Earlier this summer, a philosophy professor in the UK sparked a lively on-line debate when he suggested in the New York Times that the notion that great literature makes us better is simply an act of faith. In the article, entitled “Does Great Literature Make Us Better?”, Gregory Currie argued: “Many who enjoy the hard won pleasures of literature are not content to reap aesthetic rewards from their reading; they want to insist that the effort makes them morally enlightened as well. And that’s just what we don’t know yet”.
The truth is, we probably never will know. Not scientifically, at least, because work in the humanities tends to resist quantification, and assigning a numerical value to what is truly important in, say, the interaction between a reader and a text, is so mind-bogglingly reductive that it would be laughable were it not taken seriously. A phenomenological approach (i.e., first-person narrative) on the other hand, is still perhaps the best way to understand and reflect upon the value of literature, and will yield more insight than data-driven experimentation could ever hope to.
Laura Bates’s memoir Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard might then be considered a timely reply to Currie’s query, for its focus is precisely the impact that great literature can have on readers, whether they be professors or prisoners. And while her book does not prove that literature makes all of us better, it does demonstrate how the plays of Shakespeare have made one man better—and that man happens to be a convicted murderer with no hope for parole being held in a supermax prison in Indiana, where he spent more than ten years in isolation.
Then again, should the impact that great works like those of Shakespeare have on readers really come as a surprise? After all, even Currie recognizes that literature is capable of “aesthetic rewards”, which is another way of saying that literature affects us. Indeed, the word aesthetic comes to us from the Greek word for sense perception, and while we tend to think of the senses as five, Alan Watts would remind his readers that they really boil down to one: the sense of touch. Sound waves touch the eardrum; light waves touch the retina, etc.. So, to admit that literature has an aesthetic impact on us is to accept that literature touches us, and anything that touches us changes us.
The literary critic Harold Bloom has gone so far as to suggest that great literature, Shakespeare in particular, has been responsible for inventing the human being as we know it. He writes: “Literary character before Shakespeare is relatively unchanging; women and men are represented as aging and dying, but not as changing because of their relationship to themselves, rather than to the gods or God, has changed. In Shakespeare, characters develop rather than unfold, and they develop because they reconceive themselves”. They are able to do this “because they overhear themselves talking, whether to themselves or to others. Self-overhearing is their royal road to individuation…”.
This capacity of Shakespeare’s characters to transform and reconceive themselves may be what makes the Bard ideal reading for prisoners, though this was not what Bates had in mind when she determined to “break into” the penal system and teach convicts. In fact, Bates struggles throughout most of the first third of her memoir to try and fully understand what drove her to want to teach Shakespeare to supposedly uneducable and irredeemable criminals in a supermax prison. “I had done a bit of traveling in my life”, she says, “and I was certain that this would be like no place on earth”. She confesses: “I was right”.
“I was teaching four composition courses a day to freshmen who couldn’t care less about comma splices and sentence fragments. But on Friday nights, while my colleagues kicked back with a beer or two, I taught two additional courses in English literature to maximum-security prisoners, most of whom were genuinely hungry for knowledge and guidance to become better people”.
Even as she becomes more familiar with this fascinating and horrifying new world, Bates continues to grapple with her motives. Well over a hundred pages into the book, she writes: “I want to be clear that I do not consider myself a ‘prisoner advocate’ in that I am not crying over their conditions”. This comes across as truthful, though, to be fair, she is not unsympathetic to the prisoners’ conditions, either. At times, she paints a very bleak picture, one where inmates are treated not like humans, but worse than animals. Yet, she also has positive things to say about prison guards and administrators.
If some will consider Bates’s book subversive, it will be because Bates allows us to know the prisoners as men rather than beasts or criminals. This is especially true in the case of Larry Newton, whose insights into Shakespeare’s plays and characters (often quoted at length) are astounding, and make for compelling and illuminating reading. Many of the prisoners, but Newton especially, pick up on details in the plays that are often overlooked—the influence of war on Macbeth’s character, for example.
“See, they notice it,” Newton says, reflecting on Macbeth’s prowess in battle, “the others notice it. He’s a soldier, but before he was just killing the enemy; now, he’s freakin’ disemboweling them. Before he might not have been able to stomach the idea of killing the king, but now he’s okay with it. He sleeps with it”.
When asked why Macbeth refuses to take the daggers back to the scene of the crime, the prisoners agree: “He needs her to get her hands dirty too.” “I was never a good criminal by myself,” Newton says. “I don’t think anybody is.”
The reading and analysis of Macbeth is clearly transformative for Newton: “I’m questioning why Macbeth does what he does, and I start to question why I do what I do. And I know I can re-create that experience for other prisoners.” To that end, Newton will not only go on to lead many of the discussion sessions, but he will even write a book-length introduction to the complete works of Shakespeare for prisoners. Bates says she intends to publish them in the future, and one hopes she will be able to, because they are remarkably witty, lucid and insightful.
Years into the program, it’s clear that Newton and Bates have both evolved, and that the evolution was propelled largely by the introspection that accompanies any serious reading of Shakespeare. “He’s changed a lot,” a guard who had once been stabbed by Newton remarks. “If Shakespeare did that, then I’m impressed,” he tells Bates.
Reflecting upon how he is different, Newton asks Bates: “What’s the opposite of tragedy? Aristotle says that tragedy is the downfall of the protagonist through his own initial tragic flaw. Then what’s the term for the story of a protagonist heading in the other direction? That is my story! Macbeth met me at his end and pointed me in the direction he vacated. In a strange twist of roles, this villain has served a very noble purpose.”
Newton is never asked Currie’s question, Does great literature make us better? But when asked on a course evaluation form what Shakespeare has done for him, Newton writes: “Shakespeare saved my life.” Not simply by curbing his destructive or self-destructive tendencies (though this would also be true); rather, Shakespeare helps to bring out Newton’s humanity, essentially reifying Bloom’s claim that Shakespeare “invented the human”.
Perhaps Newton’s greatest insight, one he achieves while reading Richard II, is that “everyone just puts themselves into so many prisons.” It’s a theme that he keeps coming back to. “A lot of the guys here were in prison before they came here and they’ll still be in prison after they leave here.” This is just the sort of introspective vision that great literature demands from and instills in us.
Bates’s years of working with supermax prisoners is not without disappointments, setbacks and awkward experiences. She writes: “All good stories have unexpected plot twists and this one is no different.” To wit, soon after the Shakespeare program is recognized nationally for its achievements (many of which are outlined in the book), funding for prisoner education is cut off by the state of Indiana, revealing what is perhaps the true tragedy behind many stories of crime and punishment.
At the time of this writing, another state, Pennsylvania, is closing schools and laying off teachers, aids and counselors in Philadelphia, owing to a supposed lack of money, while the state’s governor has allocated over %400 million to construct a new state-of-the-art prison in the same city. Sadly, this trend will probably continue, at least while the economy slumbers along. Meanwhile, professors like Currie cast doubt upon the value of the very books they profess to love and teach.
Still, Shakespeare has survived far worse than Currie’s article and budget cuts, and readers will find much to be inspired by and optimistic about in Bates’s book, especially now as kids saddle up to go back to schools which will, hopefully, remain open.