Shakespeare in Shackles: The Transformative Power of Literature: Laura Bates at TEDxUCLA

Shakespeare in Shackles: The Transformative Power of Literature: Laura Bates at TEDxUCLA

Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven On the day that I received my PhD
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. (Laughter) And I thought, “Really?” (Laughter) “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: (Laughter) 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)

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About the Author: Sam Caldwell


  1. The Play was not done in supermax. It was done after Larry was released from super max to the general population. I just read the book "shakespeare saved my life" by Dr, Bates, its not fun there.

  2. Regarding Dr.Bates book and hard-working prisoner Larry Newton, I was mystified by the ending. The prison seemed to resent his success and worry he was still dangerous sending him back to isolation without cause for "behavior modification." I am concerned for Mr. Newton and sad the Shakespeare program ended at Wabash. If it can mitigate crime..why not try it? You can't bring victims back but maybe we can help there be fewer victims and that seems to be what these folk are trying to do.

  3. Nothing like sharing a violent play with violent Felons then having them get into a heated debate.
    Matches and gasoline anyone?

  4. Dr. Bates spoke at my school today & I asked her about Larry Newton. Unfortunately, he's still in prison but not because of his own doing. He was dealt a really bad deal as a teen for the crimes he committed as a teen. I believe she said that in order to avoid death row, he took life without parole or any chance of appeal.

  5. I read the book and saw that this program might make their incarceration better, but I don't have faith that the benefits would translate into a reformed and law abiding person on the outside.

  6. I only hope that for however long this man is still alive in prison,he finds a way to continue with the peace he has found.

  7. She’s actually my Children’s Literature Professor! She showed us a snippet of this in class today and I had to come back and watch it!

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