Shakespeare Behind Bars
The Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison
St. Martin’s Press, 2001; U. Michigan Press, 2004/2012 (paper/ebook)
From the book jacket: “I began to understand that female prisoners are not ‘damaged goods,’ and to recognize that most of these women had toughed it out in a society which favors others–by gender, class, or race. They are Desdemonas suffering because of jealous men, Lady Macbeths craving the power of their spouses, Portias disguised as men in order to get ahead, and Shylocks who, being betrayed, take the law into their own hands.”
So Jean Trounstine writes in Shakespeare Behind Bars. In this gripping account, Trounstine, who spent ten years teaching at Framingham Women’s Prison in Massachusetts, focuses on six inmates who, each in her own way, discovers in the power of great drama a way to transcend the painful constraints of her incarceration.
In the book, we meet:
► Dolly, a 50-ish grandmother who brings her knitting to classes and starts a battered women’s group in prison
► Bertie, a Jamaican beauty estranged from her homeland, torn with guilt, and shunned for her crime
► Kit, a tough, wisecracking con who stirs up trouble whenever she can–until she’s threatened with losing her kids
► Rose, an outsider in the prison community who lives with HIV and eventually gains acceptance through drama
► Rhonda, a college-educated leader whose life falls apart when her father dies and who struggles in prison to reestablish her roots
► Mamie, a nurse in the free world, now the prison gardener who makes cards with poetry and dried flowers and battles her own illness behind bars
Shakespeare Behind Bars is a uniquely powerful work that gives voice to forgotten women, sheds a compassionate light on a dark world, and proves the redemptive power of art and education.
Dolly and Jean at Middlesex Community College
Praise for Shakespeare Behind Bars
—Shakespeare Behind Bars is a wonderful story of aesthetic power and redemption, intensely moving in itsdetails, heart-breaking in its narrative totality. I hope this stirring work is widely read–
—I read every word, crying as I went. Prisons are monuments to ignorance yet Congress has seemed to decide that the appropriate thing to do is keep the ignorant, ignorant. It’s frustrating in the extreme to understand what is so obvious to Jean Trounstine and to me but which the powers that be choose to ignore.
President and Founder, The Children of Bedford Fund
Author of Stranger in Two Worlds
—[Trounstine] has crucial things to say for theater itself — for the meaning of Shakespeare and how,in the stripped-down environment where mirrors are a luxury,theater and literature become a necessity — a daily bread which is not entertainment or a commodity, but a spiritual and social nourishment that nurtures the health of the spirit through the offering of hope, self-esteem, a process that enables critical self-examination, and collective bonding.
Pulitzer-winning playwright Brown University
—Jean Trounstine has written a courageous and hauntingly powerful testimony of the lives of six women behind bars and their struggles for reclaiming their dignity as well as their humanity. Through the power of drama and the beauty of art, Trounstine and the women of her story no longer belong to the realms of the invisible and the forgotten. On the contrary, Shakespeare Behind Bars is a story of fortitude and hope, transcendence, courage as well as the solidarity of the human spirit in adversity. An indispensable contribution to literature, human rights, and world justice.
Winner of the United Nations Leadership Award on Human Rights
—Teachers who think their students are tough might find inspiration in Trounstine’s 10-year stint teaching creative writing and theater in a high security Massachusetts state women’s prison…We watch her grow increasingly emotionally attached to her students. In chapters devoted to each of six inmates and prefaced by a brief quote from the Bard, Trounstine (editor of Changing Lives Through Literature) attempts to understand her students’ lives and crimes through literature….This affecting memoir should appeal to educators and general readers interested in the relationship between social change and artistic practice.
—This book grabs the reader’s interest from the opening paragraph. Why Shakespeare? Why women in prison? What could they learn, or teach the reader about The Merchant of Venice or anything else, for that matter? Trounstine (Middlesex Community Coll.), cofounder of the women’s branch of Changing Lives Through Literature, an educational alternative to prison, answers these questions and many others in straightforward language that avoids empty academic phrasing. ….Portrayed sensitively but without pathos or pity, these women will be indelibly etched in the reader’s mind, forever altering the way he or she sees or reads Shakespeare.
From Library Journal by Susan L. Peters
Univ. of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston