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I first read Macbeth when I was 13. The edition of the play we were given at school was neither a hardback nor a paperback but a hybrid of the two, with a bendable red cover, published by J. Dent and Co. in 1906. Like most things about my school, it had seen better days. In the margins of my copy, students before me had scrawled obscenities, blaming Shakespeare for their boredom.
The reigning educational theory of the time was the principle of “mixed ability,” which meant no streaming or sorting. It was considered unfair to single out any student for their application or achievements. There was no honor roll, no grade point average; very few students at my school were expected to go to college, and even fewer wanted to. Most of the time, I was frustrated and depressed, but there were teachers who went out of their way to help me. My English teacher was among them—a good-natured, old-fashioned man who, when he realized how much I loved to read, gave me extra lessons to help prepare me for university entrance exams.
It’s strange, looking back, to realize how little I knew about Mr. Johnson. I had no idea where he was from, where he had gone to college, whether he had a wife or family. I didn’t even know his first name. At school he was known as an “anorak” or “boffin”—the British equivalent of “nerd” or “geek.” He was shortsighted and absentminded, with unkempt eyebrows, rosacea, and oversized glasses that would keep slipping down his nose, and he had a nervous habit of sniffing every time he pushed them up. None of this put me off, although I was slightly dismayed when, on leaving school one day, I caught sight of him furtively smoking a cigarette at the bus stop, looking a little seedy. Never mind. I admired him for his intelligence and his love of literature, not his looks or his hygiene. I was honored that he’d singled me out for special treatment. He thought I deserved better.
I wish I’d been more appreciative of the time and attention Mr. Johnson offered me. Like most teenagers, I was graceless and awkward, caught up in my own affairs; I probably didn’t even thank him. On the other hand, the school must have been even more frustrating for him than it was for me—after all, I was just passing through—and the time we spent reading Shakespeare may have been as rewarding for him as it was for me. I hope so.
When I read Macbeth for the first time, I understood almost nothing. The play’s immediate subjects (kingship, Scottish history, nations at war) did not engage me, nor did I have any interest in theater. I loved Macbeth not for its story but for its language. I was fascinated by the weight of the words, their sequence and rhythm, the way they made me feel, even though they were often incomprehensible. Reading them, whether aloud or in my head, was like listening to a religious service in an archaic language. Not knowing what they meant made my faith even stronger, and their darkness had a profound effect on my imagination.
At school in the 1970s, all you got was the text itself. Nothing came between you and the book. When I handed out copies of Macbeth at the Jessup Correctional Institution, it felt like things had come full circle. Due to the restrictions of the prison, there was nothing between the men and Macbeth. There was, however, a major difference between the prison class and my own first encounter with the book. I’d chosen an edition with a modern translation opposite the original on each page, and although we mostly read aloud from the translation, we often went back over the original, as I wanted the men to get a sense and feel for Shakespeare’s language.
February 11, 2014
We reconvened after the holiday break on a chilly day in February. Most of the men were wearing heavyweight, long-sleeved thermals under their DOC blues. I asked them what had been going on since I’d last seen them. It was a tactless and insensitive question—nothing much happens in prison, and when it does, it’s almost always bad news.
“My sister passed away,” someone offered. “She was 76. I just heard the news last night.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Was she your only sister?”
“No, I’ve got five.”
“In that case, I guess you can spare one.”
I immediately cursed myself. It was a stupid joke, and not at all funny.
“Anyone else have any news?” I tried again.
There was a long pause. “I’ve been in the hospital,” said Charles. “I’ve been having problems with my eyes.”
For the first time, I noticed he looked drained. He was wearing dark glasses, and I could see the strain of a recent ordeal in his face.
“What happened?” I asked.
Charles gave a rusty chuckle. “It sounds kind of funny. I was having a bad dream, and I poked myself in the eye. It probably wouldn’t have done any serious damage, only I’ve had this cataract for the last two years. I’ve tried to get to see the eye doctor to get it removed, but they really don’t care. They said to me, ‘As long as you’ve got one eye that works, that’s all you need.’ Anyway, because of the cataract, when I injured myself, the retina and the iris got damaged, and they had to take me out to University of Maryland hospital for an emergency operation.”
“At least you got out of prison for a while,” I said. “That must have been a nice change.”
“No it wasn’t. They had me handcuffed to the hospital bed by an arm and a leg. After the operation, I had to wear this plastic shield over my head until the damage had healed. I couldn’t lie down or shift position because of the handcuffs. I was in so much pain I couldn’t sleep.”
“Didn’t they give you any medication?”
“They gave me something every six hours, but it wore off after four. Then they stopped giving me anything. They said it ran out. Said it was on back order. They’d put a catheter into my bladder because of the handcuffs—I couldn’t get up to go to take a piss—and it gave me a bladder infection. Felt like I needed to piss all day long.”
“That sounds awful. How are you doing now?”
“I’m feeling a little better every day.” He showed me his damaged eye underneath his glasses; it was bloodshot and badly swollen. “I need to keep it covered up to protect it. They said it’s going to take about two months for the eye to heal enough for them to do the follow-up surgery and insert the new lens. And that’s only if the surgery’s approved by the medical department.”
