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Literature and Crime - Prison

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Writers have long described prison as a state of mind rather than a place of confinement. Hamlet tells his false friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that Denmark seems to be a prison. "We think not so, my lord," says Rosencrantz. Replies Hamlet insightfully, "why, then 'tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison." Shakespeare's melancholy but thoughtful Dane then adds: "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a King of infinite space" (act 2, scene 2).

Such thoughts must have been in the English literary air in the seventeenth century. For Milton has Satan echo the same sentiment: "The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n." And of course Restoration poet Richard Lovelace, in "To Althea from Prison," famously said: "Stone walls do not a prison make,/Nor iron bars a cage" (The Viking Book of Poetry of the English-speaking World 445–446 (Richard Aldington, ed. 1958)).

Actual prison life rarely fares well in literature. The Bible describes Joseph's relatively easy prison sojourn in an Egyptian prison but makes us feel for the blind Samson imprisoned by the Philistines, "eyeless in Gaza." Drawing once again on the Bible, Milton used Samson's prison plight as the basis of his poem Samson Agonistes. Dickens's descriptions of imprisonment for debt are unforgettable, as are Solzhenitzyn's of the gulag. And Oscar Wilde used poetry to tell the world of his prison experience in The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

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