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Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard Paperback – April 2, 2013

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Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard + Shakespeare Inside: The Bard Behind Bars (Shakespeare Now!) + Julius Caesar (Folger Shakespeare Library)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks (April 2, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1402273142
  • ISBN-13: 978-1402273148
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #155,768 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

From breaking out to breaking through, that’s what reading Shakespeare did for Indiana federal prison inmate Larry Newton, who was locked in solitary confinement for more than 10 years. His story is recounted by English professor Bates, who taught the “Shakespeare in Shackles” class that gave Newton, convicted of murder as a teenager, his new lease on life. Bates describes the program, but the core of the text is given over to Newton as he poses challenging questions from Shakespeare’s works about such topics as honor, revenge, and conscience, forcing prisoners to consider their own actions in a new light. Macbeth and Hamlet are the primary targets of examination, but the inmates take fresh approaches to several plays. The short chapters are like Bates’ glimpses into the cells through cuff boxes. It’s clear she is impressed with Larry, and while his work is remarkable, it’s also repetitive. But the journey he makes and the impact it has on Bates herself combine to form a powerful testament to how Shakespeare continues to speak to contemporary readers in all sorts of circumstances. --Bridget Thoreson


"Wonderful... well written, easy to follow, and hard to put down. My hope is that this book will make people understand that education can change lives." - Sue Jones, Auntie's Bookstore, Spokane, WA

"This is an amazing story, beautifully told...I'm still reeling from the power of the ending." - Anne McMahon, Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee WI

"A transformative journey for students and teacher alike. ... An eye-opening study reiterating the perennial power of books, self-discipline and the Bard of Avon." - Kirkus

"Shakespeare Saved My Life touches on the search for meaning in life, the struggles that complicate the path to triumph and the salvation that can be found in literature's great works ... An inspiring account.
" - Shelf Awareness

"Readers will find much to be inspired by and optimistic about in Bates's book" - PopMatters

"You don't have to be a William Shakespeare fan, a prisoner, or a prison reformer to appreciate this uplifting book. "Shakespeare Saved My Life" also reveals many important truths ... about the meaning of empathy in our dealings with others" - Finger Lakes Times

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Customer Reviews

I spent 3 1/2 years in prison and during that time decided to read as many books as I could.
Steve - Bryn Mawr, PA
This book is a memoir of Laura Bates, but it is also the story of Larry Newton and the Indiana Prison System.
Amazon Customer
Even so, the inmates' reactions to them often changed the way I myself was reading the material.
Mary Lavers

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

37 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Mary Lavers on April 9, 2013
Format: Paperback
My first reaction when I saw this book was, "Great, EVERYONE is reading Shakespeare before I do. Even people in solitary confinement!" I'd recently decided to read all of Shakespeare's plays in a year and I was finding it slow going. But the prisoners that Laura Bates described in this book seemed to breeze through the plays, even if they had limited education and no previous knowledge of the bard. If they could do it, what the hell was my excuse?

Once I got past my petty jealousy, this book spoke to me on a lot of levels. Laura Bates is an English professor who has been teaching Shakespeare for years, both in colleges and in prisons. This book recounts her experiences with the latter, particularly in a supermax--or solitary confinement--unit. A great number of my family members work in corrections, including in prisons, and I myself had helped start a writing and spoken word program at a women's prison here in Nova Scotia. So I didn't need to be convinced of the value of prisoner education. And, as I mentioned, I'd recently started a Shakespeare in a Year project in which I was attempting to read the Complete Works of Shakespeare (or at the very least the plays) before the end of the year. So I didn't need to be convinced of the value of Shakespeare.

Still, this book surprised me in a lot of ways.

The thing that struck me most about Laura Bates' experiences teaching Shakespeare in prison was the way the inmates interpreted certain passages. Dr. Bates deliberately chose plays she thought might speak to them, plays about crime (Macbeth) or imprisonment (Richard III) or loss of power (King Lear) or violence and revenge (Titus Andronicus). Even so, the inmates' reactions to them often changed the way I myself was reading the material.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By E. Bukowsky HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 16, 2013
Format: Paperback
Larry Newton is a convicted murderer serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole. He is also, according to the distinguished scholar David Bevington, "a serious person, gracious, good-humored, [and] alive with intellectual curiosity." Laura Bates is an English professor who earned her PhD from the University of Chicago. "Shakespeare Saved My Life" is Bates's remarkable account of her volunteer work in various correctional facilities, where she used the plays of William Shakespeare as a vehicle to broaden the convicts' understanding of themselves and the world. The impact of Shakespeare's works on Larry Newton was so powerful that he became an influential teacher, prepared detailed workbooks to help inmates study Shakespeare, and helped create videos to inform other inmates about the relevance of the Bard to their lives.

Shakespeare's grasp of the nuances of human nature still resonates more than four hundred years after his plays were written and performed. Jealousy, ambition, and the desire for revenge can poison a person's soul; guilt has the power to corrode a person's mind. As Newton wisely points out in the quotation preceding this review, many of us unwittingly create our own prisons. Those who end up serving long sentences gave in to negative peer pressure, acted impulsively, and allowed ugly emotions to guide their actions. As a result, they forfeited their freedom and their chance to becoming productive members of society.

In brief and lively chapters, Bates describes how she taught Shakespeare's works in "supermax," a long-term solitary confinement unit in Indiana. She also addresses controversial questions: Should the state pay for educational programs to rehabilitate criminals?
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By G. Charles Steiner TOP 1000 REVIEWER on May 21, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
Larry Newton, a convicted murderer in a maximum security prison, did something: he transformed himself and killed his incentive to kill -- through reading all of Shakespeare's plays under the tutelage of the author, Laura Bates.

This is not a particularly feel-good book where all is well that ends well (although all her student-prisoners ceased being violent after attending her Shakespeare classes). Larry Newton is still in prison and will never get out, but Laura Bates lets us indelibly know a different man exists "on the inside" (pun deliberately intended).

I, and a friend, who is an ESL instructor in an East Coast university, wanted to read this book together so as to learn how a teacher might bring Shakespeare "to the people," so to speak. Any teacher or reader with such an ambition will be severely disappointed. By the third chapter, the author flatly lets you know that she did not "motivate" these prisoners to read Shakespeare. They did it all by themselves, if only because there was nothing else for them to do except get into further scraps either with themselves or with the guards and they all had lots of uninterrupted time to devote to the subject. All she did was literally bring an occupation into this devil's' workshop paid by the taxpayers of Indiana, and they instantly welcomed the opportunity.

The author admits as well that the prisoners gave her more insights into Shakespeare than she ever had or gave them, and the prisoners produced more insight than some Shakespeare scholars ever came up with. So, there's not a whole lot of pedagogy for the would-be teacher-enthusiast seeking to learn how to get bored students to appreciate the plays of Shakespeare.
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