Friday, August 23, 2013

Shakespeare Saved My Life: ten years in solitary with the Bard by Laura Bates

Prison is a matter of perspective. That’s what Laura Bates discovered when she handed out photocopies of Shakespeare’s plays to convicted murderers in the SHU, a Secured Housing Unit in an Indiana prison. A hardcover book was not allowed; The Complete Works of Shakespeare, at 2000 pages, was a potential weapon. So, she doled out the Bard's work one play at a time.

Shakespeare Saved My Life: ten years in solitaire with the Bard , a memoir, is the remarkable story of Laura Bates and her prison protégé, lifer Larry Newton. Faced with the death penalty at seventeen, he plea bargained for a life sentence without parole and waived his right to ever appeal. He spent a record ten years in solitary confinement.

Bates, a tenure track assistant professor at Indiana State University, began teaching in prisons in 1983. She believes in the value of education for prisoners and has seen the positive results. In 2003 she created the first-ever Shakespeare program in a solitary confinement unit. She was wowed by Newton’s astute critical essays of the Bard's work. Three years later she was given unprecedented permission to work with Newton alone, unsupervised, to create a series of Shakespeare workbooks for prisoners. Shakespeare Saved My Life includes passages from Shakespeare and responses Newton wrote during his studies.

Shakespeare Saved My Life raises some valuable questions: Is education wasted on those who are incarcerated, especially those who are serving life sentences? Is prison a matter of perspective? Do books make a difference in our lives? The book contains a Reading Group Guide for more discussion.

If Shakespeare Saved My Life inspires you, try The Art of Freedom: teaching the humanities to the poor by Earl Shorris. Shorris won the National Humanities Medal  for changing lives through teaching great works of literature and philosophy to ex-prisoners, immigrants and high school dropouts.

What book has made a difference in your life?

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