Shakespeare and Criminology

Henry Fuseli, Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers

Prince Hal, a juvenile delinquent. Macbeth, a veteran with PTSD. Hamlet pleads insanity. Broken-windows policing in Renaissance Italy. Can readings of crime and justice in Shakespeare’s plays help build a better criminology?

At a time when law enforcement is under intense scrutiny—including calls to abolish the police—this book bridges the social sciences with the humanities to suggest a new approach to public safety. It establishes an interdisciplinary field of “criminology and literature,” distinct from “law and literature.” It looks through the lens of criminology to unpack Shakespearean representations of crime and justice in plays like Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, and Titus Andronicus, which formulate criminal justice challenges involving hate crimes, fragile masculinity, and cultures of honor that remain with us to this day. It shows how people have modeled crimes on Shakespeare’s characters, how criminologists have used Shakespeare to build theory, and how Shakespeare has been an inspiration for modern crime fiction.

Ultimately, it argues that Shakespeare did criminology as tragedy two hundred years before the invention of this social scientific discourse, and that Shakespeare is a valuable avenue into a more skeptical, more humane vision of public safety. 



Shakespeare and Criminology


Violent Crime as Revenge Tragedy; Or, How Christopher Dorner Led Criminologists at CSU Long Beach to Shakespeare

"Redeeming time": The Dramatization of Desistance in 1 Henry IV


The Hamlet Syndrome (with Henry F. Fradella)


Macbeth and Criminology 


"When evil deeds have their permissive pass": Broken Windows in William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure 

Something is Rotten in the United States of America: Mass Shootings as Tragedy 


Shakespeare for Cops




Shortly after completing my English Ph.D., having written a dissertation on Shakespeare, I was hired to teach writing classes in the Department of Criminal Justice at Cal State, Long Beach. The chair of the department, a proponent of the value of the liberal arts in criminal justice education, wanted to emphasize writing in the department’s curriculum. Criminal justice employers in the area were telling him they needed their workers to be better writers. Halfway through my first year, after a student declared in class that revenge is perfect justice, we threw our readings in criminology out the window and read Hamlet. If you can understand how crime and justice work in Hamlet, understanding them out on the street is easy.

Can readings of Shakespeare’s criminals—the juvenile delinquent Prince Hal, the rapist lawman Angelo, the veteran with PTSD Macbeth—help create a better criminology? This book addresses the dynamic and mutually beneficial relationship between Shakespeare studies and criminology— how Shakespeare depicted crime and justice, how criminologists have used Shakespeare's drama, how criminology surfaces in modern Shakespearean adaptations, and how his works remain a valuable resource for criminology on both a theoretical level (helping criminology scholars build theories) and a pedagogical level (helping criminal justice professionals develop skills of analytical and ethical reasoning).

With the rise of “critical criminology” in the 1970s and a swell of more recent innovations—including “radical criminology," “newsmaking criminology,” “peacemaking criminology,” “cultural criminology,” “convict criminology,” “popular criminology,” "visual criminology,” “public criminology," and “narrative criminology”—criminologists have spent much of the past 50 years discovering new ways to do criminology, new people to do it, and new goals, challenging the twentieth-century tradition of thinking that criminology must be academic, scientific, and modern. These developments open up the possibility that Shakespeare was doing an early version of “criminology”—understood as the formal study of crime, criminals, criminal law, criminal justice, and social ills that could or should be criminalized.

As illustrated in this book, Shakespeare did criminology as tragedy, asking the core question of criminology—Who is to blame, the individual or the culture? That means Shakespeare was one of England’s first criminologists: the practice of developing abstract theories of why crime happens—precisely what Shakespearean tragedy does—is much older than the emergence of the word and the discipline of “criminology” late in the nineteenth century. Shakespearean tragedy and modern criminology exhibit a historical and conceptual affinity because the two discourses are different responses from two very different historical settings to the same question: Why do some people cause harm to others?

Previous scholars have paired Shakespeare and criminology in two ways. First, actors, directors, and critics have explored the value of Shakespeare as a tool for rehabilitating incarcerated criminals. Second, literary critics have used criminology to unpack Shakespeare’s plays. Yet it is not just criminals who can benefit from Shakespeare, but also criminologists. And the interpretation of Shakespeare is not the end-all be-all of life: as we use criminology to unpack Shakespeare, we can also use Shakespeare to build better criminological theory.