The other men were listening to Charles with sympathy, but without surprise. They’d all had similar experiences, or knew someone who had. Naïvely, I’d assumed that a trip out of the prison, even if it was to the hospital, must have been a pleasant change from the monotonous daily routine. Later, I came to realize how wrong I was. Trips “uptown,” whether to the hospital or the courtroom, meant the prisoner had to change into the requisite orange jumpsuit and “three-piece jewelry” (leg irons, waist chains, and handcuffs) and then sit in a hallway, often for hours at a time, waiting for paperwork to be filled out. If the paperwork wasn’t ready in time or if anything was missing, the appointment would be rescheduled, and another day would be spent the same way.
It’s difficult to walk in leg irons, so the CO accompanying the prisoner is supposed to hold his arm or waist chain to keep him from falling if he loses his balance. One of the men told me that once, when he was coming back from court, the CO who was supposed to be guiding him literally dropped him on his face, causing him to break his nose and lose most of his teeth. Later, when reading Macbeth, I wondered if the men found the play’s violence so engaging because, compared to the pointless, undignified brutality of prison life, it’s always important and purposeful, which may be why Shakespeare lingers on it so deliberately. We agreed that these descriptions of bloodshed provided some of the best lines in the play.
I asked the men whether any of them had heard of Macbeth. Most of them recognized the title but knew nothing about it, not even that it was a play by Shakespeare, which surprised me, since literature is usually more a part of school experience than art or music. But then, I recalled, many of these men hadn’t had much schooling, or hadn’t paid much attention if they had.
“I’d always assumed Macbeth was a girl,” said Charles.
“I never heard of Macbeth, but I heard of this cat Shakespeare,” said Turk.
I told them the play was written sometime between 1604 and 1606, when England and Scotland had just been united under the Scottish king James. I said some people thought Shakespeare wrote the play specifically to please the king, who was interested in witches and demons. I also told them about the superstition surrounding the play. I said some people thought if you pronounced the title in the theater, you’d be cursed.
“Like Bloody Mary,” said Day-Day.
“Right,” I said. “So who wants to read?”
At first, it was a little crazy. The men were confused by the layout of the lines on the page. Every so often, one of them would start reading the original lines on the facing page rather than the translation. Another would read the stage directions as part of the text, and someone else would forget who they were supposed to be. Everyone struggled with the names, especially Glamis and Cawdor. Still, we managed to wrestle our way through the first few scenes before the CO came in to take the count.
“So what did you make of your first day of Shakespeare?” I asked them when the CO had left.
“I love it,” said Steven. Others weren’t so easily satisfied. Charles said he was having trouble both reading aloud and understanding what was happening at the same time. (“I’m going to have to read it again back in my cell,” he said.) His damaged eye can’t have helped. Donald said he guessed he could get used to it. Sig, who had on a black knitted cap with a silver snowflake design, said he liked the history—the Scottish lords, their wars, and the violence.
“And the witches,” added Steven. “Gotta love those witches.”
“Do you think they’re lying?” I asked him.
“Sure,” said Steven. “Witches are always bad, right? That’s what makes them witches.”
“Uh-uh,” disagreed Donald. “What about Glinda the Good Witch?”
“Yeah,” Turk joined in. “What about that chick Samantha in Bewitched?”
“What about Jeannie in I Dream of Jeannie?” added Vincent. “I dreamed about her a lot, I can tell you.”
“Why do you think they chose Macbeth?” I asked.
“They know he’s ambitious,” suggested Sig. “They probably know he secretly wants to be king.”
“Or maybe they know he’s susceptible,” I said. “It’s possible they know he’ll twist what they say to match what he wants to believe. Look at Banquo’s lines in Act I, Scene III, where he warns Macbeth about the witches’ prophecies. ‘Oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s / In deepest consequence.’”
“That’s an old courtroom trick,” said Donald. “They say something that you agree with and you start nodding, then they add a lie to the end of it, and before you realize it you’re agreeing to some bullshit they’ve loaded on you.”
“I think you’ve got it,” I said, impressed.
As I drove home that day, I figured most of the men hadn’t really been able to follow much of the text, but I wasn’t worried. When I’d first read the play myself, I remember being fascinated by the images conjured up by the strange words on the page. I had the feeling I was somehow reading through the language to the direct emotion beneath. In a way, my lack of understanding served to fire my half-formed imagination, making the words even more evocative than they rightly should have been. For example, in Act III, Scene IV, Macbeth refers to “maggot-pies.” When I first read this phrase, I pictured a worm-encrusted pastry in an old-fashioned chafing dish, with a gravy boat full of blood on the side. Now I know that “maggot-pie” is an archaic term for a magpie; the “correct” meaning, when I learned it, was disappointing compared to the one I’d made up in my head.
For this reason, I like to stay open to misreadings. My own misapprehensions often give me what I need at the time. They become a tool, a way for me to get somewhere I need to go. Unconsciously, perhaps, I often misread for my own purposes. When I first read Macbeth, it was my ignorance that stirred my dormant consciousness, like a spell being cast. I was hoping some of the same magic that worked on me might also work on the men.
From The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison. Used with permission of Harper. Copyright 2016 by Mikita Brottman.