Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard is a book that warms my cold librarian’s heart. Laura Bates is an English Professor who volunteers to teach English to prisoners in maximum security, and in solitary confinement. She teaches them Shakespeare. After all, she’s already teaching her college freshmen Shakespeare. Of course, college freshmen are allowed to use pencils, so there are some differences between the two groups of students.
What is amazing about Dr. Bates’ book is how the students from Wabash Valley Correctional Facility take Shakespeare’s plays and make them their own. She offers us a chance to witness their group discussions and read their responses to the plays. They could be any class of passionate Shakespeare scholars; reading, performing, and arguing over the plays. But their experiences lead to startling original interpretations. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt are treated as foolish mistakes, motivated by struggles for respect and identity in a violent society. Romance doesn’t really enter into it.
Dr. Bates tells us the story of one of her prize pupils, Larry Newton. Mr. Newton is a 5th grade drop out. He is in prison for murder. He made a violent escape attempt while in prison and has been, at the start of the book, in solitary for 10 years. But Larry has interest and insight, and he reads Shakespeare. This gives him the opportunity to experience new perspectives and to share those perspectives with others. The right story can be an escape, a comfort, a new experience, and even a new identity. Or as Larry tells Dr. Bates simply “Shakespeare saved my life.” By the end of the book Newton is a Shakespeare scholar. He has written workbooks to be used when teaching this subject to other prisoners. He and the other students have written and recorded a version of Romeo and Juliet for at risk teens. He is finally allowed to leave solitary and join the prison’s general population.
Shakespeare's plays aren’t just meant for the college classrooms or the theatre. They belong to all of us. The stories they tell belong to all of us. The meaning we take from them helps us live together in the world. Shakespeare saved Larry Newton’s life and tomorrow someone will come in to the library and check out a copy of Hamlet or Julius Caesar and start that journey all over again. This melts my cold, cold librarian heart.
Shakespeare behind bars [videorecording] is a film of a similar program about a rehearsal and production of The Tempest.