Thinking society through Shakespeare, this book brings together literary, legal, and sociological studies. Theory building in the social sciences is traditionally done on the foundation of empirical evidence, usually quantitative data but sometimes case studies. Shakespeare’s plays offer a special kind of case that, because it is artistic, has a conceptual density already at work. His works prompt observations that (1) help us understand ongoing experiences in life, (2) we might not recognize without the Shakespearean intervention, (3) are not true simply because they are in Shakespeare’s texts, and so (4) need to be rigorously, scientifically tested.

Shakespeare is a special site where his obsession with tragedy, usually involving issues of crime and justice, comes together with both his deep conditioning by the classical tradition, connecting us back up with ancient ethics and philosophy, and his continued popularity today, bridging the texts to urgent social issues. Shakespeare has something to offer criminology that other literary representations do not, at least not to the same extent. I am referring to the massive, centuries-long discourse of Shakespearean criticism. If Shakespearean representations of crime can reflect generalizable criminal patterns, and criminology‘s job is to identify, explain, and prevent those same patterns, then Shakespearean criticism is a huge, untapped resource for criminology: every interpretation of Shakespearean crime is a criminological hypothesis waiting to be theorized and tested.

Thus, Shakespeare has a significant, surprising, and unacknowledged role in both the history and the future of criminology. Was Shakespeare a criminologist? Can his centuries-old plays help us understand modern social problems? Can close readings of Shakespeare generate testable social scientific theories? Can classical literature have policy implications for modern criminology and criminal justice? This book answers “yes.”

It establishes an interdisciplinary field of “criminology and literature,” related to yet distinct from “law and literature.” It creates curriculum for a “Shakespeare for Cops” program. It changes the way we tell the story of criminology, not only because Shakespeare pre-dated the purported beginnings of criminology by nearly two centuries, but also because much recent criminology is remarkably Shakespearean in its sensibilities.

For Shakespeareans, this book is an invitation to extend the practice of reading Shakespeare beyond literary and cultural theory and into the theoretical discourse most pertinent to tragedy, namely criminology. For criminologists, the book points forward to a new frontier of integration: joining with the humanities to ask how the resources of humanistic thought, both classical art and contemporary scholarship, can help us better understand and prevent crime. Interpreting Shakespeare provides analytical training: learning to better understand and prevent crime by discerning the social and individual factors that bring it about. And it provides ethical training: learning to recognize and negotiate the moral dilemmas associated with police work.


Chapter One

Violent Crime as Revenge Tragedy;

Or, How Christopher Dorner Led Criminologists at CSU Long Beach to Shakespeare


In February 2013, ex-LAPD officer Christopher Dorner went on a violent rampage against his former colleagues, a killing spree and manhunt that consumed the attention of Southern California for more than a week. For the students in my “Introduction to Criminal Justice Research, Writing, and Reasoning” course at California State University, Long Beach, the Dorner affair was their first real opportunity to apply the theories of criminology and criminal justice they were learning about in our classroom to an event that was happening right outside our door. This event was no less of a discovery for me, a discovery of the applicability of a very different kind of knowledge. My Ph.D. is in English. My dissertation was about Shakespeare. What was a Shakespeare scholar doing teaching criminal justice classes? I was asking myself the same thing, but it was a time when jobs in English departments were hard to come by, and it turned into a powerful example of “academic drift.” This chapter takes a look back at the week that started this project, the week of Christopher Dorner.


Chapter Two

Shakespeare and Criminology


This chapter suggests that Shakespeare’s plays offer an embryonic version of criminology, and that they remain a valuable resource for the field, both a theoretical and a pedagogical resource. On the one hand, for criminology scholars, Shakespeare can open up new avenues of theoretical consideration, for the criminal events depicted in his plays reflect complex philosophical debates about crime and justice, making interpretations of those events inherently theoretical; reading a passage from Shakespeare can be the first step in building a new theory of criminology. On the other hand, for criminology students, Shakespeare can initiate and sustain an intellectual transition that is fundamental to their professionalization, namely the transition from what I call a “simplistic” to a “skeptical” model of criminology. For this reason, I recommend that criminologists try what the Shakespearean scholar Julia Reinhard Lupton has called “thinking with Shakespeare.” Thinking with Shakespeare is particularly valuable for criminologists because Shakespeare coded ancient philosophical ideas about crime and justice into the words and deeds of his characters: interpreting the drama takes us into the philosophy, and the philosophy provides us with the conceptual equipment for a better criminology.


