Sunday, November 29, 2015

Book #48: Shakespeare Saved My Life

A while back, I put this on my reading list upon the recommendation of a friend, then I was inspired to pick it up after attending a staged reading of a new play about Shakespeare's later years, written by my niece's husband, this past Monday evening.

The book is by a college professor who drew high-security prison inmates, particularly one lifer named Larry Newton, eventually her teaching assistant, into a deep study of Shakespeare's works over the course of ten years.

The stories she tells embody truths that I believe, made manifest in real life:

(1) That reading well written fiction enables us to develop empathy for others and to look squarely at our own selves.

(2) That someone who commits crimes is not simply a criminal and nothing else.

(3) That people generally respond favorably to being treated like adults who are capable of learning, growth, and positive change and to being given substantive, challenging opportunities to do just that.

Here are two excerpts that give a little hint about the journey:

And then [Newton] threw out his curve ball: "But why do you think [Hamlet's] seeking revenge?"

I held my breath. The group did not outright reject his question, but no one, not even Green, had an answer. This group consisted of seven men who were serving murder convictions; the eighth was convicted of attempted murder. To these prisoners, it was a no-brainer: murder requires revenge, and revenge requires murder. Duh!

"This guy killed his father, so Hamlet should kill him?" Newton prompted them.

"That's right!"


"That's what you do!"

"So, what? It's the 'honorable' thing to do?" he nudged them a bit more.

"Hell, yeah, it's honorable!" said Bentley, taking the bait.

"But why is it honorable?" he challenged them now. "What makes it honorable? And what is honor anyway?"

The group went quiet, thinking. No one had ever asked them to question such fundamental concepts that drove their lives and motivated their criminal choices. No one, that is, until Shakespeare--and Newton. Through the cuff port, he turned to me and gave me a wink. I nodded. We both knew the Shakespeare program was entering a whole new dimension. We were going to be changing lives back here.

Then a few years later Newton says this during an introduction to a performance the inmates gave of some scenes they had adapted from Romeo and Juliet.

"So the last few years that I was in segregation I spent analyzing and discussing Shakespeare through a hole in a steel door with a group of other prisoners. We'd discuss what we read, and everything would come up for discussion. We'd try to define these terms like honor, integrity, etc. It really forced me to find some kind of substance to these terms that shape our lives. I was forced to look in the mirror, basically, at myself, to give these things real meaning. That changed the way I felt about everything, about others, about myself. I was literally digging into the very root of myself while digging into Shakespeare's characters. For instance, I couldn't say that Hamlet's impulse for revenge was honorable if I couldn't tell you what honor is, and I couldn't. I still can't tell you what honor is, but I can tell you some of the things that it's not, and Hamlet's revenge is one of them."

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