Sunday, June 9, 2013

Shakespeare Saved My Life by Laura Bates

It's that time of year again.  Actually, it hasn't been this time of year for quite some time, but I've missed it.  I'm speaking, of course, about the springtime, when I, for some reason, love to read a good prison memoir.  Shakespeare Saved My Life is just one link in a chain of very excellent prison-driven stories that tend to find their way into my hands in April/May, like Picking Cotton and Orange is the New Black.  There's just something about the prison system that proves to be fascinating to me, so when an e-mail landed in my box offering me this memoir of a college professor's time taking Shakespeare into maximum security solitary confinement, I knew I was read to "return to prison."

Dr. Laura Bates, professor of English at Indiana State University, once thought prisoners in long-term solitary confinement were beyond rehabilitation.  She thought education in prisons should focus on first-time offenders, those more likely to return to society and change their ways as a result of what they'd learned.  That all changed when she finally succeeded in opening the doors to the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility's Solitary Housing Unit (SHU), where she came face to face with some of the most dangerous of inmates and determined to teach them Shakespeare.

Bates went into SHU not knowing what to expect, and emerged with an unlikely group of Shakespeare scholars with a decidedly unique perspective, not the least of which is Larry Newton, a convicted murderer serving out a life sentence whose several escape attempts keep him from even joining the group that Bates was able to convene in SHU. Bates quickly realizes Newton's gift for unpacking Shakespeare's meaning and taps his thoughts to produce workbooks for other prisoners and even her university students. This work is life-altering for both Newton and the many students whose Shakespeare discussions cause them to look at their lives and their incarceration with new eyes.

I have mixed feelings about Shakespeare Saved My Life.  Considering the fact that it is a book about the remarkable insights even a very uneducated prisoner can bring to Shakespeare, its style seemed almost patronizing to me, as it might to its other non-incarcerated, more educated readers.  The chapters are very short, and the writing style is very uncomplicated.  There's a bit too much telling mixed in with the showing.  Telling me outright why education is valuable to and should be given to prisoners is not necessary if you do a good job of showing me, which Bates certainly does.  Likewise, Bates need not go on explicitly extolling what an insightful Shakespeare scholar Larry Newton is when she's already done a fine job of revealing through his speech and his writing how very able he is to decode Shakespeare and introduce the Bard to his fellow inmates.  Bates seems to push a little too hard, and at times, the belaboring of her points felt condescending, which is bizarrely incongruous with a woman who so successfully brought Shakespeare into what should have been a very hostile environment. 

Despite my confusion over the writing style, I found the content of Bates' memoir to be fascinating.  I struggled with Shakespeare through high school, and even after college struggled to draw meaning from Hamlet without the help of a commentary.  Even now I hesitate to wade any further into Shakespeare's work because I fear that so much of its meaning would elude me, and I doubt my feelings are unique among a good percentage of the population.  This makes it that much more impressive that not only did Bates find a collection of willing students in supermax, but she also found a group who actively engaged with Shakespeare's work and discovered that much of its meaning could relate to their lives.  Bates' experiences are a powerful testament as to why education should be available in prison, despite many arguments against it, some of which were yet echoing in my mind even as they were about to be ably disproved.  As Shakespeare's work speaks to prisoners who are supposed to be beyond rehabilitation, Bates shows that their lives are changed, and so, to her surprise, is her own.

(Thanks to the publisher, Sourcebooks, for providing me with a copy for review.)


  1. I to am fascinated that these prisoners were able to dissect Shakespeare. My son loves his work but I struggle with it.

  2. Thanks for your honest review! :-) I have this in my reading pile and I'm hoping to get to it soon.

  3. Thanks for your honest review. Even with its flaws, it sounds like the book tell the story of the redemptive power of reading and literature well.

  4. First, I like that spring time is "prison memoir" season. That strikes me as very funny, for some reason.

    Second, good insights into this book. I can definitely see how it might come off as a little condescending, but I feel the same way about Shakespeare as you do so maybe it would be good for me too.