The Rarer Action: Finding A Modern Redemptive Form in Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Society has for centuries employed long-standing and effective systems for the punishment of criminals.  These methods have been defined by several resulting effects, whether they are transformative, reformatory, rehabilitative, or even complete failures.  Hank Rogerson has presented in his Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary a group of prisoners dedicated to the staging of William Shakespeare’s comedy, The Tempest.  After consideration of both sources, a real need for further study becomes apparent in meshing the two into a solid explanation of theme:  such as salvation and recovery. The purpose of this essay, then, is to argue that while there is a definitive, tangible relationship between the inmates we meet in Rogerson’s documentary and the themes and characters of Shakespeare’s play, a gap still exists between the rationalization and defense of the Shakespeare Behind Bars program.  In several ways, the program works to provide educational and cultural advancement for those who have been sentenced to prison for their heinous crimes.  But is the focus on Shakespeare the right rehabilitative answer?  Should we even be concerned with a question such as this?  And how does the Bard’s The Tempest serve as an appropriate complement to the struggles and realities of prison life?   From an objective view, this argument will attempt to answer (if indeed answerable) many of these questions using Shakespeare’s text as a comparative tool and Rogerson’s film as a real-life application of some very real, sometimes disturbing, societal themes.

After reading The Tempest, the obvious themes that stood out were those revolving around redemption, forgiveness, and the equally compelling question of how to achieve both.  For Prospero, this realization came after he was unduly stripped of his power (relevance) and exiled to a remote desert island.  For the prisoners in our documentary, they also experience exile from society – but in a much different and extremely more consequential way.  Whereas Prospero was tricked by Antonio and his co-conspirator Alonso, resulting in his banishment, the inmates in Kentucky are imprisoned due to their own criminal (consequential) actions.  When we talk about forgiveness and redemption in the play, I think the focus should be on two things:  Prospero’s rationale to forgive those who wronged him, and what the effect of that redemptive action really became.  In a slight twist for a well-argued discussion of the documentary, forgiveness and redemption should center on the actual inmates and the question of whether or not they should be allowed forgiveness, and ultimately, freedom.  Wrapped up in all this analysis is the question of how does Shakespeare fit into the whole of the argument?

To analyze the film in terms of how it interprets the play in this particular instance is a decidedly stiff challenge.  We aren’t necessarily looking at a modern film adaptation, but more of a complementary/companion work – which leaves us with some seriously vexing questions.  The comparisons are easily defined – Prospero is banished, just like the prisoners.  Redemption is represented by his eventual forgiveness, which is what the inmates ultimately seek.  But how are the two related?  For one, even though I have some very conservative thoughts on the abstract, I feel everybody should be allowed forgiveness.  As difficult as it is to rationalize criminal activity (maybe completely impossible), and as much as I detested the crimes that were associated with men like Sammie (murderer) and Leonard (rapist), the Christian in me offers that redemption is not only advantageous to the soul, it is also a requirement demanded from God.  I think Prospero would be in agreement with me, as he famously states, “Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury / Do I take part.  The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance.”  His fury?  Juxtaposed against his virtue?  This declaration of “fury” is an excellent word to illustrate how rational people would consider their emotions over the crimes these men committed.  Being “furious” is highly representative of how the majority of our classmates felt about the film, too, according to several blog posts.  But Prospero, despite his much deserved anger, chooses to take the higher road and allow his evil brother and conspirators a second chance.  When he, in Act 5, tells Antonio, “most wicked sir, whom to / call brother / Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive / Thy rankest fault,” we see the depth of his sincerity and the power of his virtuousness.  Could we as a society ask that much of ourselves to give Rogerson’s prisoners some form of the same?

Secondly, it is an interesting point to examine how a savage and primitive character like Caliban compares to some of the inmates?  Without singling out any one man, but rather lumping them together as “criminal” or “monstrous”, there can be a strong and valid argument that their situations are very much the same.  There is ample evidence that Caliban deserved his own “imprisonment” as a slave for his attempted rape of Miranda early in the play.  In fact, this crime conveniently mirrors some of the crimes illustrated in the film.  In Act 3, Scene 2, the imprisoned, resentful (but not emotionless) Caliban talks about sleep and dreaming, and how he thought the clouds would open “and show riches / Ready to drop upon me,” but wakes up crying to the reality that this wasn’t going to happen.  A thoughtful look at this instance would compare his plight to that of a man like Ricky, who faced two life sentences without a chance at parole.  In his existence, which is to say a life without hope, we see that Caliban’s words are eerily similar.  What hope did Ricky have?  Was he ever going to be allowed a shot at redemption and eventual freedom to see light outside the prison walls?  Probably not, but the two scenarios are similar in that they show some of the despair associated with trying to overcome guilt and rationalize some harsh situations.  Sammie, too, makes the comment that he “just wants to leave here so badly,” or something to that effect, mirroring Caliban’s anger at being Prospero’s slave and tied to the island.

