associate of Howard’svictim—protest his possible release, refuse forgiveness?  Is the paroleboard one of justice or vengeance—acting like harpies of accusation?) Sammie goes through his personal story again: he says that he shot aman, and then got rid of the gun.  He thought his associates were theproblem, and got rid of his friends.  Then, he killed his woman lover. He was forced to ask, What is wrong with me?  “I’ve taken something Icannot give back,” he says.  Sammie’s tears reflect the depth of hisunderstanding and vulnerability.  His own moral error, and physical act,and transgression of law have led to personal examination and moralinsight (but how much moral insight does it take to know murder iswrong?).  Sammie may be able to bring what he’s learned not only to hisparticipation in Shakespeare’s play but to how he chooses to live in thefuture.  Will he get parole?  He is given six more years in prison.

Who acts for the prisoners the spirit of service andforgiveness that is Ariel in Shakespeare’s play?  “Self-forgivenessdoesn’t seem to be enough—it’s kind of hollow—this can’t be it, what mylife is all about,” says one prisoner.

Issues of Forgiveness 

In Shakespeare Behind Bars,Sammie’s history of transgressions, and Hal’s apparent premeditation orcold act, are troubling aspects of their personalities and crimes.  Why? These aspects—Sammie’s inclination to error, Hal’s coldness—areevidence of an irrefutable human flaw—but men are condemned for crimes,not human flaws.  Can forgiveness be withheld for that reason—by reasonof human flaw?  We have to learn more, and think more, about extremeresponses, great violations, for the broadening of our understanding,and to ensure justice is done.  

I’m inclined to think of murder as unforgivable: as noremorse, and no punishment, can restore the life of a beloved person, acitizen, a dead body.  Yet, it seems to me that little but punishmentcomes out of lifetime or long-term incarceration.  There is no assuredor confirmable transformation or transcendence in isolation fromsociety.  Is there?  There is little value produced for society (andoften it’s said that it costs more to house prisoners than to support anordinary free man).  It’s arguable that being in prison is social death,and that the limited personal freedom is akin to intellectual orspiritual death.  If death is so horrible, isn’t it also beyondacceptance as punishment—whether it be physical death, or spiritualdeath?  Is such incarceration intended to protect society from possiblefuture crimes?  Yes.  Other than punishment, the only justifications forlongtime incarceration seem the protection of society, and as a threat,as a deterrent to crime.  Other questions: if one believesrehabilitation is possible, shouldn’t the rehabilitation of someone whohas taken a life involve some activity that is life-giving or lifepreserving?  Is art enough?  I wonder about a compromise: would it bebetter for prisoners to be placed in some kind of half-way house, wherethey could be supervised and have curfews but also have access to therest of society, to work and personal relationships—and where any signof violence, or crime, could lose them privileges?

In Trudy Govier’s book Forgivenessand Revenge (Routledge, 2002; ISBN 0-415-27856-2), she states, “We donot forgive deeds; we forgive people who have committed deeds.  When weforgive, it is another person whom we forgive”(109).  She reminds us of the human actor, of what might be salvaged: inothers, in  us.  She goes on to say, “There is a sense, based on obviouslogic, in which a person who has murdered is a murderer, one who hasraped is a rapist, and one who has tortured is a torturer.  But there isanother sense, a human and existential one, in which such people are notonly murderers, rapists, or torturers.  They arehuman beings—human beings whose past lives have included evil, but whosefuture lives are open to new choices” (111-112).  If these positivechoices can be made—and if remorse is articulated, can forgiveness berefused?  “To ignore these possibilities for moral transformation isprofoundly wrong, from an ethical point of view.  To do so is to presumethat the perpetrator is no longer deemed to be a human being, and thusto violate the norms of respect for persons” (118).  Reviewing TrudyGovier’s Forgiveness and Revenge in the biannualjournal Essays in Philosophy, Vol. 4 No. 2 (June2003), Creighton University professor William Stephens found Govier’sbook interesting but disappointing, and took issue with Govier’sarguments, conclusions, and bibliography (her references went back onlyabout sixty years).  (Stephens’s article was available to me online, as of September 6, 2006.)  Among other things, WilliamStephens wrote, “One might well think it oddly inappropriate to considerforgiving wrongdoers who have harmed othersrather than ourselves.”  In responding to Govier’s therapeutic concerns,Stephens affirmed magnanimity over grievance and resentment, but notedthat “enduring condemnation is both logically and psychologicallyseparable from endless rage.  Similarly, punishment should not bemotivated by anger but by justice and the attempt to reform.” Forgiveness is not only a matter of feeling, of spirit, but ofmorality, and of law; and the root of punishment is justice notvengeance.  Stephens also offered this: “Yet surely a pattern of cruel,malicious, injurious acts warrants the moral judgment that theperpetrator may have a cruel, malicious, vicious character.”  

In Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Antonio, whointentionally harmed his brother Prospero, does not repent but isforgiven.  In the documentary Shakespeare BehindBars, men spend years in prison and say they are full of remorse but aregiven more prison time.  Is remorse always required for forgiveness? Can justice co-exist with mercy, and the risks of mercy?

I knew someone, grew up with someone, grieved forsomeone, who was killed by her husband, leaving their children withoutparents.  When I was told of the death, I thought and said, “I thoughthe loved her.  I thought they were happy.  I thought he was a nice guy.” The man killed himself after killing his wife, something that strikesme as understandable, as just.  I did feel sad for both of them.  Thatmay seem contradictory: so be it, it is true.  I do not know what Iwould have thought or felt had he lived, had he gone to prison, servedtime, and been freed.  I might have thought that wrong.  I might havebeen angry.  I do not know.

New Technologies 

I think of Shakespeare BehindBars and I think of the expanse of blue sky above the prison.  I thinkof Hal and Red standing together outside and Hal joking with Red aboutthe need to get rid of facial hair in preparation for Red’s playingMiranda, or of Red confiding to a couple of the other men that he seesHal as controlling and so liked seeing Hal confess his ownvulnerability.  I think of the slightly feminine—articulate,mannered—quality of Sammie, and wonder if that says something about thedevelopment of his mind or his gender in prison.  I think of Sammie’stears when he learns another man failed to get parole.  I think of therigor of the men’s play rehearsals and of how festive their performanceof the play before a small audience seems.  It is unlikely any of thesescenes capturing prison life over a year would have been financed for afilm that was shot on celluloid rather than video.  Video has long beenpractical for documentation; and it has become a resource forindependent and creative artists.  I think of Godard, Rohmer, Bergman,cinema artists, among others, who all have used video.  “The film/videoartist is a ‘go-between’ among cinema, literature, the visual arts andnew media,” wrote John Conomos, who considers video an intimate andcritical medium, in his essay “Only the Cinema” (Sensesof Cinema, May 2001).  Conomos, a video filmmaker (AutumnSong), reflected on his experience and said, “Video allowed me toexplore complex questions of aesthetics, culture, space, memory andtime.  As a collage art form, it gave me the opportunity to ‘collide’cinema with literature, painting with cultural theory, or dance withpoetry, producing multiple vistas of imaginative and genericpossibilities.”  He also cited Godard as an example of a man concernedwith image, with thinking and seeing, a man who uses film, video, andtelevision, what is available and useful.

Yet, questions about the quality of the video imagepersist (I have noted a certain blurriness in particular works). Technology continues to develop.  Major films, such as those of EricRohmer (The Lady and the Duke) and Michael Mann(Collateral), have been shot on video.  Rohmerhas spoken of wanting to capture a more authentic Paris, while directorAgnes Varda has spoken of the efficiency, of the portability, of thequickness, of using a digital camera (“New Wave Helmers…,” Variety, September 4, 2001).  With the developmentof high-definition digital video, the digital camera, and other digitaltechnology, there are predictions that both filming and film projectionwill change.  

