William Shakespeare wrote: [As You Like It, Act II, Scene vii].
All the world is a stage
Well from the plethora of literary and narrative representations of characters in prison, one could equally state:
All the world is a prison.
From Viktor Frankl’s work “Man’s Search for Meaning” to Sohlzenitsyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich“, to Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption“,
and added to by prisoner of war movies such as “The Great Escape“, J G Ballard’s “The Empire of the Sun” and more recently the biopic of Louis Zamperini, “Unbroken” the list of prison dramas goes on and on and on.
Men and women trapped within a confined space with others of diverse backgrounds and with complex stories, facing chafing constraints, hardship and oftentimes abusive treatment from powerholders – seem to carry the strongest metaphors for the experience of living.
Narratives of mental asylums as prisons go even deeper.
Consider “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” and Scorcese’s bad but good “Shutter Island.” Throw in a bit of madness and give the crazy ones the dialogue that makes the most sense.
Oppose this by giving the sane, dialogue full of subterfuge and chicanery and the metaphors escalate.
Shakespeare saw his world as a play; madness, hubris, revenge, love and lust were all played out upon the dusty boards of a theatre and observed by a crowd for their entertainment, edification and esteem.
More modern narratives see this world as a madhouse, a prison of sorts, ruled by despotic guards, nurses and gatekeepers. No great narrator rules this universe, the protagonists struggle for hope, alone with other inmates for cheer.
Prison it seems a perfect platform to explore existential meaning for each generation. Within the constraints, tension, trials and suffering of this petri-dish, the characters explore what it is to “be” and find their “why” for living.
Prison dramas at their best bring out the why of living.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote: