Shakespeare in Prison

“So is it free will or predetermination that puts Richard in that cell, that puts us in our cells…”

Not exactly the discussion you’d expect to hear walking down the halls of a maximum security prison; much less from the inmates in solitary confinement.

Not exactly the discussion you’d hear in many schools, even. I struggled through Shakespeare in high school. I revisited it recently and still have to work really hard to make sense of it. Who would have thought that hard core prisoners would find it so engaging?

Laura Bates  thought they might. She also thought they could benefit from it. So she went where few teachers dare to go. She taught Shakespeare to maximum security prisoners. These were the baddest of the bad; murderers…rapists….

She found little support. Many, bosses and peers, were dubious. Some saying They don’t deserve education. Others saying, They’re already in prison, don’t make them read Shakespeare. Why in the world would she think that prisoners could appreciate, or even comprehend Shakespeare, when many freemen don’t?

“I came to prison at age seventeen. I never studied Shakespeare at school. He was just a one-named figure from history to me, like Moses or Hitler. I had no idea that he wrote.” said Prisoner, Larry Newton, who would become her protege.

But Bates quickly learned that you don’t need a higher education to read and understand Shakespeare. The prisoners easily related to stories like Macbeth,  making them question their own motives.

They even delved into the lesser read novels. They loved it!

“I believe…as a convict having been allowed to interact with Shakespeare, that you and this program have allowed people to release anger, release thoughts of revenge, various thoughts of frustration and confusions. And when those things cloud judgement, that’s when things happen. I know, for me, it has been an alternative outlet. And when you talk about the issue of murder, I believe that if an individual had a small alternative, a moment to think, a person to lean on, in that split second, it probably never  would have happened.”  Larry says.

These prison discussions matched any higher learning environment.

“Do you think that Shakespeare wrote King John after the death of his own child? The pain just seems so real to me,” one of the prisoners asked.

What might be considered a common question in intellectual circles with access to academic commentary came as a real surprise to the prison Shakespeare teacher, Knowing he had no access to such texts, that it came from his own reading and reflection. He gets it!  

These insights are coming from a murderer who never finished school, with only an elementary grade reading level.

Shakespeare saved my life…[He] offered me the opportunity to develop new ways of thinking through these plays. I was trying to figure out what motivated Macbeth, why his wife was able to make him do a deed that he said he didn’t want to do just by attacking his ego. ‘What, are you soft?’ Ain’t you man enough to do it?’  As a consequence of that, I had to ask what was motivating me in my own deeds….When I started reading Shakespeare, I was still in segregation; that circumstance didn’t change. But I wasn’t miserable anymore. Why? The only thing that was different was the way I saw myself. So the way I saw myself had to be the source of all my misery…and that realization is empowering!”  Larry Newton from Laura Bates’ Shakespeare Saved My Life

“This place is great!” he said gesticulating around him. “Great for reading Shakespeare!”

c. Laura Bates


2 thoughts on “Shakespeare in Prison

  1. When I was a student, I loved Shakespeare, but most of my classmates did not.

    Many years later, I taught English at a university in China. When I showed my students the film version of Much Ado About Nothing, they loved it. Six months later, when I taught them Advanced English Writing, many were moved to write that Hero should have never taken Claudio back, and why. Shakespeare grabbed them hard, across centuries and half a world and a language barrier. They got it, because Shakespeare himself got it. Oh yeah.

    Liked by 1 person

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