You can't throw a rock in this town without hitting someone who has been changed or inspired by a particular Shakespeare play or poem. Reading William Shakespeare can be transformative no matter who you are or what your circumstances. That's a theme carried to the extreme in Laura Bates' memoir, "Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard."
Bates is a well-regarded educator and a professor of English at Indiana State University. She has spent more than 25 years teaching prisoners, initially tutoring inmates in an Illinois county jail and later leading discussions on Shakespeare's plays and teaching Shakespeare to inmates at Indiana Federal Prison. In 2003, she arranged to teach the state's most-feared prisoners, those who were kept segregated from the others.
I was a little skeptical about this book at first. I kept expecting a bleeding-heart plea on behalf of poor misunderstood prisoners, but while Bates is compassionate and proud of her students, she has no delusions about them. These are deeply damaged people, brutal murderers who can nonetheless see something of themselves in Shakespeare's characters.
The book chronicles her experiences with several inmates, but primarily with Larry Newton, a notoriously violent man who had been convicted of murder when he was a teenager and sentenced to life in prison. When she met Newton, he had been in solitary confinement for 10 years, and had never heard of Shakespeare.
She writes of their initial encounter, "In the twenty years I had spent working as a volunteer and as an instructor in minimum- and maximum-security prisons … I had never met an inmate who scared me — until Newton."
At first, she rejects his request to study with her, feeling he is too intense and frightening. She changes her mind after reading an essay Newton wrote in response to an assignment she gave to all prisoners interested in studying with her. She had them write their feelings about a scene from Richard II, when Richard is imprisoned. Newton, who is a fifth-grade dropout, wrote, "I understand that he is in prison, and clearly in a type of solitary confinement. His thoughts are his only companions, his method for populating this empty world so that it can be compared to the world outside of those walls." Newton's essay goes on, making insightful connections between the play and his own understanding of confinement. Bates is so impressed that she overcomes her fears and conducts private tutorials with him.
Bates' description of prison life is striking. Though conditions later improved after a Human Rights Watch lawsuit, when she arrived in 2003 at the prison, known as a "supermax," it was dirty, smelly and noisy. She writes that the floors were littered with garbage, toilets were overflowing, food was rotting, and everywhere one could hear the "tormented cries of the criminally insane."
There are a few photos in the book, including one of Bates' group sessions with prisoners in solitary confinement. She sits on a chair in an empty corridor between two rows of solid metal doors; each door has only a small window facing the bare corridor and a metal slot where guards can insert food. From the chair, Bates can't even see the prisoners, and some of them can't see her, but everyone can hear each other. The photo is "Silence-of-the Lambs" spooky, offering readers a glimpse of the coldness and isolation experienced in such places.
Improbably, these prisoners somehow find personal connections to the world of William Shakespeare, so distant in time and circumstance from their reality. Likewise, ordinary readers may be surprised to find kindred spirits in the characters in Bates' story, and perhaps even find themselves changed by this book. It's a great read for anyone who likes stories of unusual friendships and spiritual redemption.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.