Shakespeare Behind Bars

TOP OF STORY Malkiel Choseed
OCC Writing Professor Malkiel Choseed

The inspiration came to Malkiel Choseed while he was attending a workshop focused on arts programming within prisons. Choseed is a professor who teaches writing at OCC. On a chilly February night he was watching a screening of the documentary, “Shakespeare Behind Bars” during which inmates in a Kentucky medium security prison were acting out a play and using the experience to reflect on their personal experiences. The screening also included a conversation with renowned prison arts practitioners Curt Tofteland and Tom Magill. “I started thinking about the possibility of doing something in a facility here,” said Choseed. “I also had to consider my own safety. Once I thought it through I knew I wanted to do it.”

Fast-forward four months. It was Monday, June 13. Choseed was inside the Central New York Psychiatric Center in Marcy about 10 miles west of Utica. He was surrounded by nine residents along with Therapeutic Assistants and other facility staff members. Choseed was leading a discussion about the Shakespeare play, “Macbeth.” It’s a violent tragedy which dramatizes the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek power for its own sake. “We talked about the language and how you read the play. We talked about the characters in the play. I took them to a couple of moments and we tried to figure out why Macbeth made the choices he made and what the consequences were.”

Choseed found the conversation throughout his two hour presentation to be fascinating, especially while they were discussing Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth who committed monstrous crimes against people. “One of the residents said, ‘I did a monstrous thing but I’m not a monster.’ It was intense.”

Choseed started and ended his conversation with the same message to the residents. “I told them, ‘I’m not a psychologist and I don’t work in the prison system; I teach English and Shakespeare. My goal is to have you feel more comfortable about reading and understanding a Shakespeare play.”

Choseed was encouraged by what he heard as he wrapped up his appearance. “The vocal residents seemed like they enjoyed it and said they would like to do it again. The psychologist who was there said it went well. I told her I would enjoy volunteering again some time.”

The effort turned out to be a therapeutic one for Choseed whose mother had passed away a few months earlier. She was a social worker who helped people with mental illnesses. “It didn’t matter who people were or what they had done. She always helped people both in her professional and personal life. Her life was an inspiration for me to do this. The individuals I spent time with did terrible things but if Shakespeare can help them learn or recognize what it is to be human that’s something positive.”