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Masculinity in Prison

December 21, 2013

So this came up today:

MARTIUS [CORIOLANUS]:           Come I too late?

COMINIUS:

            Ay, if you come not in the blood of others,

            But mantled in your own.

MARTIUS:                                         O, let me clip you

            In arms as sound as when I wooed, in heart

            As merry as when our nuptial day was done

            And tapers burnt to bedward!                    [They embrace.]

COMINIUS:

            Flower of warriors, how is ‘t with Titus Lartius?              [1.6.36-43]

One of the men identified something which will be a recurring subject in Coriolanus: Whom or what does he love? Or, as Menenius phrases the question later in the play, “Pray you, who does the wolf love?”

I have my own ideas about Coriolanus’s love, but for the moment, right here, right now, he is addressing Cominius with the language of marital romance. What does Shakespeare mean by this? What would this look like onstage?

The conversation opened up at this point. What several of the men said, in their various ways, is that notions of sexuality get in the way of expressions of same-sex affection, and this problem is especially fraught in the context of prison. Straight men have only the limited time of visitation to see their wives or girlfriends (if they visit at all), and with decades of time behind bars, the people the men will get to know best are each other. On the one hand, how does a person maintain his personal sense of masculine identity? On the other hand, how does he show that he likes another person, without endangering that sense of masculinity? Or, in other words, how are men able to be vulnerable with one another?

I’ve learned today more about the men in the Shakespeare group. One is a veteran, and he talked with us about the sense of brotherhood among Marines. (By the way, he had once been an inmate at Luther Luckett in Kentucky. That’s the prison where I first became aware of prison Shakespeare programs, though he hadn’t been aware of Shakespeare Behind Bars at the end of his time there.) Another one of the men talked about how men in gangs verbally deny the attachments they develop. I’ve found out that several of the men in the group have had gang backgrounds.

We talked about a lot of things today, more than I can elaborate here, but I was blessed to have one of the men say to me at the end of the session that this was the best session we have had yet. I have been blessed every time I visit the men in Pendleton. 

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