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Speaker teaches Ind. inmates about the Bard

Posted on 11.20.2013

Laura Bates, associate professor at Indiana State University, spoke about her experiences teaching Shakespeare to inmates in high-security prisons and her book, “Shakespeare Saved My Life,” on Nov. 13 in the Schwitzer Student Center.

Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of English William Dynes invited Bates to speak to students in his Shakespeare and drama courses, as well as to other professors and interested students.


Laura Bates, associate professor at Indiana State University, speaks to a group of students and professors about teaching Shakespeare’s plays, such as “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” to high-security prison inmates.

Unlike most professors who teach Shakespeare, Bates’ experience goes way beyond the classroom. She created a program in which inmates can learn about the literary works of William Shakespeare. One of the inmates penned the program’s name, “Shakespeare in Shackles.”

Bates spent 10 years teaching Shakespeare in the two maximum security prisons in Indiana, the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility and the Indiana State Prison. Maximum security or supermax prisons are grades of  high-security level penitentiaries used by the American prison system. