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04/23/2013 07:21 am ET

'Shakespeare Saved My Life' Excerpt: Laura Bates's Tale Of How The Bard Helped A Solitary Confinement Prisoner

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The following is an excerpt from Laura Bates's Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard. Bates taught Shakespeare to solitary confinement prison inmates. She befriends a convicted murderer named Larry. The following is the story of their budding friendship:

“Oh, man, this is my favorite freakin’ quote!”

What professor wouldn’t like to hear a student enthuse so much over a Shakespeare play—a Shakespeare history play, no less!—and then to be able to flip the two-thousand page Complete Works book open and find the quote immediately:

“’When that this body did contain a spirit, a kingdom for it was too small a bound!’”

He smacks the book as he finishes reading. Meanwhile, I’m still scrambling to find the quote somewhere in Henry the Fourth, Part One:

“Act uh . . . ?”

“Act five, scene four,” my student informs me, again smacking the page with his enthusiastic fist. “Oh, man, that is crazy!”

Yes, this is crazy: I am sitting side-by-side with a prisoner who has just recently been allowed to join the general prison population after more than ten years in solitary confinement. We met in 2003 when I created the first-ever Shakespeare program in a solitary confinement unit and spent three years working together in that unit. Now we have received unprecedented permission to work together, alone, unsupervised, to create a series of Shakespeare workbooks for prisoners. Larry Newton is gesticulating so animatedly that it draws the attention of an officer walking by our little classroom. He pops his head inside.

“Everything okay in here?” he asks.

“Just reading Shakespeare,” I reply.

He shakes his head and walks on.

“That is crazy!” Newton repeats, his head still in the book.

A record ten and a half consecutive years in solitary confinement, and he’s not crazy, he’s not dangerous—he’s reading Shakespeare.

* * *

I started doing volunteer work in Chicago’s Cook County Jail because of an argument with my husband’s friend, a theatre practitioner working in maximum-security prisons. “Those guys are beyond rehabilitation,” I insisted. “You should focus on first-time offenders.” And, to test out my own hypothesis, that’s what I did. At the time I could not have imagined that eventually I would be working in supermax—that is, the long-term solitary confinement unit, the prison within the prison.

In the twenty years I had spent working as a volunteer and as an instructor in prisons in Chicago and Indiana, I had never met an inmate who scared me. Until Larry Newton. The day we met, I was going cell to cell in the solitary confinement unit looking for prisoners interested in reading Shakespeare. Eventually, I would have as many as fifty prisoners on my waiting list, nearly one out of every four housed in the unit. At the beginning, I would have been happy to find at least one. But when I looked at Newton through the pegboard steel door of his cell, I crossed his name off of my list, thinking, “I can’t work with this one.”

So what was I doing one week later, fighting for special permission to get one of the most allegedly dangerous prisoners in the state’s supermax unit into my Shakespeare program? It wasn’t something in me; it was something in Newton. And it was obvious from the start. Not the first time he looked at me, or the first time he spoke to me, but the first time he wrote for me. It was in response to the initial Shakespeare assignment that I distributed to segregated prisoners as a way of screening prospective participants: a soliloquy from the last act of Shakespeare’s history play, Richard the Second.

Spoken by the overthrown king who is now imprisoned, the speech begins: “I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world. And, for because the world is populous and here is not a creature but myself, I cannot do it.” Along with the speech, I attached a blank sheet of paper with one question: What do you understand from the excerpt?

While most prisoners scribbled a brief response, Newton submitted a full page, both sides, with incongruous smiley faces punctuating every other sentence:

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. He had studied a way to compare the two—so it is clearly his attempt. I cannot tell if it is extremely complex or rather simple? It seems like you can spend time on just about each passage and come up with three different conclusions.

That comment alone earned him a place in the program. Awareness of multiplicity of interpretation is the key to reading Shakespeare. Not bad for a fifth-grade drop-out.

I can really relate to the thoughts of ambition plotting unlikely wonders! I can see him now pacing around and playing out these great fantasies and then the quick reality check and it leaves and he feels silly. Maybe that is what he meant by “die in their own pride”?

And his conclusion captured the deeper philosophical lesson about the meaning of life in Richard’s speech:

I guess as in art, I can overcomplicate the work, so I will just close it up. It seems to me that he has gone from king to prisoner, and in his thoughts goes back and forth, but seems to conclude with saying that until you have been at peace, or content, with nothing . . . you cannot be pleased with anything. Or that you cannot be truly happy until you have come to terms with being nothing.

Wow. That was the most thoughtful response I had ever gotten to an initial Shakespeare assignment—in prison, or on campus. And Newton didn’t even know who Shakespeare was.

* * *


Whenever a participant left the program, I distributed a little survey in which I asked, “What has Shakespeare done for you?”

“It helped me to expand my mind,” Green had written.

“It introduced me to a whole new world,” Jones had written.

“It got me out of my cell,” Guido had written.

After I watched Newton disappear down the hallway, I took the folded paper out of my pocket. It was the survey. What has Shakespeare done for you? He had written, “Shakespeare saved my life.”

My research confirmed that the program did have an effect: lessening the likelihood of violent incidents in a population with extensive histories of violence. I studied the conduct records of twenty of the most long-standing and active participants in the program and found that their combined conduct history accounted for more than 600 violent or Class A offenses, including weapons charges and assaults, in their “B.S.” (Before Shakespeare) years. During their time in the program, there were only two charges total: none of them were violent or Class A. In fact, of the hundreds of prisoners who have been in the program—some for months, some for years—not one violent offense was committed.

When Larry was out of segregation, and we were able to have normal conversations sitting side by side, without a steel door between us, I wanted to ask him to elaborate on what he had written in that survey he had handed me when he left the SHU.

“What did you mean,” I asked him, “when you said that Shakespeare saved your life?”

“I meant it both ways: literally and figuratively,” he told me. “Literally, Shakespeare saved my life. For so many years I had been really self-destructive, on the razor’s edge every day. I’m confident that I would’ve done something drastic and ended up on Death Row. Or I would’ve one day found the courage to take my own life. So literally, he saved my life.”

It sounded like he was talking about suicide, but I couldn’t believe it—didn’t want to believe it.

“And I meant it figuratively,” he continued. “Shakespeare 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 myself what was motivating me in my deeds, and I came face to face with the realization that I was fake, that I was motivated by this need to impress those around me, that none of my choices were truly my own.

“And as bad as that sounds, it was the most liberating thing I’d ever experienced because that meant that I had control of my life. I could be anybody I wanted to be. I didn’t have to be some fake guy that my buddies wanted me to be. 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 that I saw myself. So the way that I felt about myself had to be the source of all my misery. I’m of the opinion that we are the source of our misery; we perpetuate our own misery. And that realization is empowering! So Shakespeare saved my life, both literally and figuratively. He freed me, genuinely freed me.”

Newton was the only prisoner I’ve ever met who was convicted as a juvenile and is serving life without parole. Through his work in the Shakespeare program, in college, in other prison programs and job assignments, as well as in his acceptance of responsibility in his crime, Larry consistently demonstrated evidence of rehabilitation for nearly ten years. But every request for the right to appeal his sentence was denied.

No matter what he does, he will never leave prison.

Excerpted from Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard. Copyright 2013 by Laura Bates. Reprinted with permission from Sourcebooks.

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