Laura Bates, Professor of English at Indiana State University, has worked in maximum security prisons across the US setting up Shakespeare programmes. She explains how the world's most famous playwright can help bring about prisoner reform.
'How do you get prisoners to read Shakespeare?' 'Why Shakespeare?' These are the two most common questions I am asked about my work. I tell people it's not difficult to get prisoners to read Shakespeare, they want to read Shakespeare; they recognise him as the most respected and revered icon of world literature.
Shakespeare can help modify prisoners' behaviour in a way that counselling cannot. Counsellors typically begin with the premise: 'you are "broken", I know how to "fix" you'. Naturally, this kind of approach meets with resistance.
Inviting a prisoner to read Shakespeare begins with the opposite premise: 'I believe you are capable of reading the most challenging of literature.' Flattered, and often surprised, by such an invitation, many prisoners relish, and rise to, the challenge. And when they succeed, they feel a sense of accomplishment that can't be got from reading Hemingway or Dickens.
This is the first and only Shakespeare programme created for a maximum security (supermax) prison
A supermax is the long-term solitary confinement unit within a prison. It houses the most dangerous prisoners in the US. Prisoners in this unit spend close to 24 hours a day in windowless concrete cells – not for days or weeks, but months and often years at a time. Any movement out of their cells is a monumental undertaking.
The prisoners who joined my Shakespeare programme each week were escorted from their cells and placed in separate cells where the classes took place. In between each class, I asked them to write down their responses to the play we were reading, scene by scene. When they arrived, I collected their writings through the opened slot in the steel doors.
I sat in the little hallway between two rows of cells as the prisoners spoke to one another, sharing their insights and debating interpretations of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Their discussions took place through these little slots. They could only see the eyes of the prisoners across from them, and they could not see the prisoners next to them at all.
Reading Shakespeare can save lives
I spent ten years reading Shakespeare’s plays with prisoners in solitary confinement, working with hundreds of prisoners in all. One of them, Larry Newton, spent ten years living in solitary confinement. The effect of the programme on Larry has been profound. 'Shakespeare saved my life', he says. 'I was really self-destructive, on the razor’s edge every day for years and years. I'm confident that I would've done something drastic and ended up on death row. Or I would've one day found the courage to take my own life. So literally, he saved my life.'
Reading the plays teaches prisoners skills such as communication and comprehension, as well as analysis, critical thinking, and looking at issues and characters from multiple perspectives. For Larry, studying Shakespeare led to deep realisations about his crimes; he looked at them anew:
'Shakespeare offered me the opportunity to develop new ways of thinking through these plays', he says. 'I was trying to figure out what motivated Macbeth, why his wife was able to make him do a deed that he said he didn't want to do just by attacking his ego. I had to ask myself what was motivating me in my deeds, and I came face to face with the realisation that I was fake, that I was motivated by this need to impress those around me, that none of my choices were truly my own. And as bad as that sounds, it was the most liberating thing I’d ever experienced, because it meant that I had control of my life. I could be anybody I wanted to be.'