The central reason for Shakespeare’s continued appeal over the last four centuries is his ability to depict reality, to give a true portrait of the real universe we inhabit. In particular, Shakespeare gives us insight into the human condition. It is important to note that Shakespeare’s portrayal of reality is not banal like so-called “reality” TV---dull, predictable, meaningless and crass. Rather, Shakespeare's portrayal of reality is rich, textured and at times, sharply perceptive and deeply painful. This portrayal of reality is often lost by modern audiences because of the poetic depiction. Indeed, I have never met three, bearded witches in the Scottish highlands nor have I been caught in the midst of a bloody family feud in fair Verona. But poetry is often a better venue for communicating the intangible realities of life in this universe.
Such is the case for prisoners at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center. For the prisoners, the reality of Hamlet was both remarkably real in a literal sense and poetic sense. Recently, my brother sent me an article by Jill Carattini (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries) where she cites a performance of Hamlet, which was performed at this correctional facility (1):
“…For a group of prisoners at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, Hamlet, both the man and the play, hit disruptively home. Over the course of six months, a prison performing arts program gave a handful of criminals, who are living out the consequences of their violent crimes, the chance to delve into a story about a man pondering a violent crime and its consequences. The result was a startling encounter for both the players, most of whom were new to Shakespeare, and the instructors, who long thought they knew every angle to Shakespeare’s tale, but came to see how much they had missed. One man, in order to play the character Laertes, found himself reckoning with the temptation to manipulate as a means of getting what you want, only to realize a kind of cowardice in such actions. In a moment of clarity through the life of another, he admits, ‘I can identify with that [struggle] and I can play that role very well—because I’ve been playing that role my whole life....To put a gun in somebody’s face—that’s an unfair advantage. That’s a cowardly act. And that’s what criminals are; we’re cowards.’ He then admits with striking transparency, ‘I am Laertes. I am. I am.’”
What struck me most powerfully about this story is how a “fictional character” impressed upon the convict’s heart the true nature of his actions and his crimes… All the legal statements and court proceedings, media articles, victim impact statements---even a cold, hard prison cell---failed to show him the deep, cowardly reality of his crime. It took a story, a four hundred year old story, to awaken his soul and his mind to reality.
This event reminded me of the prophet Nathan when he told a story to David. It was a parable that David took literally; David's reaction was outrage and cries for justice, until Nathan said, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12). David failed to see the wickedness of his adultery and his scheme of murder until confronted with a story. Even in Hamlet, the pensive prince uses drama to elicit the guilt of the murderous brother Claudius: “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” (II.ii). Claudius couldn’t help but react when confronted with the reality of his crimes through imaginative storytelling.
This is why God created humanity with an imagination---not to waste on wishful thinking or empty dreaming---but to gain a clearer picture of reality. Carattini continues in her article to comment on Jesus’ use of story. She writes, “Jesus places us beside images of a kingdom that turns things around, stories that shock and offend us, metaphors that wake us to the presence of a surprising God, to the mindsets and pieties that block us from seeing this God, and to the abundance of divine grace that beckons us to look again and again.” May you exercise your imagination when you read Shakespeare and when you read the Scriptures. Awaken your mind to the poetry, the imagery, not for art’s sake but for Christ’s. Don’t forget to imagine.
(1) As heard on This American Life with Ira Glass, 218: Act V, October 12, 2007.