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“My Prison House”: Teaching about Incarcerated Shakespeareans during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Sheila T. Cavanagh
Emory University

Since the 2010 creation of The World Shakespeare Project (WSP),1 my Shakespeare classes at Emory University in Atlanta regularly include videoconferencing sessions with academic and artistic partners around the globe. As this collaborative, primarily electronic, endeavor developed, the WSP forged strong ties with classroom technology experts at Emory and experimented with innumerable videoconferencing platforms before migrating to the now ubiquitous Zoom. These circumstances put me in the fortunate position to be able to transition comparatively seamlessly to an online format when COVID-19 intervened, particularly since there are so many excellent electronic resources already available for early modern pedagogy. This upper division course, “Shakespeare in Text and Performance,” typically includes a number of filmed (or live) performances and a significant focus on Shakespeare for specialized audiences, with a particular emphasis upon Shakespeare in Prison programs. The students come from many disciplines and have varying levels of prior experience with Shakespeare. When I readjusted my syllabus, I decided to build upon conversations we had earlier in the term, but did not feel tied to prior choices of texts, productions, or assignments. Since this class is not organized around a particular set of plays, I felt free to organize the second part of the syllabus in ways that made sense in the context already established, but without restricting us to materials chosen in a radically different environment. Furthermore, rather than presuming that I could create appropriate slap dash video lectures, I decided to lean heavily upon the many excellent resources already available, such as the Folger Library’s podcast series on a range of Shakespearean topics and Oxford University Professor Emma Smith’s recorded Shakespeare lectures. MIT professor, Diana Henderson, serendipitously released extensive electronic materials on The Merchant of Venice this spring,2 so I also decided to include that play. Teaching in a field blessed with so many talented colleagues, I knew I could trust these scholars’ expertise as I quickly assembled an array of films, podcasts, and modules my students could access from diffuse time zones and environments.

Most fortuitously, however, my long-standing pleas to the library for access to Phyllida Lloyd’s Donmar Warehouse Shakespeare prison trilogy finally bore fruit at the end of February 2020 when Film and Media Studies Librarian James Steffen notified me that students could now stream these filmed productions through the Woodruff Library website. This unexpected timing could not have been better. While there are an increasing number of productions that can be streamed, this series meant that I could extend our focus on Shakespeare in Prison programs even as we all transitioned into what many termed “lockdown.” While “sheltering in place” does not even remotely resemble the conditions facing our incarcerated Shakespearean colleagues, particularly as COVID-19 raged through many prisons, we were still able to expand this important aspect of our Shakespearean curriculum while inhabiting spaces that increased our ability to focus on how and why this drama currently flourishes in jails and prisons and to consider the obstacles facing these programs during times of widespread contagion. This was not how the course was originally designed, but the resources available made this turn feasible.

When we began the semester, I was in India on a research trip, visiting prison programs directed by Alokanadra Roy in Kolkata and Hulugappa Kattimani in Mysore. I missed the first class session, so fellow Emory Shakespearean and remarkable Common Good Atlanta prison educator, Sarah Higinbotham, met with my students, preparing them to watch Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB) over the MLK weekend. We normally welcome SBB alumnus Sammie Byron to our Atlanta classroom, but the novel coronavirus disrupted that plan. Still, we watched the documentary detailing Curt Tofteland’s ground-breaking work and ESC’s Mickey B (the Northern Irish Prison Macbeth). We then talked with Mickey B director Tom Magill over videoconferencing from Belfast. We also discussed previous Emory undergraduates’ lengthy collaboration with Steve Rowland and a group of incarcerated Shakespeareans in Washington State.3 As we delved into our study of this early modern drama, we discussed numerous facets of the Shakespearean work being done in correctional facilities around the world. The syllabus included many other perspectives on these plays, but these programs were situated at the heart of our endeavors and helped us talk about important aspects of the texts.

