Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.” Try this line—Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2—not in a regular classroom, but inside the prison system itself. You’ll be stunned by its unforeseen resonances.

I currently have about 30 students in a course I’m teaching on Shakespeare at the Hampshire County Jail in Northampton. Half of them are inmates, all men between the ages of 22 and 45, black, white and Latino. The other half are mainly from Amherst College, with a few Five College students in the mix. The combination of these two populations is conducive to deep knowledge. 

At the outset, the inmates, who average a high school diploma or its equivalent and whom I refer to, in the classroom, as “inside students,” at first looked intimidated by their counterparts from the outside, all clearly well-equipped for academic research. And vice versa: the outside students felt like novices in contrast to the inmates’ experience in the art of living. Happily, it took no time for anxiety to give place to conviviality. Soon this brought levelheadedness. The way the two student bodies complement each other feels magical. 

Teaching in state and federal penal institutions these days is largely oriented toward earning a high school equivalency diploma. College courses have faced immense hurdles since 1994, when Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which overturned a section of the Higher Education Act of 1965, thus taking away basic higher education grants to prisoners. The solution has been to fund these efforts independently. Mine is paid for by Amherst. 

All of those enrolled, without exception, get college credit. Several of my Amherst colleagues—Barry O’Connell, Martha Saxton and Kristin Bumiller—have taught before me at the Hampshire County Jail, among the nation’s most progressive prisons of its kind when it comes to curriculum. They were trained through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. They, in turned, have taught me. 

As a literary scholar, I am usually interested as much in textual analysis as I am in the ethical, cultural and ideological implications of text. My syllabus focuses on Shakespeare’s later plays (Hamlet, King Lear and The Tempest), as well on as his sonnets. We also take a tour of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, the King’s Men and Europe at the dawn of the 17th century. In addition, I invoke responses to Shakespeare by commentators such as Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Frank Kermode and Helen Vendler, as well as by non-Europeans like Jorge Luis Borges and Ismail Kadare. Students watch Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet and Helen Mirren as Prospero on screen, scrutinizing their every move. They survey Renaissance London in various ways, including through the eyes of British playwright Tom Stoppard, who co-wrote the screenplay of Shakespeare in Love.

Shakespeare in Prison illustration
Illustration by Barbara Ott

Assignments include performing memorized segments of one of the dramas and writing in the creative mode: plays, stories and essays. There are cameras in the room recording at all times. The class meets on Wednesdays for two hours. I have three Amherst students who serve as TAs; they transport the outside students to and from the jail and have tutorial sessions with the inside students twice a week, in which they help with the reading and writing.

Along the way, I keep on asking myself: Does the Bard teach us how to live?

Not surprisingly, among the constellation of characters (Lear, Prospero, Ophelia, Gloucester, Miranda, Ariel and Caliban), the Danish prince is the indisputable favorite. The play, written a few years after Shakespeare lost his only son, Hamnet, and around the time his own father also died, is about fathers and sons, a theme everyone in my class has something to say about. Other themes are electrifying too: succession, ghosts and, especially, revenge. But it is the question of Hamlet’s madness—or the way he pretends to be mad—that incites the most heated reactions. Can criminals understand his mindset better than the rest of us?

Ilan Stavans

Professor Ilan Stavans

I asked this question after everyone listened to episode 218 of NPR’s This American Life. It describes an effort to stage Act V of Hamlet with inmates (several of them rotating the role of the prince) at the high-security Missouri Eastern Correctional Center. One of the interviewees in the show asserts, in a nutshell, that it indeed takes a felon to know a felon.

Fittingly, my students, inside and out, were of two minds about this statement. They empathized deeply with the prince’s dilemma—one of them, an inmate, even argued in favor of vengeance (“Eye-for-an-eye is law in the hood”). Others thought acting is acting: in make-believe, you don’t have to kill in order to act like a killer. “Before and after the crime, we are always actors,” said an inmate to me.

Hamlet’s statement that nature is empty of morality and that it’s the mind’s eye that makes things good and evil is equally fruitful. All of us converge in the same classroom having made decisions that led us there. What we get from the classroom may help us better understand those decisions. 

Among the most memorable aspect of teaching at the Hampshire County Jail is the writing. An Amherst student wrote a splendid essay on her father’s betrayal of trust when he had an affair that broke the family apart. Another reflected on the fact that she seeks distance from her mother even as she perceives her as a role model. A third compared Hamlet’s histrionics to Don Quixote’s.  

In turn, an inmate rewrote Hamlet, relocating the action among rappers. Another crafted a masterful story about a homeless man, who, after being repeatedly beaten by the police, desperately looks for a bathroom in which to shower, to cleanse himself from the pain. A third chronicled his life of heroin addiction and the degree to which the drug is the only freedom he truly cherishes. I am dumbfounded by the high quality of some of the writing.

A couple of inmates are now in the process of turning their writing into novels. Another one is writing a memoir. The facilities at the Hampshire County Jail don’t allow for Internet access. And the time they are allowed to use a computer is limited. Still, they take turns. And they share their drafts with one another.

All this is to say that literature palpitates uniquely in this setting. It feels alive, full of possibilities. Inmates read passionately: they exercise their freedom by delving into a text with gusto. This is a medium that allows them to study human behavior scrupulously. 

The common, mistaken, perception is that penal institutions are where felons go to rot. Somewhere in the future there is a promise of redemption, but it is just a promise. In my experience, inmates, for the most part, recognize themselves at fault for their present condition. That isn’t the issue. The issue is how not to rot, how to mature while in confinement. 

Literature, I’m convinced, holds a key. The inmates’ minds need to grow. They have all the time in the world. And at least those I have in the classroom are eager to become critical thinkers. They want to recalibrate themselves. We all know that as soon as they leave the jail, some will relapse immediately. Others, a minority perhaps, will position themselves anew. Either way, the life of the mind behind bars needs to be more fertile. It doesn’t matter what comes next: in and of themselves, the years in prison might be precious. If just one felon is able to achieve a single, lasting epiphany from reading Shakespeare, and if from that epiphany a single outside student considers how humans who lost their liberty learn from its absence, the effort is worth it.

In any given ecosystem, each individual learns differently. Teaching, in my view, is less about lessons than about creating an atmosphere where heterogeneous minds inspire each other, about showing people how to ask questions, how to turn information into knowledge—and knowledge into wisdom. Inside the jail, those tasks have a distinct urgency. 

Interacting with Amherst students shows inmates, in tangible ways, an existential path closed to them before. And the other way around. Not long ago, I asked the entire class if they believed the interaction between inside and outside was helpful. Outside students said that at the Hampshire County Jail they fashioned a side of themselves different from who they are on campus. Similarly, inmates stated they got permission in the course to be brainy, less rough. “These two hours a week make me intelligent,” one said.

The Talmud says the best way to learn is through example. It is foolish—nah, stupid!—to think of the incarcerated as ignorant and of the rest of us as intelligent. To fully explore the intricacies of our world, it is crucial to appreciate the magic of one’s own intellect. Shakespeare is a superb conduit for such an endeavor. It is true: “Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” 

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst and publisher of Restless Books. His latest book is Quixote: The Novel and the World (Norton), a finalist for the Marfield National Award for Arts Writing.