Review: Shakespeare Saved My Life by Laura Bates

shakespeareTitle: Shakespeare Saved My Life
Author: Laura Bates
Genre: Memoir/Nonfiction
Date: 26 January 2017
Rating: 4/5

Just as Larry Newton, one of the most notorious inmates at Indiana Federal Prison, was trying to break out of jail, Dr. Laura Bates was trying to break in. She had created the world’s first Shakespeare class in supermax – the solitary confinement unit.

Many people told Laura that maximum-security prisoners are “beyond rehabilitation.” But Laura wanted to find out for herself. She started with the prison’s most notorious inmate: Larry Newton. When he was 17 years old, Larry was indicted for murder and sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. When he met Laura, he had been in isolation for 10 years.

Larry had never heard of Shakespeare. But in the characters he read, he recognized himself.

In this profound illustration of the enduring lessons of Shakespeare through the ten-year relationship of Bates and Newton, an amazing testament to the power of literature emerges. But it’s not just the prisoners who are transformed. It is a starkly engaging tale, one that will be embraced by anyone who has ever been changed by a book.

This is one of those books that I had abandoned about a year ago because the story hadn’t been what I expected nor what I wanted it to be. I decided to give it another go because I couldn’t get the book off my mind even a year later. I’m glad that I gave it another chance, to be honest.

The rights of prisoners has been an ongoing debate for who knows how long. Should prisoners be allowed to have access to education, entertainment, and other commodities that people on the outside also have access to? Dr. Bates uses her expertise in Shakespeare to expose prisoners, especially those in high security prisons, to thoughts an ideas that they wouldn’t have been exposed to in the first place. I was impressed by how much depth these prisoners had with the Bard, especially through Larry Newton, the main focus on Bates’ memoir. Through his eyes, the reader is shown a new perspective of the Shakespearean plays in only a person who has committed can see. This alone seems like a good enough reason to allow inmates the chance to learn, evolve and become better than themselves.

There is a couple criticisms I can make of Bates’ book. First, I would have been interested in reading more about Bates’ interests and motivation for teaching Shakespeare in prison. She mentions briefly in the beginning that she grew up in poverty in a particularly rough neighborhood, but doesn’t delve into what made her want to become an English professor focusing on Shakespeare. Not only that, she doesn’t explain the turning factor into volunteering in Indiana’s prisons as well as her persistence in teaching in spite of animosity from both her university and quite possibly from the prisons she volunteers in. How did she keep going and who were the people who supported her as she continued her crusade in helping these inmates? Second, I would have liked to have seen more of the prison viewpoints of her volunteering, what their thoughts were and the officers’ view of the education in general. Third, I would have liked to have seen the progress of other inmates other than Larry Newton and how it helped there lives. We see it briefly, but not enough for my taste.

This probably would have made the book much longer, but I think it would have been worth it. Bates has a conversational tone that gripped me from stat to finish. I do think, however, that this is a book you need to be in the mood for. I started this book once and wasn’t interested in finishing it; I started it again a year later and couldn’t put it down. If you want a different perspective of Shakespeare, this is the book to read.


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