TEDxUCLA 2012: Open

Shakespeare in shackles: the transformative power of literature


About Laura

For more than 25 years, Laura Bates has worked in Indiana state prisons as a volunteer and as a professor of English literature. She created the world’s first Shakespeare program in Supermax—the long-term solitary confinement unit. Her work has been featured in local and national media, including two segments on MSNBC-TV’s Lock Up. She is the author of “Shakespeare Saved My Life”: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard (Sourcebooks, 2013).


On the day that I received my Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, I heard a lecture from a world-renowned Shakespeare scholar in which he asserted that the play Macbeth represented the ipso facto valorization of transgression. And I thought, “Really? Really? The ipso facto valorization of transgression, of murder?”

It was an interesting theory, but I wondered whether that was what Shakespeare had intended, and I wondered whether real-life transgressors would agree. This is a question that no literary scholar could answer.

There was only one way to get the answer to this question, and that was to ask convicted killers. So I boldly went where no Shakespeare scholar had ever gone before: supermax.

I wanted to test what scholars call verisimilitude. Verisimilitude — that is whether Shakespeare’s representation of murder, in Macbeth and in the other plays, was true to life. Again, a question that no scholar could answer, and no Shakespeare scholar had ever received access to this kind of prison before.

Supermax is not your ordinary prison. Supermax is a prison within a prison: the long-term disciplinary segregation unit. This is not your typical 30 days in the hole. These prisoners spend nearly 24 hours a day in windowless, concrete isolation cells for years.

Any movement out of their individual cells is a monumental undertaking. It took two officers to escort each prisoner from his individual cell to a specially designated area in which I conducted the group sessions.

Now, group work in solitary confinement sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? After all, the whole point is to keep these guys away from one another and away from any other human beings.

So two officers escorted each individual prisoner. The prisoners were chained with shackles on their feet, shackles on their hands, and then a leather leash was attached.

They were brought into individual holding cells in our specially designated area, and each week I asked these prisoners to write down their responses to the play of Macbeth, scene by scene by scene. And each week when they arrived for our group sessions, I collected their homework. They often wrote volumes.

Then, I sat in the hallway between two rows of cells while the prisoners spoke to one another, sharing their thoughts, their insights, debating alternative interpretations of the play — while I sat in between and listened.

Although they couldn’t see one another other than through the little cuff port, these conversations were focused, intense, original. They couldn’t see the prisoners beside them at all.

In supermax, I learned to look at Shakespeare in an entirely new way in which these 400-year-old plays had immediate relevancy for these prisoners.

I spent 10 years in supermax, reading Shakespeare with hundreds of isolated prisoners, most especially with this one. This is Larry. Larry spent 10 years living in supermax. In his own words, Larry says, Shakespeare “saved” his life.

Now, I’d like to share with you a short video in which Larry describes the transformative power of this literature. The video was taken very soon after Larry was released after, remember, 10 years of isolation, and his nervousness in front of the video camera is very evident. Still, what he has to say is profound and moving.

(Video) Larry: Shakespeare saved my life. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. I swear. As Dr. Bates alluded to, the Shakespeare program began in segregation units, and I had spent 10.5 years in the segregation units. So — I’m sorry.

I went in as a 19-year-old kid, and I didn’t get out till I was a 30-year-old man. So while most people spend their 20s finding their place in this world, I spent every single day of my 20s pacing the cell in isolation, trying to find reasons not to leave the world, and that’s when I was introduced to Shakespeare through Dr. Bates.

She had come walking through these segregation units, asking if any of us would be interested in studying Shakespeare, and I was at the crossroads of my life where I wasn’t sure if I could find the courage to stay where I was or find the courage to go beyond where I was, so it was the right moment for me to be introduced to Shakespeare.

So I said yes — I agreed to study Shakespeare. She left me with a speech by King Richard II, which he was expressing from his own supermax dungeon 400 years before. And I just couldn’t believe that this guy was pacing around in his own dungeon, trying to find a life in it, just like me.

So that was first exposure to Shakespeare, and it would, literally, change the rest of my life. So the last few years that I was in segregation, I spent it studying and discussing Shakespeare through a hole in the door. It’s called a food slot or a cuff port. It’s just a hole in a steel door.

So we would gather, and we’d look through these holes and discuss what we had read about Shakespeare, and, you know, everything would come up for trying to define all these crazy terms, like honor and integrity and all these kind of things.

It just really forced me to find some kind of substance to these things in my life. So I was forced to look into a mirror, basically, at myself, give these things real meaning to me. 

That, overall, changed the way I thought entirely about everything, about myself, about others, about these characters. I was literally digging at the very root of myself by digging at the root of Shakespeare’s characters.

So, for instance, I couldn’t say that Hamlet’s impulse for revenge was honorable if I couldn’t tell you what honor was. And I couldn’t, and I still can’t. I still can’t tell you what honor is, but I can tell you some things that it’s not, and Hamlet’s revenge was one of them. It forced me, again, as I said, to start giving these things meaning to my life.

And I got a speech here that I didn’t say anything from, so I don’t know where I’m at, but it doesn’t matter. I eventually left segregation, and I came back out here to the general population, and Dr. Bates continued to allow me to work with the program.

