SHAKESPEARE SAVED MY LIFE: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard

LAURA BATESshakespearesavedmylife Bates taught Shakespeare to prisoners in the SHU (solitary confinement) as part of her career in the English department at the University of Illinois. At the beginning she would sit in the hallway and her students would peak and speak through the holes in their doors that their food trays were passed through. The students were eager; this was the only stimulation and social interaction they were allowed when in the SHU. Shakespeare’s plays are full of conflict, prisons, murder and suicide, things that the prisoners had dealt with in their own lives.King Richard the Second, Act 5:5 “I have been studying how I may compare/This prison where I live unto the world . . .”, Macbeth Act 2:1 “Is this a dagger I see before me,/The handle toward my hand?” and Hamlet, Act 2:2 in Hamlet’s interchange with Guildenstern when Hamlet states “Denmark’s a prison . . . in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons. Denmark being one o’ the worst.” They showed amazing insights. “. . . I had never heard such an enthusiastic Shakespearean discussion in any college course I’d taken or taught.”  Especially a young man who had been sentenced to life with no chance of parole, when he was a teenager, Larry Newton, a multi-murderer. Eventually Newton created workbook study guides for all of Shakespeare’s plays. Bates used some of these guides with her regular university classes. Part of the book is Newton’s essay on how to treat prisoners. Some people believe if you educate prisoners all you get is smarter criminals and that part of the punishment is that prison life should be hard and uncomfortable. Newton’s point was that most of the criminals will at some point be released and will become your neighbours. He asks who do you want for a neighbour, someone who is educated and has been treated well the past several years? Or someone who is released from prison who is angry and frustrated and has a bone to pick with society for the way he has been treated the past years in prison? An exceptional read.

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