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.