Monday, April 8, 2013

Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard, by Laura Bates

Shakespeare Saved My Life: 
Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard
Author: Laura Bates
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication Date: April 1, 2013
My first reaction when I saw this book was, "Great, EVERYONE is reading Shakespeare before I do. Even people in solitary confinement!" I'd recently decided to read all of Shakespeare's plays in a year and I was finding it slow going. But the prisoners that Laura Bates described in this book seemed to breeze through the plays, even if they had limited education and no previous knowledge of the bard. If they could do it, what the hell was my excuse?

Once I got past my petty jealousy, this book spoke to me on a lot of levels. Laura Bates is an English professor who has been teaching Shakespeare for years, both in colleges and in prisons. This book recounts her experiences with the latter, particularly in a supermax--or solitary confinement--unit. A great number of my family members work in corrections, including in prisons, and I myself had helped start a writing and spoken word program at a women's prison here in Nova Scotia. So I didn't need to be convinced of the value of prisoner education. And, as I mentioned, I'd recently started a Shakespeare in a Year project in which I was attempting to read the Complete Works of Shakespeare (or at the very least the plays) before the end of the year. So I didn't need to be convinced of the value of Shakespeare.

Still, this book surprised me in a lot of ways. 

The thing that struck me most about Laura Bates' experiences teaching Shakespeare in prison was the way the inmates interpreted certain passages. Dr. Bates deliberately chose plays she thought might speak to them, plays about crime (Macbeth) or imprisonment (Richard III) or loss of power (King Lear) or violence and revenge (Titus Andronicus).  Even so, the inmates' reactions to them often changed the way I myself was reading the material. 

As an example, when discussing the murder of King Duncan in Macbeth, one part that often stumps literary critics is why Macbeth is able to kill Duncan but cannot seem to complete the plan by planting the bloody daggers on the sleeping guards, implicating them. He balks at this and wanders off, forcing Lady Macbeth to complete the task. Why? I, like many critics, interpreted Macbeth's actions as evidence of doubt, of lack of conviction to the plan. Lady Macbeth, by contrast, seems like the pushier of the two in this scene ("Fine! I have to do everything myself, do I?"). 

But the inmates had a different interpretation:
"'He needs for her to get her hands dirty too', said the new student in the group named Bentley...When Bentley made the observation about Macbeth's need for a partner in crime, the others, all serving time for murder convictions, agreed. It is easier to bear the burden of guilt, especially of such a heavy crime, my students said, with an accomplice.

That not only changes how I feel about that scene, it changes how I feel about the relationship between Macbeth and his wife. Is Lady Macbeth really the mastermind who pushes her husband, unwillingly, into a series of murders? Or is Macbeth pulling his wife further into their crime spree so she shares his culpability? 

There are a lot of other examples of the inmates' interpretations of Shakespeare (the comparison of Titus Andronicus to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is worth the price of admission alone) and they're all fantastic. Even if you got nothing else out of the book, these insights are more than worth the read.

Keep checking this blog for an upcoming interview with the author and a chance to win a copy of the book!

Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from the publisher from NetGalley. I was not obliged to write a favourable review, or even any review at all. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.

Shakespeare on Toast
Check out my interview with iBardBooks!

Shakespeare Roundup: Macbeth
Brush Up Your Shakespeare!

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