Sunday, June 16, 2013

Shakespeare Saved My Life

Shakespeare Saved My Life : Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard / Laura Bates 
Napierville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, c2013.
291 p.

Is Shakespeare still relevant? Professor Laura Bates and convict Larry Newton would both answer a  resounding yes.

In this book, Bates discusses her years of teaching Shakespeare in prisons, a program that she started with the belief that Shakespeare had something to say to prisoners. It consisted of reading excerpts of Shakespeare's plays weekly, and meeting to discuss both the content of the plays and how it reflected elements of the readers' own lives. They dealt with themes of violence and complicity in Macbeth; racism, jealousy, or the influence of bad friendships in Othello; or the very fact of being imprisoned, in Richard II. This was a program that drew Larry Newton out of his years of silence in solitary confinement. (

At first, Bates wasn’t sure that she could work with Newton -- he seemed very intense and dangerous as her first impression. But he responded immediately to the excerpt Bates shared with those interested in the program: Richard II's speech beginning “I have been studying how I may compare / this prison where I live unto the world.” Shakespeare clicked with Newton, and he became her star pupil, and the focus of this book.

Bates not only discusses Shakespeare, she also examines the American prison system. Throughout the book, she shares Larry's story, of a youthful environment that encouraged him to turn to petty crime and street life. At 17, he murdered another young man, and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. Because of his youth and naivete at the time, he was convinced to sign away all rights to appeal the sentence, despite any rehabilitation he might undergo. Bates compares his sentence to that of other prisoners who have done far worse and yet leave prison, who have that hope ahead of them. She talks about her new knowledge of the criminal justice system, particularly how it deals with youthful offenders.

She also explains how prison life functions, how racism, homophobia, hatred and love of power are rampant. The interaction of the details of daily life in prison with the words of Shakespeare is powerful. Newton draws stark and direct links between the mistakes he and other prisoners have made and the psychological insights in Shakespeare. His life changes with this new focus, and he becomes acknowledged as the local expert, sharing teaching duties.

As he writes in the introduction to The Prisoner's Guide to the Complete Works of Shakespeare (a workbook that Bates is trying to get published):
What I can tell you is that ANY serious reader of Shakespeare is going to experience an evolution! ...It is not Shakespeare's offering that invokes this evolution. The secret, the magic, is YOU! Shakespeare has created an environment that allows for genuine development.
In the many examples Bates shares, the idea that Shakespeare can change lives is made real. As prisoners confirm when she asks, reading Shakespeare has literally saved lives, as students have become more self-aware and have resisted violent, reactive behaviour. And it has also saved the wasted lives of those like Newton, giving them new purpose, focus, and understanding.

I read this book quickly, as the themes were fascinating to me. It's another use of bibliotherapy, something I am very interested in (and know that other groups provide in prison settings as well, such as Changing Lives Through Literature) I did find the writing style a bit prosaic, especially since Bates is an English professor, but wonder if she was trying to simplify as much as possible to reach an audience outside of other academic, bookish people. After all, the message of education's benefit to prisoners needs to be shared with those to whom it is not self-evident. This is made very clear in the last pages of the book, when she shares that education programs in Illinois prisons have been cut and the rehabilitative power of reading and learning is in danger of being lost altogether.

But I do hope that this book finds its audience. Hearing in her own words how her work with the "most dangerous" convicts changed and benefitted their lives can hopefully alter perspectives of those in power. The stories are personal and moving, and show clearly both the social cost of imprisonment and the social conditions that lead to so many mistakes. To read this book is to believe that literature can change lives. I hope more readers discover this.

Megan's review captures some of the hesitancy I had about the writing style

Mary's review shares some of the insights the prisoners shared from their perspectives in reading the plays.

*read and/or listen to an interview with Professor Bates about her work in prisons, on NPR

Read an excerpt of this book to get a feel for how the prisoners reacted to this program and engaged with Shakespeare


  1. Thanks for this Melwyk. It does sound very interesting. I think Shakespeare has universal appeal if you can get past the language that turns many readers off. When my grandfather came to Canada at the age of 16, from Ukraine, he had very little formal schooling due to the upheaval of the Russian Revolution. He bought a copy of Shakespeare and taught himself English with it. He never went back to school, but could always engage in intelligent conversation about pretty much anything.

    1. Wonderful story! It's funny that reading Shakespeare and being taught Shakespeare seems to evoke different responses.


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