She asked me if I would recreate my thinking patterns or what brought my two selves into conflict with each other — I like them terms — and so I sat down and I began writing out what I had a conflict with and what kind of resolution I was able to come up with.

So I basically recreated my own experiences of Shakespeare and put them on paper so she could gather them together and take them back in there, where these guys were still going through what I was going through. I mean, literally, just fighting for their lives, you know.

So we did that; we sent it back in there, and I, basically, just wanted them to do the same thing. I wanted to challenge them to define these terms like honor, integrity, pride, humanity — whatever they were. Because these things drive our lives and we don’t even know what they are. So it was, you know, I think, critical to get these people to start addressing these questions.

So that’s what we did, and that’s where this program is now going, is we want to do the same thing: we want to use Shakespeare as a tool, for use, not just a compilation of great stories. We want them to work for other people like they’ve worked for us, so that’s what everybody is doing up here, man.

And I guess they could be doing something else, but they’re up here so they can bring this to these juveniles who are right now still shaping the rest of their lives, and hopefully, we can counter what it is they’re building their life on, which is the same hallowed principles we had built our lives on. So that’s our goal here, and that’s [inaudible]. Thank you. Appreciate it.

“Shakespeare saved my life.” That was the opening statement that Larry made in that video, and as you can see, Larry found nothing to valorize in Macbeth’s acts of transgression. Instead, Larry questioned whether Macbeth’s murder was motivated by his conscience or by his ego.

As you can see, Larry found nothing to valorize in Hamlet’s acts of transgression. Instead, he exposed Hamlet’s urge for revenge to be a selfish act.

Ultimately, Larry inspired his fellow prisoners to examine their own motives and to question their own character as they examined the motives of Shakespeare’s characters.

In this video clip, you heard Larry make a reference to “these kids.” When Larry was released back into the general prison population, he led a group of prisoners in a very special project: they were reaching out to at-risk juveniles.

A group of prisoners, led by Larry, wrote an original adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. But they didn’t focus on the lovey-dovey stuff. Instead, they focused on the violence.

(Video) Prisoner 1: This is not your typical love story of Romeo and Juliet.

Prisoner 2: Our story is the tragic tale of young Romeo, the violent society in which he lived and the terrible choice he chose to make.

Prisoner 3: And our goal in choosing these five scenes and presenting them in modern-day language is to show you just how relevant this 400-year-old play is to teens today.

Prisoner 4: Like Romeo, many of you live in a violent society and will someday face choices like Romeo’s.

Larry: In presenting these scenes and the questions that follow each scene, we hope to help at-risk teenagers make less tragic choices.

Prisoner 6: We hope that you can learn from Romeo’s mistakes.

All prisoners: And from our own.

In the prisoner’s adaptation, they presented five scenes from Romeo and Juliet. And as you heard Larry say, at the end of each scene, in the video, Larry stepped forward and raised a question.

After the opening scene of the street fight between the rival gangs of the Montagues and the Capulets, Larry stepped forward and said, “Why do these men feel such blind hatred toward one another? Who do you hate blindly?”

After the scene in which Romeo agrees to crash the party at the Capulet’s, even though he really doesn’t want to go, Larry stepped forward, and he said, “Why does Romeo give in to peer pressure? Why do any of us?”

And after the scene where Juliet’s cousin vows to kill Romeo, Larry stepped forward again, and he asked, “What is it that he’s really after? Is it Romeo’s life? Or is it something else?”

The prisoners adaption of the story of Romeo and Juliet did not end with the lover’s tragic suicide. Their adaptation ended much more tragically.

(Video) Benvolio: Snap out of it, man. The cops are coming, man. Romeo: Oh, I am fortune’s fool. (Sirens blaring) Policeman: Romeo, what did I tell you about causing trouble on my street? Hands behind your back.

Prisoner 1: Shakespeare wrote this play 400 years ago, but it still applies to teenagers today. I was 18 years old when I got locked up for murder, and I’m serving life without a possibility of parole.

Prisoner 2: I came to prison when I was 16 years old for two counts of murder, and I’m serving a life sentence.

Prisoner 3: I was arrested at the age of 18 for a double murder, and I was given two 55-year sentences.

Prisoner 4: I was arrested when I was 14 for murder, sentenced to 199 years.

Prisoner 5: At the age of 16, I was arrested for two counts of murder and sentenced to 80 years in prison.

Larry: I came to prison at the age of 17 for murder. As a juvenile, I faced the death penalty and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. I will never go home.

Prisoner 1: We hope that you learned from Romeo’s mistakes.

All prisoners: And our own.

Larry: We know that you’ve been disrespected or felt disrespected like Tybalt. We know that you felt enraged like Mercutio, and all of us have wanted to get revenge like Romeo. And so, okay, those are natural feelings. What matters is, well, what you do about it, how you react to it. So how will you react to it? (Applause)

I’ve shown the prisoners’ video of Romeo and Juliet to teenagers in alternative high schools and in prison. When nothing else could reach these hardcore kids, these prisoners, speaking through Shakespeare, did. That’s because they were connecting their own lives to Shakespeare. They were connecting the kids’ lives to Shakespeare.

Once again, Shakespeare was saving lives. And there’s nothing ipso facto about that. Thank you. (Applause)