Reading William Shakespeare’s The Tempest at Stateville these past few weeks, I’ve been struck by the students’ understanding of “playing” as a means to live when subject to others’ unpredictable and arbitrary authority. I began the seminar thinking that our class would focus on the theme of education, but the act of playing—playing along with an assigned role, an uncomfortable situation, or a restrictive rule—has emerged as equally important to our discussions, as well as the uncomfortable question of whether play should be understood as an act of resistance or complicity.

From the first day of class, I found myself caught up in play. As many of you already know, I was instructed to collect any PNAP/UWW-supplied pens at the end of each class session, nominally leaving the students to complete multi-page essays with golf pencils outside of class. Since we’re conducting an intensive writing seminar, this directive is completely absurd, especially in light of the fact that other classes that meet in same space on the same day have not been made aware of this rule and have thus been distributing pens freely.

Had I known of the rule’s arbitrary application from the beginning and responded to the officer’s initial instructions with play, I could most likely have gotten away with a “yes, of course,” followed by complete disregard for what he said. Now, having once enacted the collection of pens and returned them to their locked cabinet in the principal’s office, I’m stuck repeating this nonsensical ritual each class session out of fear that I can no longer dissemble misunderstanding or ignorance.

Watching the students react to the unreasonable restriction, I’ve realized that play is a serious aspect of their lives. They’re aware of the rule, and yet everyday they come to class with their own pens. When I collect the pens I’ve distributed, we all play at not noticing that many are missing their inner ink tube or have otherwise been substituted. Play is a means to counter the restrictions imposed in this space, and, had I known to play from the start, the class would have the materials it needs without so much additional dissembling.

An awareness of the prevalence of play in the prison would also have made me less apprehensive about teaching a class with The Tempest as its core text. I was particularly concerned about reading lines aloud in class, given that many key scenes involve the play’s sole female character, Miranda, speaking about both her gender and sexuality. Who would read her lines?

In the novel adaptation of the play assigned as the final reading for the class, The Tempest is staged in a prison and a female actor is recruited to play Miranda. None of the men will take on a role they see as particularly vulnerable and without power. While some have taken this view in our class discussions, many of the men have interpreted Miranda as the consummate “player.” She plays along with the expectations of both her father and her suitor to some extent, but her declarations of obedience and submission ultimately gain her a seat on the throne of a unified Naples and Milan. Tellingly, so far the only person who has objected to reading her part had been absent from our initial discussion of the play.

Reading the play in tandem with Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, our conversations have been attuned to the play’s intertwined engagements with education and oppression. So far, a majority of the students have found Miranda’s plot line most compelling. While the men have been drawn to the character Caliban’s outspoken resistance and Ariel’s displays of power, they’ve ultimately been frustrated by their inability to escape their master Prospero’s control. For some, these scenes have felt familiar. A consensus quickly formed on Caliban and Ariel’s state of oppression and the ways in which Prospero uses education (and perhaps Miranda herself) to enforce it.

The class was more divided on how to interpret Miranda’s ability to play at the role she’s been educated to fill, given that she’s able to achieve a change in status by “playing along” despite her awareness of her knowledge and actions as constrained. We ended our last class with two unresolved questions written on the board: “Is Miranda oppressed?” and “Does Miranda oppress others?”

The outbreak of COVID-19 and our current healthcare system’s unsuitability for containing its spread has made it increasingly unlikely that our class will have the opportunity to continue to explore these questions while gathered together as a group. At the same time, I trust that the students will use their ingenuity to find ways to continue thinking, writing, and sharing their ideas about the course materials. I hope we’ll find some way for me to be a part of that process. That said, there are material realities that no amount of creative play will be able to surmount. I’m thankful for the efforts of those organizing for prisons in Illinois to take the actions necessary to mitigate the risk to the most vulnerable. 

Simone Waller currently teaches at Reed College. Previously she taught with PNAP/UWW and the Illinois Humanities Odyssey Project. She has also taught at North Park University and Northwestern University, where she recently completed a Ph.D. in English Literature. Her research focuses on the ways published political talk in dialogues and drama expanded the boundaries of legitimate political participation and expression in sixteenth-century England.