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

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

[Applause] 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 valorisation of transgression and I thought really really the ipso facto valorisation 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 Superman's I wanted to test what scholars call verisimilitude verisimilitude that is whether shakespeare's representation of murder in Macbeth and in the other place 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 especially 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 the 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 four hundred year old plays have 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 ten 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 Shakespeare saved my life I know that sounds crazy but it but it's true that's where dr. Bates alluded to the safety program began in segregation units and I had spent ten and a half years in the segregation units so I'm sorry Wow I went in as a 19 year old kid and I didn't get out – 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 twenties facing the sale and isolation trying to find reasons not to leave and that's when I was introduced to Shakespeare – dr. Bates she had come welcome through these segregation units asking if any of us would be interested in studying Shakespeare and I was at the crossroads in 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 a king which of the second which she was expressing from his own supermax done for hundred 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 my 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 spin it studying and discussing Shakespeare through a hole in the door boot liner a couple it's just a hole in a steel door so uh we would gather and we would look through these holes and discuss what we had read about the Shakespeare you know everything would come up for trying to define all these crazy terms like honor and integrity 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 meaningful to me so that overall changed the way I thought entirely about everything about myself about others about these characters I was literally digging at the variable of myself by digging at the root of Shakespeare's characters so for instance aya I couldn't say that Hamlet's impulse for revenge was honorable if I couldn't tell you what I was and I could and I still can I still can tell you what I'm Chris but I I can't tell you some things that it's not and how much remains this one so it forced me again as I said to start giving these things meaning to my life I got a speech here that I didn't say anything promising I don't know where I eventually left segregation and I came back out of it to the general population 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 and so I sat down and I begin right now 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 with 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 literally just fight 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 to get these people to start addressing these questions and that 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 is a tool for use not just a compilation of great stories we wanted to work for other people like they've worked for us so that's what that's what everybody's doing up here 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 versus the same 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 acts of transgression instead Larry questioned whether Macbeth's murder was motivated by his conscience or by his ego as you can see that Larry found nothing to valorize and 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 examine 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 this is not your typical love story of Romeo to the end our story is the tragic tale of young Romeo the violence excited what you lived in the terminal choice of chose to make and I'm home and children these five scenes and presented them in modern day language is to show you just how relevant is more like a year old play heels to tasted a violence choices in presenting these scenes and the questions that follow each scene we hope to help Andras teenagers make less tragic choices we hope that you can learn from those mistakes in the prisoners 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 the 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 Capulets 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 step 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 adaptation of the story of Romeo and Juliet did not end with the lovers tragic suicide fair adaptation ended much more tragically Oh 60 of Elvis played 400 years ago but still classy teenager today I was 18 years old I got knocked up serving life by the possibility I can't get bridge when I was 16 years old with two counts of murder and I'm serving a life sentence to I was arrested when I was 14 years the ng 16oz rusty since 80 years in person I came to prison at the age of 17 for murder as a juvenile at base the death penalty it was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole I will never go home Romeo we know that you've been disrespected or felt disrespected like Tiffany we know that you filled and raised like Mercutio and all of us have wanted to get revenge like chromium it's okay those are natural feelings what matters as well what you do about it how you react so how will you react I've shown the prisoners video of Romeo and Juliet two 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 if so facto about that thank you you

13 thoughts on “Shakespeare in Shackles: The Transformative Power of Literature: Laura Bates at TEDxUCLA

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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

  6. Reading Shakespeare Saved My Life right now. Great project and some really intriguing interpretations of the plays.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

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