The content of art is perception, thought, andemotion; and form is the nature and style of the presentation of thatcontent, with technique and technology facilitating the making of art. Film, video, and image files are various kinds of matter, diversemedia; and film runs through a projector at twenty-four frames persecond, non-film (analog) video at thirty frames per second, and digitalvideo can run at various frames per second and with a greater amount ofinformation—of detail—in each frame, resulting, it has been argued, in amore precise and richer image.  The image files of digital movies can bestored in a computer—after distribution by disk, fiber optic network, orsatellite—and sent to a digital projector for screening, at which pointmost audiences only care about seeing a moving picture.  (Here is wherefilm refers not to medium but to a particular kind of telling, aperceptible stream of images, a gloss of rushing intelligible colors,within which one finds a story, an articulate thought, a lucidperception.)  Most of us do not need to know about the transmission ofwaveform signals that distinguish analog and digital video or the tinysquare picture elements with three color parts (pixels, of red, green,blue), camera aspect ratio (image length), sensors, white (or light)balance, zoom features, memory cards, and all the rest, in order tounderstand or respond to the moving picture in front of us (none of thatis my primary focus of interest or expertise), though sometimes what cango wrong with a film image has very much to do with such concerns—andthey are the concerns of film and video makers.  

In his August 2006 piece “The False Divide: Crosstalkin the Digital Wars,” contributorShaun Huston wrote, “Young and independent film makers accustomed toworking with digital video (DV) cameras and editing on their Macs areunlikely to have warm and fuzzy feelings for film.  After making aninitial investment in equipment, theater owners will also benefiteconomically from a switch not only to digital movie making, but todistribution as well.  Full digitization will also facilitate the riseof day-and-date release of films (‘day-and-date’ is the term used torefer to release of a film in multiple formats simultaneously, ratherthan staggering the theatrical, DVD, and television releases atdifferent times).  This strategy is seen as one way to control piracy,or, at least a means by which distributors and producers can recaptureprofits currently lost to the black market in stolen versions of theirfilms.  While theater owners are understandably ambivalent towards thislatter innovation; on the whole, the economic incentives for riding thedigital wave are fairly clear” (August 23, 2006).  Huston alsosummarizes the ease of digital editing, how edits can be easily reversedwithout damaging primary footage; and he asserts that film has alwaysbeen a conversation among art, commerce, and technology.  It is aninteresting footnote that digital video conversion and archives can beused—and already have begun to be used—to preserve very old films.

Huston says, “Even if digital video supplants film inthe same way that color supplanted black-and-white, film makers willstill use traditional film stock in much the same way as they still useblack-and-white: for artistic effect. We may soon be in a world whereall thing being equal, movies are shot digitally, but when they aren’t,the ‘old’ technology might find itself back in demand.” 

Final Thoughts 

What many of us welcome in moving pictures is beingable to enter worlds not our own, the new experience, the new knowledge,though sometimes confirmation of, and deepening of, what we already knowis necessary and welcomed too.  One of the values of a great artist orthinker is the introduction of a new character, a new landscape, a newsensibility, to common consciousness.  Shakespeare is, of course, suchan artist; and so all kinds of artists, including film and videoartists, have been drawn to him.  Shakespeare’s work is complex—eloquentand earthy, tragic and funny, philosophical and pragmatic—and hechallenges mediocrity of mind and artistic practice (thus, great art isradical): and the most successful interpretations of Shakespeare’s worktake him seriously, respecting him as both part of the past and thepresent and refusing to make him simple.  “The Tempest” is a play thatis charming and troubling; and that is Shakespeare.  ShakespeareBehind Bars, the documentary of prison life and a play’s production,brings together many of the themes and traits that are inherent inShakespeare or associated with him, including the historical all-maleperformances of his work: and arrogance and tears, knowledge andignorance, theatricality and rock-bed reality.  Seeing the documentary,can we go away believing we know the men, the actors, we have metthrough the documentary?  I think again of the Caliban of Shakespeare Behind Bars, Big G, who said thatCaliban is a savage and that he had to regress to play him; and that he,Big G, was, and Caliban is, like many prisoners: a savage, which I taketo mean being without an understanding of choices—with a lack ofthought, a failure of human imagination, an absence of empathy, anintolerance for (an inability to manage) conflict and pain: and thus,one has a monstrosity not of look or manner but of mind and spirit.  Wecan listen to how people describe themselves and, after consideration,after observation, draw our own conclusions—without losing memory orrespect for human mystery.

Daniel Garrett iscurrently a New York resident, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review,Art & Antiques,The Audubon Activist,The Compulsive Reader,Offscreen,Review of Contemporary Fiction,and World Literature Today.