"These big scary prisoners were frightened of Shakespeare."
-- Laura Bates, who teaches Shakespeare to prisoners in solitary confinement.
The concept of "Shakespeare behind bars" is not new. At least since 1995 there have been programs in some US prisons encouraging inmates to study and/or perform Shakespeare. But prisoners in solitary confinement? This group – considered to be the most dangerous and hardened inmates in the entire penal system – have always been excluded from such programs.
That is, says the Christian Science Monitor, until Laura Bates came along.
Bates, a professor at Indiana State University and author of Shakespeare Saved My Life, has inspiring stories of working with prisoners to tell.
One is about Larry Newton, a convicted murderer who had been in solitary confinement for 10 years
"Larry didn’t even know who Shakespeare was. I think that’s part of the beauty of this story. Larry [is like] so many other prisoner readers ... didn’t have a teacher at high school or college feeding them their Shakespeare. They directly connect to Shakespeare. And that’s something that Larry did on a very, very personal level. [While reading “Macbeth”] Larry said that he found himself questioning Macbeth’s motives: Why does he do this deed that he knows is wrong? Why does he give in to peer pressure?
"Larry [said that this led to] a very harsh analysis of himself: Why did I engage in a variety of criminal behaviors that I personally didn’t want to do? What was driving my motives? [And] that’s where he really found true freedom.
[Editor’s note: Mr. Newton’s improved behavior after he began studying Shakespeare eventually led to his release from solitary confinement. He has since written a manual to help other inmates read Shakespeare.]"
"Macbeth is the first play I have the prisoners read," Bates said. "I felt like they would connect, that they would relate to the character of Macbeth who is a good man who is contemplating making a bad choice in killing an innocent person."
Obviously, it is working.