This memoir tells the story of college professor Laura Bates’s experience teaching Shakespeare to inmates in prison in the U.S. While there’s nothing particularly earth-shattering about the writing here, the story feels fresh and honest in its revelations about both the conditions in which prisoners live while serving life sentences, and the degree to which it’s possible for those prisoners to become engaged with, and relate to, the study of Shakespeare.
The book focuses primarily on the story of one prisoner, Larry Newton, a man serving a life sentence with no possibility of appeal or parole for a murder. Newton is the one who makes the claim that “Shakespeare saved my life.” He not only returns to the general prison population after ten years in solitary confinement, he works towards a college degree in hopes of becoming the first prisoner to earn a PhD (a hope that’s thwarted when funding is cut for college courses for prisoners); he teaches Shakespeare to other prisoners and writes introductions to a series of reading guides for prisoners.
While I don’t know anything about working in prisons, I’ve taught Shakespeare to young people coming from some very challenging backgrounds, though certainly none as challenging as Newton’s. It’s amazing to me to think that so-called “hardened criminals” could engage with Shakespeare’s text as deeply and meaningfully as Newton and the rest of Bates’s students did. I found this book really interesting and challenging.