Shakespeare Behind Bars and Meta-theatricality

The word [amazon_link id=”0841913536″ target=”_blank” ]metatheatre[/amazon_link] comes from the Greek prefix meta which implies a level beyond the subject that it qualifies; scholars generally agree that meta-theatricality is a device whereby a play comments on itself, drawing attention to the literal circumstances of its own production, such as the presence of the audience or the fact that the actors are actors; meta-theatricality also emphasizes the literary artifice behind the production. One of the most recognizable instances of meta-theatricality is seen in William Shakespeare’s [amazon_link id=”074347712X” target=”_blank” ]Hamlet[/amazon_link] in Act III, Scene II where [amazon_link id=”0393929582″ target=”_blank” ]Hamlet[/amazon_link] stages a play for the Court of King Claudius in an attempt to “catch the conscious of the King” (as said by [amazon_link id=”B00005JLCI” target=”_blank” ]Hamlet[/amazon_link] in Act II, Scene II, line 607).*

Because the Elizabethans valued wit and loved to be entertained, they especially appreciated the added enjoyment value that meta-theatricality brought to their theatre experience. [amazon_link id=”0140291172″ target=”_blank” ]William Shakespeare [/amazon_link]and his fellow playwrights created credible presentations of reality yet blurred the lines with meta-theatricality perhaps as an instrumentality for that value-added entertainment with a twist. Those theatre-goers who recognized the references to the outside world and the very theatre itself had an additional layer of amusement. It seems that the [amazon_link id=”0312325665″ target=”_blank” ]Elizabethan[/amazon_link] play’s author, the actors, and the audience all were challenged to “think outside the box.”

Although [amazon_link id=”0140424555″ target=”_blank” ]George Herbert [/amazon_link]told his parishioners in the early 1600s that “living well is the best revenge,” apparently not too many Elizabethans subscribed to that [amazon_link id=”0192804561″ target=”_blank” ]aphorism[/amazon_link]. Furthermore, history demonstrates that during the Elizabethan times even divine adjudication takes a back-seat to revenge: that is, revenge which is “sweet.” And, indeed, the Elizabethan “World Picture” presented by historian and scholar [amazon_link id=”0472065521″ target=”_blank” ]Francis Barker [/amazon_link]shows a powerful centralized state government exacting their own form of revenge on the citizens in part to control them via fear of punishment and retribution. [amazon_link id=”0472065521″ target=”_blank” ]Fredson Bowers[/amazon_link], the famous 1940s American Shakespearian scholar, tells us that the Elizabethans held the “right to punish their own wrongs [as] dear” and Elizabethan literature reflects this belief especially in their revenge tragedy plays. There were many philosophies of revenge during Elizabethan times and some plays contain more than one.

At the [amazon_link id=”0252077709″ target=”_blank” ]Luther Luckett Correctional Complex [/amazon_link]in La Grange, Kentucky (roughly thirty-five miles north-east of Louisville) for the past sixteen years, the inmates have had the option to participate in a program called, “Shakespeare Behind Bars.” Their web site states that, “Shakespeare Behind Bars offers theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to the incarcerated, allowing them to develop life skills that will ensure their successful reintegration into society.” I traveled to La Grange on 13 June 2011 to see the program first-hand and was stunned by its powerful production of William Shakespeare’s [amazon_link id=”0743477561″ target=”_blank” ]The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice, or Otherwise Called the Jew of Venice[/amazon_link].

The staging and timing of the production were magical. One scene in particular stood out for its inventive use of meta-theatricality. In Act IV, Scene I, Shylock addresses the Duke’s court petitioning them for the enforcement of his bond. (Upon default of this bond, Shylock is to receive “a pound of flesh” (22)* to be taken from the borrower, Antonio.) While addressing the court, Shylock turns toward the audience making eye contact, as if the audience is the jury hearing the case; this action of Shylock’s creates “theatre” within the play.

In addition, the actual audience is watching Shylock, who is watching the audience (the jury), who is watching the court trial, which is a sort of “play-within-a-play,” with the actors looking back at their (real) audience. This exemplifies the many layers of meta-theatricality found in this one scene. It is riveting and truly defines the astonishing acting ability of Floyd V. who also brought tears to my eyes with the powerful speech he delivers earlier in Act III, Scene I which contains those famous lines: “I am a Jew. … If you prick us, do we not bleed? … And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” (54 – 62).*

The Elizabethan and [amazon_link id=”0333973739″ target=”_blank” ]Jacobean[/amazon_link] eras were an “intensively theatrical time.” Theatre wasn’t just happening in theatres; everyday life was saturated with theatricality: for example, in the way that people “dressed-up” to indicate their station and class, politics at Court in the way that petitions were advanced, and the way poetry was written and passed around within coteries. Using meta-theatricality enhanced the audience’s awareness of the world they created and lived-in themselves encouraging the audience to imagine what they would do in the shoes of the characters. It may also have given them a sense of justice for wrongs which they never had a chance to set right – a sort of voyeuristic revenge.

It seems that the inmates have a similar opportunity to imagine what they would do in the shoes of others: they learn about themselves, the world that they (formerly) lived in, their crimes and how they affected their victims, and the world that they create for themselves through staging Shakespeare’s works. Mercy, compassion, honesty and truth are some of the considerations exemplified in [amazon_link id=”0393925293″ target=”_blank” ]The Merchant of Venice[/amazon_link]. Floyd V. who plays Shylock states, “What I learned through this play is that all cultures believe they are right and have a monopoly on the truth. They use this to treat others less human. This must not be, and now I look in the mirror.”

Because Shakespeare’s works reflect the humanity of individuals and show the singular events in life that can take one on a new and different path, who better to stage his works than Matt Wallace, director of Shakespeare Behind Bars, who works with inmates that interpret the events in life demonstrated by Shakespeare? This is in of itself a case of meta-theatricality; inmates are playing parts that encompass moral dilemmas and crime – perhaps even issues that they have directly faced – giving them the opportunity to explore their feelings unlike any typical therapy program could offer. Don’t you agree that William Shakespeare would be proud to know that his works have contributed to such a productive and positive unique theatre program that boasts a 7.5% recidivism ([amazon_link id=”0521795109″ target=”_blank” ]re-offending[/amazon_link]) rate compared to the national average of 67%?

*This text is taken from [amazon_link id=”0199267170″ target=”_blank” ]The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, 2nd Edition[/amazon_link] edited by John Jowett, William Montgomery, Gary Taylor, and Stanley Wells © Oxford University Press 1986, 2005

Want to know more? Shakespeare Behind Bars, Inc. is a not-for-profit, tax-exempt, charitable organization, under section 501(c)(3) of the IRS code.  Donations are tax-deductible as provided by law. (Shakespeare Behind Bars’ cost to the government, institutions, participants, and taxpayers is $0.00! Consider making a donation today to help them continue this important work.)

Check out the Shakespeare Behind Bars web site or their Facebook page which have fabulous photographs of The Merchant of Venice and previous productions.


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Dixon, Catherine Jo. “Shakespeare Behind Bars and Meta-theatricality.” Feast Of Languages. Catherine Jo Dixon, 23 June 2011. Web. [today’s date].

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English literature students most commonly use the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) style to write their papers. This citation reflects the [amazon_link id=”1603290249″ target=”_blank” ]MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th edition[/amazon_link] and/or the [amazon_link id=”0873522974″ target=”_blank” ]MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, 3rd edition[/amazon_link]. For additional information, I recommend a free online writing lab from Purdue University: “The Purdue OWL” which has current, credible information and reliable examples.

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