Chapter Three

Crime as Drama, Justice as Theatre


Chapter 3 offers some theoretical foundations for a Shakespearean approach to crime and justice: crime as drama and justice as theatre. First, Shakespeare’s drama opens up to us a criminology that takes seriously the notion of “the scene of the crime”—with its authors, actors, audiences, genres, conventions, characters, plots, costumes, props, settings, scripts, and speeches—a dramaturgy discussed in a reading of the deliberately Shakespearean structure and tenor of the most famous crime in U.S. history, John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Second, scenes such as Shylock’s hearing in The Merchant of Venice and Angelo’s trial in Measure for Measure stage – literally stage – the deep theatricality of the justice system; just consider the theatrical architecture of the courthouse or the police press conference, with their front- and back-stages, their scripted speeches and improvisations, and us in the audience looking on.


Chapter Four

“Redeeming time”: The Dramatization of Desistence in 1 Henry IV


Working up from Prince Hal’s “redeeming time” soliloquy to some modern examples, this chapter addresses the problem of planned desistance from crime, especially insofar as planned desistance can actually contribute to the present persistence of criminal behavior. What I call the dramatization of desistance in Hal’s soliloquy encourages us to bring Shakespeare into dialog with the emerging field of “narrative criminology.” Theorists in this field attend to narratives of crime not as retrospective recitations of past criminal behavior but as constitutive events that can contribute to crime. Thus, this essay works from Shakespeare to a testable social scientific hypothesis for the dramatization of desistance: in both the private stories we tell ourselves and the public stories our cultures create, narratives imagining desistance from crime can become a juvenile delinquent’s justification for the persistence of criminal behavior. As I built and evaluated the notion of the dramatization of desistance for this chapter, I sought to bridge the gap between humanistic and scientific thinking by arranging a series of conversations with criminologists working in the field of narrative criminology. Shadd Murana, Professor of Criminology at the University of Manchester, and Lois Presser, Professor of Sociology at the University of Tennessee, were kind enough to share their expertise. Interviews with them are incorporated in my attempt to theorize the dramatization of desistance in the second half of this essay, but first comes the foundation for this theory in an account of Hal’s “redeeming time” soliloquy from the perspective of traditional literary studies.


Chapter Five

“More than a prison”: The Transformation of Deviance in The Tempest


Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest, suggests that there are real dangers in mocking and demonizing the criminal, even one as offensive as a rapist. What Shakespeare dramatizes in Prospero’s response to the incident with Caliban is the difficulty victims have letting a criminal justice system run its course as they are consumed with anguish, with a torment that is often expressed in hatred and violence, which is perhaps understandable but also regrettable because it extends the injury of the original crime. The challenge of criminal justice on Prospero’s island is the same challenge of criminal justice in our societies, a challenge rarely appreciated in popular culture, and even in professional criminology: How do we administer a system of retributive justice when, as a rule, a criminal’s punishment cannot possibly undo the damage, pain, and suffering done to a victim? This is the kind of question Shakespeare’s drama leaves us with – a question, not an answer – for the value of Shakespeare’s art, and the reason it has remained such a popular force in Western culture, is that he brings us to ask such questions, questions that simply cannot be answered once and for all, in some sort of universal salve that might remain true everywhere and always, but questions that must be answered by particular individuals and societies in the context of their particular histories, problems, and aspirations.


Chapter Six

Hate Crimes in The Merchant of Venice: Folk Devils and Scapegoats


This chapter addresses the causes and effects of hate crimes in William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice. Since World War II, literary critics have consistently noted, and bemoaned, the play's anti-semitism; most recently, Stephen Greenblatt has suggested that “hatred” is the theme of the play, a reading that puts the Jewish-Christian tensions in Merchant in conversation with the Arab-American tensions in modern terrorism. Merchant has therefore played an active role in recent religious and cultural studies, but the play has not been considered in the vocabulary of criminal justice, specifically that of “hate crime.” This chapter aims to fill this gap by looking at crime in Merchant through the lens of criminological theories such as Frank Tannenbaum’s “dramatization of evil” and Stanley Cohen's “folk devils.” I argue that Shakespeare, writing The Merchant of Venice in and against the tradition of revenge tragedy, made Shylock both a victim and the perpetrator of hate crimes, which makes hatred both the cause and effect of crime. On the one hand, moral entrepreneurs concerned with cultural prosperity can raise a moral panic that makes those identified as “others” into folk devils, effectively leading to hatred and hostility against those whose identities set them apart from the professed norms and values of a society. On the other hand, when the victims of hate crimes seek justice for the wrongs done to them, that justice is constitutionally not forthcoming from the society that made them into folk devils, and that justice must therefore be carried out by the individual him- or herself: in other words, that justice is enacted as revenge, and that revenge is sought not against the individual who committed the initial hate crime but against the society that created the folk devil in the first place. I locate this theory of hate crimes in a reading of Shakespeare's Shylock, a Jew who is spit upon and kicked just for being Jewish, and who attempts to murder his assailant in response. I also consider a modern case, the Boston marathon bombing of 2013, in which the perpetrators were motivated by revenge, not the desire to incite fear. As I conclude, a reading of The Merchant of Venice can provide us with new ways of thinking about the kind of crime commonly called “terrorism,” a kind of crime that is rarely about inciting fear, one that is usually about exacting revenge; it could be useful, with reference to the literary tradition in which Shakespeare wrote Merchant, to rebrand what is commonly called “terrorism” as “revenge tragedy.” Finally, the changes Shakespeare made to his sources, turning tragedy into comedy, offer us a way of thinking about persistence in and desistence from revenge, as I discuss with reference to the split fates of the two Tsarnaev brothers who committed the Boston Marathon bombing.


Chapter Seven

The Culture of Honor in Titus Andronicus: Rape, Racism, and Revenge


This chapter addresses the problem of violent crime committed by military veterans. Psychological studies have addressed the link between post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) acquired through military service and violent crime. Without disputing this research, I suggest that the problem may be sociological as well: violent crime committed by veterans may be not simply the result of a psychological "disorder" (the D in PTSD) but also an unfortunate extension of the notionally healthy sociological order learned during military service. Thus, I consider the military as an example of what Richard Nisbert and Dov Cohen called a "culture of honor," a culture in which one's reputation is everything and a culture that is marked by a readiness to perceive and violently respond to disrespectful threats to one's reputation. As I argue, the heavy emphasis on honor in the military, while usually a source of ethical action, can in some cases have unpredictable and disastrous consequences. The culture of honor in the military can condition soldiers such that demilitarized veterans feel compelled to seek violent revenge when they think someone has slighted their integrity. This argument has its origin in an unconventional source: William Shakespeare's play Titus Andronicus, which opens with the title character returning from war and ritually slaughtering the eldest son of his enemy's empress. I use this example to theorize the military as a culture of honor; then I use this theory to address some modern cases of violent crime committed by veterans, such as Christopher Dorner's 2013 killing spree, which he waged, he said, to defend his honor. I conclude with a call for criminologists to consider the extent to which violent crime committed by veterans is a psychological or a sociological phenomenon: that is, the extent to which violent crime committed by veterans stems, on the one hand, from stress related to trauma experienced during war or, on the other hand, from the culture of honor in the military itself.


Chapter Eight

“When evil deeds have their permissive pass”: Broken Windows in Measure for Measure


This chapter considers some questions of crime, criminal justice, and criminology in William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (1604). In this play, Shakespeare represented the theories of criminology and criminal justice that George Kelling and James Wilson recommended nearly four centuries later in their famous essay “Broken Windows” (1982). While this observation allows us to consider the possibility that Shakespeare was doing criminology centuries before there was an organized academic discipline called “criminology,” a close reading of Measure for Measure also allows us to identify some of the faulty thinking in “broken windows” policing. Specifically, Shakespeare’s play shows the abuses of power that can occur when individual law enforcement agents receive both a mandate to crackdown on social disorder and the authority to decide for themselves what counts as disorder and how to fight it. Thus, while recent social scientific research has cast doubt upon “broken windows” policing, this approach to crime control was already discredited by William Shakespeare more than 400 years ago.


Chapter Nine

Macbeth and Criminology: Masculinity, Madness, and Murder


Using the example of Macbeth, this chapter explores the relationship between Shakespearean tragedy and modern criminology in an effort to bridge the different methods of theorizing about crime in the humanities and the social sciences. A historicist account of the appropriation of Shakespeare in criminology morphs into the active appropriation of Shakespeare for criminology and criminology for Shakespeare studies. Thus, the article ranges from reading the theme of ambition in Shakespeare’s Scottish play through the lens of criminologist Robert Merton’s critique of the American Dream; to unpacking misogynistic footnotes in nineteenth-century Italian works of criminology by the likes of Caesar Lombroso; to analyzing recent productions of Macbeth influenced by the invention of psychology (Alan Cummings’s 2013 one-man show on Broadway in which “it’s all in his head,” and Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film in which the hero returns from war with post-traumatic stress disorder). As these examples illustrate, Macbeth not only poses the central question of criminology – Who is to blame, the individual or the society? – but also, like modern criminology, considers the causes of crime and tragedy in the context of contributing factors such as gender, class, and mental illness. These parallels raise the possibility that tragedy was criminology for pre-modern cultures.


