Can Shakespeare Save Lives?

I have taught many resistant students: gang members, drug dealers, disaffected kids with no direction, shy introverts, you name it. But the one thing I could always use to level the playing field was Shakespeare. You’d think something more in line with The Outsiders or some other gang-themed novel would have done the trick, but nope. It was the Bard. The reason? His themes are universal and timeless. He knew mob mentality. He knew about rivalries. He also knew about family loyalty, which drives the plot of many of his plays and which, coincidentally, motivates many kids to join gangs.  Take for instance Romeo and Juliet, which I’ve taught at least a hundred times in one form or another. The street scenes in the play correlate to modern life, especially when it comes to family fealty and gangs. Even though the play is considered a romance, one of its major themes is revenge.

The secret to teaching Romeo and Juliet to disaffected students is not to start at the beginning, or even with the romance—start with the scene between Tybalt and Mercutio: Act 1 Scene 3, where the action is. The tension between the families is obvious in the words, even if students don’t understand all of them. Also, don’t give each student a book, choose parts, and sit and read the thing. The plays weren’t meant to be read in Shakespeare’s time, and they aren’t now, either. Discuss the themes of loyalty and revenge, discuss Tybalt’s and Mercutio’s roles and views on the themes, and then get volunteers up to hash it out. Make toy swords by rolling up a few pages of newspaper in a tight diagonal and securing with masking tape. Ask the biggest bully in the class to play Tybalt, and the next biggest to play Mercutio. Let them do a schoolyard pick to see who fills the roles of Capulets and Montagues. Everybody gets a sword. Go outside or into an open space. The only reason students should have books is for scripting. Let them convert the language into something they would really say. Then, sit back and watch the magic. There’s nothing like looking a huge, richly-tattooed gang member in the face as he says, “You really think Tybalt was planning on killing Mercutio?”

Getting students to critically think about what they read and experience is especially challenging, so I still try to shape students’ experiences with this basic tenet in mind: if they can think this critically about literature, they can–and should–do so with everything they read and view. Eventually, if they learn that critical thinking is a necessary part of adulthood, they will think deeply about all their decisions, just as they learned to do in high school literature class.

I recently read a book called Shakespeare Saved My Life, in which author Dr. Laura Bates took Shakespeare into a supermax prison in Indiana. She brought it into the deepest, scariest part of the prison, the segregated housing unit, known as the SHU. The felons in this part of the prison are convicted of murder and are some of the most dangerous criminals in the country. She started each group’s round of sessions with the prison scene in Richard II in which Richard is in solitary confinement and says, “I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world: and for because the world is populous and here is not a creature but myself, I cannot do it.” The inmates’ responses to “What do you understand from the excerpt?” were what Dr. Bates used to judge whether inmates could enter her program or not. Each week for ten-week sessions Dr. Bates copied sections for the convicts to read, analyze, and discuss. Then she would sit in the hallway between the cells, and the inmates would discuss the previous week’s reading with her.

One inmate, Larry Newton, had such remarkable insight that soon not only was he participating every week, he was leading the discussions, sometimes even when Dr. Bates wasn’t there. He wrote about the plays constantly, making doctorate-level responses and seeking answers to questions that have been asked by scholars throughout the ages. Over a period of years he and Dr. Bates developed two workbook series that explored every major Shakespearean play: one for the prison population and the other for at-risk youth. Convicts in the general population used these workbooks and were given permission to re-enact portions of the plays as a part of their rehabilitation therapy. When each ten-week session was over (there was a long waiting list), she always asked one question: “What did you get out of the Shakespeare program?” When she asked this question of Larry Newton his answer was, “Shakespeare saved my life.” Mr. Newton has claimed that he no longer had the dark thoughts that motivated the actions that put him in prison, thanks to his intense study of Shakespeare.

I cried when I read his response because Shakespeare had such a strong impact on a murderer that society had written off. I know how impactful Shakespeare can be. I have many students who still contact me asking if we can attend a play together, or some who say they still remember their lines or a passage I made them memorize, or the dance steps I taught them (that’s how you really know you’ve got them—when the gang leader enthusiastically tries Elizabethan dance steps). Two of my students have become middle school English teachers who model their Shakespeare lessons on what they learned from me.

A few years ago, as I was just finishing the Romeo and Juliet unit that my first-period class had spent the previous six weeks reading, analyzing, acting, memorizing, and loving (after many of them had initially complained about the requirement of learning it), one student read the last lines, “Never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” I was still looking at my book when I heard all their books snap shut at the same time, followed by a collective sigh. I looked up, and one student asked, “What’s next?” No matter how thick the politics got at the administrative level, it was so great to have such eager enthusiasm for learning. I feel secure in the knowledge that another group of students had the foundations of critical thought necessary for adult decision-making, and a lifelong love of Shakespeare.

Nothing beats the thrill of watching students discuss whether Macbeth was acting under his own control, or under his wife’s. Or watching students try to convince one another that Hamlet wasn’t crazy, he was faking it. Later, I’d find them using the same critical discussion tactics to debate school policies in front of the school board or to analyze the merits of different colleges. I always look back with fondness on the opportunity to introduce Shakespeare to my students. Can Shakespeare save lives? I’d like to think so.

Photo By: Theatrikos