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.
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.