Another comparison between the two situations can be found in the question of responses.  What is there to say about the possibility of Antonio repeating his crime?  If granted redemption by Prospero, what would keep him from doing the same thing again?  What about the prisoners?  I think this deserves at least some consideration given the fact that such a possibility exists.  In the play, we are astounded that Prospero would “my charms…break,” and “drown my book” of magic, but he does it in a way that leaves him completely vulnerable in the end.  Does a modern day Antonio (Red, for example) take advantage of this gift of grace?  My contention is that an argument can be made that complete redemption can never be achieved.  Red, for example, was released on parole – but eventually went back to a life of crime and received an even longer sentence.  It would be unfair to have a frank discussion about these themes and how they stack up against Shakespeare’s text without at least considering this possibility.  My own study of the play suggests to me that Ariel would be thankful for the release.  Caliban is most definitely appreciative, as he promises to “be wise hereafter / And seek for grace.”

Much of the discussion up to this point has been about how the two sources compare to each other in terms of theme.  At this point, it is necessary to look at another very real application of the film and the play, which is to what effect does any of this information have on anything.  For me, it places value on the play by using it as a tool to try and correct a group of incorrigibles.  It is proof positive that despite the result, there is at least an attempt being made to introduce these incarcerated men to the beauty of the Bard’s prose and vivid imagery.  If nothing else, it gives them an alternative to the mundane prison life and a chance to expand and fill their minds with something of value – not drugs, or violence, or other negatives that have consumed them thus far.  In the character of Prospero, the prisoners can learn much about virtue, and most importantly, humility.  For what can be more humble than excising oneself of hatred, and resentment, and a former life (evidenced by his casting off of his magical accessories) and liberating the guilty?  In the virtuous Miranda, they can see that goodness is rewarded, despite what environment you find yourself in.  Honestly, was there any hope in her that she would be released from the island after twelve years of captivity?  Maybe the inmates could use her character as an excellent example of not letting the small details of circumstances disallow doing the right thing.  Sammie said it himself in one interview – that if he just got rid of guns, he’d do better as a man.  If he hung around a better crowd (changed his environment), he would improve his situation.  But those things didn’t help Sammie, primarily because what was inside him never changed.  His attitude, emotions, and inner being never matured enough to overcome the negative.  Miranda’s inside was inherently good, decent, and virtuous, so she was unaffected by exterior forces that would have reduced lesser individuals like Sammie (exile, lack of social opportunities, limited education, etc.)  All of this points to some very crucial revelations that there is indeed value in using a mystical play from the Renaissance to speak to modern day criminals.  What is compelling in this study of literature and its cumulative effect on society is that we sometimes miss the opportunity to share its value.  And for that reason, if for no other, sharing the Bard’s words at least gets the subject of education and reform rolling in a very positive way.

In hindsight, and thanks to updated information on the Shakespeare Behind Bars website, we can look at the prison cast of The Tempest and see how they fare today.  It is perhaps one of the strongest indications of whether or not the program has succeeded, or has merit of any kind.  On average, most of the inmates are in the exact same position, eight years later.  Analyzing this information alone would tell us that perhaps learning lines of Shakespeare and dressing up in magician’s robes has done nothing to rehabilitate these men.  I offer here that it probably will never achieve that goal, and that if the ultimate ambition of the program is to rehabilitate, then it has failed.  What I do like about it, however, is that it gives prisoners a literal education in something that they may never have had exposure to up to this point.  It allows them to take all the redemptive thematic elements of Shakespeare’s work, all the words of old Prospero, “I do forgive thee, / Unnatural though thou art,” [read:  I do forgive you, you heartless bastard], and all the arresting subplots of the story to form thoughtful and introspective self-evaluations.

This marrying of Shakespeare’s 17th century play and Rogerson’s astute look at Kentucky state prisoners has most certainly triggered a thoughtful look at the value of redemption and the virtue of those who both seek it (Sammie, Leonard, etc.) and those who freely grant it (Prospero).  And while it is generally understood that several students will give several equally diverse interpretations, this singular argument maintains that the Shakespeare Behind Bars program is a positive step in the overall education of some very hardened criminals.  I hesitate at the conclusion of this essay to label the state’s efforts as “rehabilitative” only because I’m not sure if that word accurately illustrates the intent of the program.  Or, taking it a step further, I’m not even sure that it’s possible to rehabilitate these criminals.  What I do know, however, is that by placing a copy of The Tempest in the hands of a man who used those same hands to violently strangle his wife, society is at least making an honorable attempt to purge these inmates of their demons and guilt, and give them something of relevance to present to a judgmental society.  As the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand reconciled two fathers who had long been enemies, perhaps an introduction to Shakespeare can reconcile an equal amount of resentment in the lives of the prisoners.  At Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, just hearing the words of Prospero echoing in the common room should give us the hope of promise, “As you from crimes would pardoned be / Let your indulgence set me free.”  Shakespeare may not be the answer, but it certainly deserves the chance to try.


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