Rituals of Rehabilitation: Learning Community from Shakespeare Behind Bars
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In a panoptic society like ours, prison arts programs can guide us in the task of revitalizing human values and building ethical communities. The quasi-ritual practice of theater, especially, has the potential to develop community among its participants. This thesis takes Shakespeare Behind Bars, a prison Shakespeare program at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, as a practical guide in addressing our alienation and developing ethical communal relations. This investigation considers the operation of ritual and ritualized practices within the playtext of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing and the 2014 SBB production, the structure of the SBB program, and the inmate actors’ everyday interactions in order to see the relationships among imaginative play, ritualized practices, and our construction of ethical communities. I argue that SBB models genuine communal engagement and helps inmate actors develop rehabilitative modes of being with others that reinforce the moves of ethical life. Shakespeare’s Much Ado explores the power of ritual to rebuild after a moral wrong. I contend that the SBB production delivers practical answers to interpretive quandaries in the scholarship concerning Claudio and the efficacy of ritual. Outside the boundaries of ritual proper and the dramatic stage, Catherine Bell (Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice) and Michel de Certeau (The Practice of Everyday Life) show how incorporating the transformative power of ritual into everyday practice reinstates human and ethical significance in routines that become mechanistic within the prison system. I argue that SBB demonstrates—in their approach to appropriating a canonical script and in their everyday greetings—how ritualized activities aid in resisting the dehumanizing effects of a power structure that values efficiency over personal relationships. Ritualized practice carries meaning that the dominant discourse cannot subsume. The ambiguity of these practices then holds the potential to unify participants, creating community and organizing a redemptive social order. SBB actors enact their own rehabilitative rituals that aid in creating a liminal space where it becomes possible to reconstruct meaningful ethical relations. The result is a transformative experience for the inmates and the audience, revealing, by extension, a means of moving toward ethical rehabilitation for the isolated modern subject, as well.
Davis, Karen (2014). Rituals of Rehabilitation: Learning Community from Shakespeare Behind Bars. Master's thesis, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from