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.”
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.
This essay looks into the past of criminology as a way to think about its future. I take a philological approach to the word criminology, looking at the etymology and history of that word, to argue for a new definition of the field: Criminology is the systematic study of crime, criminals, criminal law, criminal justice, and criminalization. I expand and explain this definition with respect to some common and (I argue) misguided dictates of criminology as it is traditionally understood. Specifically, I argue that criminology is usually but not necessarily academic and scientific, which means that criminology can be public and/or humanistic. I arrive at these thoughts by presenting some early English instances of the word criminology which predate the attempt to theorize a field of criminology in Italy and France in the 1880s, and I offer some new readings of those Italian and French texts. These philological analyses then come into conversation with some twentieth-century attempts to define the field and some twenty-first-century innovations in an effort to generate a definition of criminology that is responsive to the diversity of criminology in both its original formation and its ongoing transformations. Thus, the virtue of this new understanding of criminology is its inclusiveness: It normalizes unorthodox criminological research, which opens up new possibilities for jobs and funding in the name of criminology, which holds the promise of new perspectives on crime, new theories of criminology, and new policies for prevention and treatment.
King Hamlet is a tyrant and King Claudius a traitor but, because Shakespeare asked us to experience the events in Hamlet from the perspective of the young Prince Hamlet, we are much more inclined to detect and detest King Claudius’s political failings than King Hamlet’s. If so, then Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, so often seen as the birth of modern psychology, might also tell us a little bit about the beginnings of modern politics as well.
This paper 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.