Monthly Book Review: Shakespeare Saved My Life

Dr. Laura Bates is an  English professor at Indiana State University, where she has taught courses on Shakespeare for the past fifteen years to students on campus and in prison. She has a PhD from the University of Chicago with a focus on Shakespearean studies. Her work has been featured in the national media, including MSNBC’s Lockup.

Laura Bates’ book, Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard, recounts her experiences as a prison volunteer. She had decided to teach Shakespeare in a place the bard had never been before – supermax solitary confinement. In this unwelcoming place, surrounded by inmates known as the worst of the worst, is Larry Newton. A convicted murderer with several escape attempts under his belt and a brilliantly agile mind on his shoulders, Larry was trying to break out of prison at the same time Laura was fighting to get her program started behind bars.

Chapter One opens with the line, “Oh, man, this is my favorite freakin’ quote!” Larry Newton  flipped open the two-thousand-page Complete Works of Shakespeare and found the quote immediately: “When that this body did contain a spirit, a kingdom for it was too small a bound.” Bates thinks, “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.” She met Larry in 2003 when she created the first-ever Shakespeare program in a solitary confinement unit, and they spent three years working together in that unit.

Bates remarks that critics of correctional education say prisoners are motivated only by the time cut. (In some states, they can reduce their sentence by a year or two by earning a degree.) She writes, “I have two responses to that. One: Why is a prisoner’s motivation to earn a degree so that he can return to his family sooner viewed more negatively than a campus student’s motivation to earn a degree so he can make more money? And, two: What about the motivation of a prisoner like Larry Newton, who is serving a sentence of life with no possibility of parole?”

In Chapter Five, Bates recalls entering her department chairperson’s office at Indiana State and blurting out, “I just got permission to start a Shakespeare program in solitary confinement!” At this point in her career, Bates was a tenure-track assistant professor, teaching Shakespeare courses on campus and in prison through Indiana State University’s correction education program. She says, “I thought that my new program in supermax would not only be valuable to these prisoners, but would also provide material for an article to help me earn tenure and a permanent position at the university.”

Larry sits talking to Bates about King Richard the Second in Macbeth. He is reflecting on Richard’s imprisonment. He says, “Old boy, Richard, was right.” Bates asks him, “About what?” Larry says, “Pacing. We all do it. Man! Where does Shakespeare get this insight? Everybody does it, even if they don’t acknowledge it,” Larry explained. “Just like animals. When you lock an animal in a cage, for a while it just sits there and waits, but over time, once it accepts its confinement, it starts pacing, and that’s when caregivers start worrying. When tigers start to pace, it’s taken the wild out of them. The psychological shift is happening. We do the same thing. After the novelty wears off, we start pacing.”

“But why does everyone pace?” Larry asks, more of himself than of Bates, and then he answers his own question. “I think it has to be attached to what goes on while pacing – exactly what King Richard is doing, peopling his world, playing out fantasies, making this moment, this time, mean something. You’re definitely doing as he’s doing, you’re peopling the world, and while pacing!”

Bates asks Larry, “Pacing where?” She peers into Larry’s seven-by-nine-foot cell, thinking how bored she would get walking in circles on the quarter-mile track back on campus. Larry says, “It’s five steps, from one end of the cell to the other.” He started walking from the back wall to the front of the cell, counting aloud with each step: “One, two, three, four, five.” He turned around, still counting: “One, two, three, four, five.” He returned to the cell door. “Man, I’ve counted it a million times!”

Bates concludes her book with an anecdote about counting her footsteps as she leaves her house one morning: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven…” She thinks about Larry in solitary confinement as he paces, realizing she has taken fifty consecutive steps, stopping in front of a pontoon boat moored at a dock. She realizes that after spending more than ten years in supermax segregation, Larry Newton had finally broken out of his prison. Not the prison of concrete and steel, but the prison of self-destructive ways of thinking. The only prison that really matters. Spending ten years in the supermax taught Bates to recognize that Larry was right: despite having the liberty that he will never have, we all put ourselves into “so many prisons.”

Shakespeare Saved My Life is an amazing and thought-provoking book. As I sat reading, I could not help but be transported back inside the huge stone walls of the State Correctional Institute at Rockview, where I spent three years of my life, beginning at age nineteen. I am grateful for the opportunity to earn 63 college credits and an associate’s degree from Pennsylvania State University during my stay at “The Greystone Hotel.” I left the prison six months early, to a pre-release center in Scranton, PA where I had been accepted to a four-year Health and Human Services degree program at the University of Scranton, with an emphasis on psychology and counseling. Much good has come of that time. Although it took me a long time to finally get clean and sober, everything has been, as they say, grist for the mill.

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