This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Laura Bates first went to prison in Chicago. She wasn't there to stay, of course, but went to volunteer, beginning work that’s lasted several decades.
“My first thought was to work with first-time offenders,” she says. “Ironically, 25 years later I’m all the way in super max.”
Bates, creator of the “Shakespeare in Shackles” program and author of “Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years In Solitary with the Bard,” chronicles the experience of one inmate she worked with during that time. Bates will be in St. Louis at 7 p.m., April 26, at Left Bank Books’ Central West End location to talk about her book and experiences.
Before she came to town, Bates took some time to answer a few questions about William Shakespeare and his lasting and unexpected impact. The exchange has been edited for length and clarity.
Beacon: You started the “Shakespeare in Shackles” program in Wabash Valley Correctional Facility’s Special Confinement Unit. How and when did you first meet Shakespeare?
Bates: My first meeting with Shakespeare would actually be at the ripe age of 10. And that’s all we did do, was just barely shake hands. I remember taking a copy of “Macbeth” out from the library in my elementary school, looking at it, being very excited by these foreign words, and that’s about as far as I got. Then as a typical high school student, I encountered “Julius Caesar” as a freshman, “Romeo and Juliet,” the usual plays. It really wasn’t until graduate school, and most importantly it wasn’t until I started presenting these works in prison and reading them with prisoners that I really got the enthusiasm and passion for it that I have today.
Beacon: You’re an English professor at Indiana State University. When did you first think of taking Shakespeare into the prison?
Bates: I was still working on my PhD back in Chicago when I was teaching part time at Indiana State. So part of my teaching assignment included going into some of the prisons, including Wabash Valley, and teaching college credit courses face-to-face. One day, when I was teaching “Macbeth,” one of my very quiet students, named Don, was missing. I asked the other students what happened to Don, where he is? Turned out he got in trouble and had to go into what’s called the SHU, secured housing unit.
I had never heard of this unit before, but my prisoner students informed me that this was a locked-down facility where no college teacher had ever gone, they don’t have college-level courses there. So of course that peaked my curiosity, and I asked for permission from the administration. The warden knew of my work and knew me and literally opened the door for me, not only to visit that facility, but to create a voluntary program.
I really felt there was a great need there. These were the prisoners who were in trouble, and I felt had the most need for some sort of outreach; and yet ironically, they had nothing like this.
Beacon: During your program, inmates read and discuss works by Shakespeare. Are their particular plays or characters they tend to connect to, or is that really an individual experience?
Bates: We focus on particular plays, the ones I call Shakespeare’s criminal tragedies. I already mentioned “Macbeth,” which is maybe the most important because at the beginning of that play, we are introduced to Macbeth as a good man. He’s an honorable general who fought in support of his king, and through a series of temptations from a number of sources, from the witches to his nagging wife, he is tempted, tempted to do something that he himself recognizes is wrong. That’s a wonderful opportunity for prisoners to make those same inquires, to question Macbeth’s motives, and to always question their own motives.
Beacon: Your book focuses on Larry Newton, a prisoner you worked with for a decade while he was in solitary confinement. What did you learn from him about Shakespeare? Did he change or add to your perspective on Shakespeare’s work?
Bates: Absolutely. I learned so much, changed the way I look at so many of the plays and maybe my approach to Shakespeare in general. That’s something I hope the book itself does as well.
Professional scholars have been examining Shakespeare plays for hundreds of years, but I really believe the prisoners present us with a new way of looking at Shakespeare’s plays. They have this very immediate connection to the plays. They make connections to their own lives and their own personal experiences, and they show us the ways that Shakespeare is still relevant today.
In a lot of ways I think of this as a book about Shakespeare for those who don’t necessarily like Shakespeare, because not a single one of the prisoners I worked with greeted me with, "Hey, I just love Shakespeare." Most of them greeted me with, "Who is Shakespeare?" They were not Shakespeare fans initially.
So what’s wonderful about their approach, what I hope I present accurately, is that Shakespeare can reach us on an immediate level. It doesn’t have to be mediated through professors or professional scholars.
Beacon: In St. Louis, we have a Prison Performing Arts program, and so do many other cities. Four hundred and forty nine years after his birth, why do you think Shakespeare connects with them still?
Bates: I had a chance to come and visit a couple of Agnes (Wilcox’s, artistic director) programs, and I think she’s terrific. She obviously could answer this question as well.
Shakespeare absolutely, after 449 years, does continue to speak to us. I think a lot of us who do work with Shakespeare in prisons find that it speaks to these unexpected audiences. That’s why I like to think of this as a book about Shakespeare for people who don’t necessarily even like Shakespeare or even have much of an interest in Shakespeare.
That’s the really surprising thing, even for people like that, they can open a play like “Macbeth” or a play like “Romeo and Juliet” that so many teenagers in high school tend to get turned off from. By looking at it from the prisoners' perspective, a play like “Romeo and Juliet” takes on a whole new meaning.
It’s not just the idealized lovey dovey story. It’s more about a violent society that turns a good kid like Romeo into a serial killer, which he is by the end of that play.