Like faculty around the world, I needed to reassess my pedagogical plans quickly during March 2020. I had intended to investigate several more plays, with a culminating creative project and essay where students would incorporate a range of other disciplinary and/or artistic perspectives into their explorations of the drama. Given the level of uncertainty associated with the novel coronavirus pandemic, it seemed unwise to continue with this significant assignment. Students’ environments during quarantine remained largely unknowable. Some would have access to a wide range of resources; others would be working, looking after siblings, and jockeying for internet connections. I decided to reimagine a term that would be intellectually rewarding, but which could be completed in a variety of circumstances so long as students had stable, even if intermittent, internet service. I sent out messages to everyone, asking them to contact me if they anticipated electronic problems, planning to work things out individually with those facing particularized challenges. The final project no longer seemed practical, since students would be contending with circumstances that were not yet clear. Writing additional essays seemed equally beneficial and less problematic.

As I rapidly reconceptualized the syllabus, the filmed versions of the Donmar Warehouse Trilogy immediately sprang to mind. These plays were presented as though they were Shakespearean productions mounted in a female prison. Rightly acclaimed, the performances offered by Harriet Walter and the rest of the cast are masterful. Unlike SBB and Mickey B, these plays are not set in an actual correctional facility, nor do they present incarcerated actors. Nevertheless, our earlier discussions made these productions particularly apt for this unexpectedly disrupted semester. Bolstered by relevant podcasts offered by the Folger and by Emma Smith, the students were able to read the plays, watch the broadcasts, gather for Zoom discussions, and write remarkably astute papers, since we were building upon conversations and issues raised earlier in the term, when we had the luxury of face-to-face meetings.

At the same time, the international network of Shakespeare in Prison practitioners created a number of relevant events I was either able to steer students towards or keep them apprised of. Jonathan Shailor of the Shakespeare Prison Project, for example, organized a welcome and dynamic series of weekly readings of Shakespeare plays by prison practitioners and alumni that anyone could stream.4 One of the English participants, Rowan Mackenzie, also participated in a Worshipful Company of Educators (WCE) Zoom discussion session designed for that group’s Education in the Criminal Justice System committee. Mackenzie, the director of Shakespeare UnBard, recently won a WCE Inspirational Educator Award for Teaching Shakespeare in Challenging Settings for her theatrical work in several UK prisons. Information about the educational packs she is organizing for dissemination while face-to-face education is impossible opened up further topics for discussion in class as we considered the role of Shakespeare in twenty-first century prison education programs and the ways that COVID-19 had disrupted all of our educations.5

Few of us would have chosen to teach remotely this past 0term if circumstances had been different, but I remain grateful for the many remarkable Shakespearean scholars and arts practitioners whose efforts helped keep my Shakespeare class vibrant and rewarding. The Shakespeare in Prison conference meets biannually and has helped create a generous community of talented and engaged collaborators. Combined with the many electronic materials created by innumerable erudite Shakespearean academics and the proliferation of streamed performances and films, the work of these interconnected cohorts made it possible to teach effectively. I have nothing but gratitude for being part of such an extraordinary world to rely on in such unusual circumstances. Prison education became more prominent in our discussions of the plays than I had originally planned, but the perspectives of incarcerated Shakespeareans, in conjunction with the electronic endeavors of senior Shakespeare colleagues, made it possible for my students to complete work they were proud of, while recognizing that their understanding of Shakespeare was considerable. Students also gained the added benefit of new perspectives on the important, dynamic role of education in correctional facilities and the unexpected shared experiences of studying Shakespearean drama.

Sheila T. Cavanagh is Professor of English at Emory University and Director of the World Shakespeare Project. She teaches Shakespeare, Contemporary Drama, and Exhibition Design. Her students regularly discuss Shakespeare with undergraduates, arts practitioners, and others around the world.

1 The WSP uses videoconferencing and some site visits to link students, faculty, and arts practitioners around the world. “World Shakespeare Project,” Facebook.

2 Diana Henderson, “Global Shakespeares: Re-Creating the Merchant of Venice,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

3 Sheila T. Cavanagh and Steve Rowland, “‘Those Twins of Learning’: Cognitive and Affective Learning in an Inclusive Shakespearean Curriculum,” Critical Survey 31, no. 4 (2019): 54–64.

4Participants from many relevant organizations, such as SBB, Feast of Crispian, Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble, Shakespeare at Notre Dame, Marin Shakespeare, and the Redeeming Time Project, joined in from England, Australia, and the United States. The Shakespeare in Prisons Network, Othello, YouTube.

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