Not the kind of book I usually read, but the title was intriguing (and I am an admirer of Shakespeare), so I decided to give it a try. Loved it!
Although Bates' writing style is simple and somewhat repetitive, making it an easy read, the content is fascinating. I was intrigued with life-prisoner/murderer Larry Newton's attitude change with his exposure to Shakespeare study, and his critical thinking skills in applying it to his life. Makes me wonder what has happened with him in the three years since the book was published now that he is denied further education.
This is a fascinating book with a lot of interesting things to ponder, but there is a dark cloud over the entire book. While the author bonds with Larry, and is impressed with his insight into Shakespeare, the fact is that he murdered a 19 year old college student and later stabbed a prison guard. There are a lot of important topics throughout the book: education programs to prevent recidivism, early intervention to keep young adults from committing crimes, and the ethics of life sentences for juvenile offenders. The book does a good job of showing how prisoners respond to the power of Shakespeare, especially monologues about revenge, imprisonment, and insanity. However, not nearly enough time is spent thinking about the prisoners’ victims or the victims’ families.
From our 2015 #80DayRead Summer Reading Club traveler Kalpna: What an eye-opener! A great book on the impact of Shakespeare on prisoners in solitary confinement.
I read the book because it was the Big Library Read. I felt the book had too many stops and starts, meaning that I felt there were chapters that could be combined. At the beginning of the book, I didn't feel any empathy for the prisoners as they had committed crimes and were punished for them. By the end of the book, I realized what a great program that Dr. Bates had led. A murderer is still a human being, and having an outlet for creativity obviously helped in this situation. Larry was able to help others who are incarcerated as well as potentially help troubled youth. It was an interesting book; it shows that the inmates are not perfect, but they are still human beings. I think that if you are a lover of Shakespeare, you would be interested in reading this book.
Overdrive's Big Library Read title: March 17-31/15
Hmm. The murderer of a college student comes to a greater knowledge of himself, and resolves to never kill again after being exposed to Shakespeare in prison. I greatly admire Laura Bates' courageous dedication to her incarcerated students, and I think she makes a good argument for better educational opportunities for inmates. I also agree that the liberal arts are potentially far more life changing and contribute more to success than "practical" job or vocational programs. And it's certainly true that men who have experienced killing and solitary confinement can bring unique insights to the characters of Macbeth or Claudius or Richard II beyond that of the typical coddled suburban undergrad.
And yet, and yet... I was not convinced that studying Shakespeare promoted any personal growth in these men, nor did I see evidence that Larry, the central protagonist was as intellectually gifted as Ms. Bates believes. And whatever his scholarly gifts, where is the moral anguish over taking a young innocent life? Although Larry declares firmly that he will never kill again, there is little sense of remorse or a need to make amends, and Larry remains thoroughly self -centered.
The most hopeful chapter by far described performances and Shakespeare lessons Bates and Larry prepare for troubled high school kids. While I don't feel that literature, or education in general are "wasted" on inmates, how much better would we all be had they been given the chance to wrestle with these spiritually and intellectually challenging texts earlier in life, before it all went irretrievably wrong?
Is Shakespeare still relevant? Professor Laura Bates and convict Larry Newton would both answer a resounding yes. In this powerful book, Bates discusses her years of teaching Shakespeare in prisons, a program that drew Newton out of his years of silence in solitary confinement.
At first, Bates wasn’t sure that she could work with Newton -- at 17, he murdered another young man, and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. But he responded immediately to the excerpt Bates shared with those interested in the program: Richard II's speech beginning “I have been studying how I may compare / this prison where I live unto the world.” Shakespeare clicked with Newton, and he became her star pupil, and the focus of this book.
Bates not only discusses Shakespeare, she also examines the American prison system. The interaction of the details of daily life in prison with the words of Shakespeare is powerful. Newton draws stark and direct links between the mistakes he and other prisoners have made and the psychological insights in Shakespeare. His life changes with this new focus, and he becomes acknowledged as the local expert, sharing teaching duties. As he writes in the introduction to The Prisoner's Guide to the Complete Works of Shakespeare (a workbook that Bates is trying to have published):
“What I can tell you is that ANY serious reader of Shakespeare is going to experience an evolution! ...It is not Shakespeare's offering that invokes this evolution. The secret, the magic, is YOU! Shakespeare has created an environment that allows for genuine development.”
In the examples Bates shares, the idea that Shakespeare can change lives is made real. As prisoners confirm when she asks, reading Shakespeare has literally saved lives, as students have become more self-aware. And it has also saved the wasted lives of those like Newton, giving them new purpose, focus, and understanding. To read this book is to believe that literature can change lives.