Chapter Ten

Shakespearean Due Process: Detection, Delay, and the Death Penalty in Hamlet


This chapter concerns the course of justice in Hamlet, specifically the problem of Hamlet’s delay. I suggest that the debate about Hamlet’s delay in literary criticism (whether it makes the play a success or a failure) can be extrapolated to a comparable debate about delays in executing death penalty sentences in modern society (whether they make our criminal justice system a success or a failure). As I argue, Hamlet’s delay is a dramatization of due process in criminal justice proceedings. In both Hamlet and modern society, there is a significant gap of time between the sentence and the execution of capital punishment because those responsible for the administration of justice (on both an individual and an institutional level) feel a deep ambivalence about performing the very act they are punishing, namely homicide. This ambivalence manifests in an often extensive, occasionally absurd, and explicitly theatrical public performance of the justice system’s inability to act. This performance, in turn, engenders a polarized response from the public audience that observes the dramatization of due process: the idealists who demand absolute justice express frustration while the realists who value procedural justice express appreciation for the delays in executing a sentence of capital punishment. I locate this logic in a reading that parallels the plot of Hamlet with the stages of capital punishment cases, from a criminal investigation to a trial to a lengthy appeals process to a public execution.


Chapter Eleven

The Hamlet Syndrome (with Henry F. Fradella)


Bringing together legal, literary, and cultural studies, this article builds from a close reading of madness in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet to some psycho-social theories of malingering and the insanity defense in the modern United States. The basis of these theories is the notion that feigned madness – whether purposeful malingering or a failed insanity defense – often signifies actual madness of a lesser sort. When someone is found to be “faking it,” however, that discovery can result in a widespread assumption of mental health in the person on trial, an assumption that often turns out to be wrong.


Chapter Twelve

Something is Rotten in the United States of America:

Mass Shootings as Tragedy


Politicians, stop saying mass shootings are tragedies unless you’re going to do what literary critics do with tragedies: actually interpret them. Ill-conceived habits and beliefs institutionally codified at the level of government can create a situation where an individual’s moral failures create out-sized pain, suffering, death, and the downfall of nations. That is the thesis of all of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Shakespeare was obsessed with contextualizing the immediate cause of catastrophe with the root causes. Shakespearean tragedy shows that individual actions have cultural origins. By the same token, America’s mass shooting problem will require a cultural solution. To be clear, I am not advocating for a solution here. I’m stating a fact: mass shootings will continue in America until enough people die that the pity and fear we feel in response to tragedy transform into activism effective enough to create the cultural momentum needed to elect the politicians needed to pass gun control laws strict enough to significantly reduce the number of guns in the country. That’s not a wish; it’s not a plea. That’s just how this plays out.


Chapter Thirteen

Constable Dogberry:

Criminal Justice as Comedy


This chapter considers criminal justice as comedy in a reading that juxtaposes Dogberry, the inept constable in Much Ado About Nothing, with the modern stereotype of the “dumb cob.” I argue for a connection between genre and the judgment of the audience. Just as audiences are generally willing to laugh off Dogberry’s ineptitude because, after all, it’s a comedy and everything works out in the end, modern citizens often overlook failings in police conduct when an aura of public safety is achieved. Happy endings bring audiences to relax their moral judgments of ineptitude—to laugh them off.


Chapter Fourteen

Shakespeare for Cops


Skills training, weapons training, physical training – but cops can’t forget to train what they rely on more than anything else: their minds. Part of the movement to strengthen analytical and ethical intelligence in police work, the “Shakespeare for Cops” program is a meeting of minds among academics, the police, and the public. Creating a new community partnership and fostering trust among groups sometimes suspicious of each other, the program shows that cops can help scholars and citizens understand how crime and justice work in Shakespeare’s plays. And studying Shakespeare leads to better policing. How? Because interpreting crime and justice in Shakespeare’s plays brings one to recognize the hidden causes of crime and the pitfalls of even the most well-intentioned attempts to enact justice. To develop this claim, this article starts with the story of Tim Smith, a cop-turned-author who writes novels starring a Shakespeare-quoting cop in San Diego. It then details the current needs and desires for humanistic education in police departments, reviews some successful programs already underway, and reports the results of interviews with leaders in this movement. The “Shakespeare for Cops” curriculum is then summarized – offering plays to consider and questions to ask – and possible venues are discussed. In the end, “Shakespeare for Cops” illustrates that intelligence and ethics are not personality traits that some people have and some don’t. They’re talents that can be learned, and skills that need to be practiced.


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