‘Shakespeare Saved My Life’


Shakespeare Saved My Life by Dr Laura BatesSo claims English professor Dr Laura Bates in her like-titled novel, which is the Big Library Read until the end of this month. Fortunately, I haven’t suffered complete inoculation against Shakespeare by well-meaning high school teachers, who tend to force it on their students with the appeal of 400-year-old Brussel sprouts, but Shakespeare’s done no such life-sustaining thing for me. My incompatibility with his work is a default setting that, try as I might, I just can’t reset. Not for lack of trying. And I do. I do try.

Reverence of Shakespeare is notably the hallmark of anyone who would call themselves a lover of fiction, and certainly, any ‘serious writer’. If a person claims either moniker in a the absence of such reverence, they make themselves a charlatan. Shakespeare is a biometric security measure.

Thus, as someone with a self-convincingly authentic love of fiction—and even of writing when I can pull my creative grey matter out of its atrophies to do so—it’s imperative that I get into this mystical club of Shakespearean disciples. After all, if Shakespeare continues to enjoy cult-like status 400 years after the release of his greatest hits, there must be something to it; some essential cause that I’ve simply missed.

Dr Laura Bates writes of how a prison inmate came to have such a love and understanding of Shakespeare that he, too, claims the poet saved his life. This man had been in solitary confinement for 10 years, and prior to Dr Bates’ visits, he’d had no idea who Shakespeare actually was.

With hope, I began reading Shakespeare Saved My Life. It was my first re-visit to the topic of the emblematic writer since How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare failed to have any effect. Apparently my power of obtusity surpasses that of even children. Such a revelation had discouraged me from trying to find other ways into the Club, for a long while. But if long-term prisoners could learn and love Shakespeare—men who are at the pinnacle of their literary achievement when they correctly spell their homemade tattoos—surely the way they learned Shakespeare is a way I could manage.

I completed the book in a day. I didn’t learn anything from Dr Bates, professor of Shakespeare, but I hadn’t expected to. Her mind navigates the skies of academia. And a bird can’t teach a fish to fly, no matter the bird’s experience or qualification in the subject. Fortunately for my ambitions, I’m not interested in academic flight. I just want to know Shakespeare, which apparently, even a fish can do.

The inmate of focus was Larry Newman. He was who I wanted to hear from. The man who acknowledges the first obstacle: “Maybe you associate Shakespeare to that ‘high falutin’ class of society,” he says, “but that is not Shakespeare’s fault, and you are mistaken if you think he targeted that class.”

In Shakespeare Saved My Life, I watched his ability to take the complex mathematical equation that is Shakespearean language, and transform it into simple geometric shapes, still preserving the intent of the poetry. He even saw interpretative angles that expert Shakespearean scholars had missed.

Larry Newman says:

“[Shakespeare] is an absolute magic, and the magic has little to do with what Shakespeare has to say. You can memorise every cool quote and be as clueless as you were before reading. … Shakespeare has created an environment that allows for genuine development. The Shakespearean efforts are not to replace your pre-existing ideas with the ideas of some facilitator. The efforts are not to see you become the cookie-cutter copy of what some other person thinks you ‘should’ be.

“Shakespeare is simply an environment that allows us to evolve without the influence of everyone else telling us what we should evolve into. … Your mind will begin shaking the residue of other people’s ideas and begin developing understandings that are genuinely yours! That is the goal of these Shakespearean efforts.”

Intriguing. So, to be in the Club, I have to allow myself to be like no one else in the club? But how does one get beyond the ‘clueless’ stage?

I was further intrigued to see Larry speak of the “prison of expectation” that Hamlet was in, as he related it to the inmates; to their same pressure to revenge any perceived injustice. I couldn’t identify with Larry’s specific likening of seeking vengeance (usually in homicide) for wrongs done to one’s family, but I tasted a certain irony in being schooled on the “prison of expectation” using Shakespeare:

I’m trying to get into the club—the collective mind—of Shakespeare devotees, not because I feel a native pull, but because it’s what expected of a serious reader and writer. It what society says I’m obliged to be and do. Ergo, I must be it and do it.

Does Shakespeare himself, in fact, nix that idea?

How meta.

Not only do I still not know how to get into the club, but now I question the worth in continuing to try. That said though, I’d still be interested to read Larry’s handbooks on Shakespeare, as he’s the only translator I’ve known who makes the poet palatable. But seeing as his handbooks were written for his fellow inmates, I find it unlikely I’ll get my hands on a copy. A pity. Though not among his target demographic, I expect I would still get more Shakespearean understanding from his explanations than I would from any academic flier who has put pen to paper in the attempt.


1 Comment

  • Deborah Makarios
    23 Mar 2015

    I think Shakespeare’s plays – like almost all plays – are better seen than read. Unless the production is rubbish, of course…
    You could always try contacting the prison to get hold of Larry’s books – you never know until you try!

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