by Ron Jenkins
“He’s a thug,” said the boy’s teacher, nodding toward a lanky teenager who had just finished performing a 17th-century monologue from The Tempest. “I never thought he would take this Shakespeare stuff so seriously.” She marveled at the improvement in the young man’s speaking skills since he had begun wrestling with Elizabethan prose.
The teacher cared deeply for him and the other students in the Walter G. Cady School at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, but she put their progress in perspective when he and his classmates left the room. “We have to be honest and admit that a lot of these kids will spend the rest of their lives in jail, and some of them will die young.”
That stark prognosis silenced the 12 other young people who remained in the room when the Cady school students were gone. This more fortunate group consisted of students from Wesleyan University who had signed up to spend a semester with me teaching Shakespeare to incarcerated teenagers at the state correctional facility near the campus in Middletown.
They were prepared to explain the meaning of the Bard’s words to the Cady School students, and they did that job admirably, but they didn’t expect their incarcerated students to teach them more about the inner lives of Shakespeare’s characters than could ever be learned in a university classroom.
Student actors are trained to “raise the stakes” when they imagine the circumstances of a character whose words they speak. The stakes don’t get much higher than they are for a person living on the precipice of a life sentence and an early death.
Our first hint that we would be learning as much about Shakespeare from the Cady School students as we would be teaching them came in our second session. A speech by the jester Trinculo was read aloud by the young “thug” mentioned above. (For reasons of confidentiality, I’ll call him Sam). Comic lines we had all heard before took on dark undertones.
“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows” is a phrase that elicits grim associations when spoken by a jittery boy who shares his dormitory with strangers convicted of robbery, drug abuse and assault. After the recitation, Sam told us that the line he liked best was “I know not where to hide my head,” spoken by Trinculo as he looks for shelter from a storm.
“That’s how I feel,” said Sam, “when I try to find someplace safe from the violence that’s always around me.”
I had never imagined The Tempest to have anything to do with street gang initiations, but Sam and his fellow “thugs” opened my eyes to another dimension of the play’s meaning.
After reading the scene where the half-human creature Caliban is befriended by Trinculo and a drunken sailor, Sam told my Wesleyan students that things like that happened all the time on the streets.
The clowns were manipulating Caliban, pretending to help him after he had been enslaved and bullied by his master Prospero. When offered the intoxication of “celestial liquor,” Caliban trades one form of servitude for another. “Yeah,” interjects one of Sam’s pals, “He thinks that’s gonna make him free, but he doesn’t know what freedom is.”
A few days before the date traditionally celebrated as Shakespeare’s birthday (April 23), Sam was released from the Cady School.
His teacher said that many former students commit crimes that bring them back to the facility within a few weeks. I remembered Sam telling us that he didn’t like the narrow windows at the correctional facility, because “if anybody looked in, they could only see a thin part of me.
“They wouldn’t know I was a whole person.”
The Wesleyan students had learned to see much more of Sam than the narrow sliver the rest of the world might call a “thug.”
To them he was a scholar. They brought him a stack of books as a going-away present. I gave him a copy of The Tempest to remind him of the insights he had gleaned in our class.
It was a lot to wish for, but we were hoping that the time he spent behind bars mulling over Caliban’s mistakes might help Sam stay free for many more of Shakespeare’s birthdays.
Ron Jenkins, a former Guggenheim Fellow, is a professor of theater at Wesleyan University. He has directed Shakespeare’s The Tempest at New York’s La Mama Theater and in a Hindu temple courtyard in Indonesia.
Copyright © 2008 The Hartford Courant May 4, 2008