My research investigates the growing phenomenon of Prison Shakespeare—a rapidly expanding community of prison arts programs in which ensembles of men or women who are incarcerated work with outside facilitators to stage performances of Shakespeare. This article is drawn from my first-hand research on Jonathan Shailor’s Shakespeare Prison Project, a program for men who are currently incarcerated at Racine Correctional Institution in Wisconsin. This article is based on my observations of two Shakespeare Prison Project (SPP) rehearsals, their 2017 performance of The Merchant of Venice
, and focus groups that I conducted with fifteen members of the ensemble. This article focuses on casting practices and explores the ethical paradox that arises within the hypermasculine environment of men’s prisons, where men cast to play women’s roles face a heightened risk of violence, and yet, where creating positive representations of women is of paramount importance for disrupting the violent misogyny demanded by that hypermasculine environment. Setting SPP in relation to other programs for men, I demonstrate how certain casting practices risk perpetuating toxic masculinities, while others demonstrate the potential to foster alternative masculinities. Based on the insights offered by participants, I argue further that this process is contingent upon the ensemble’s authorization
of those alternative masculinities.
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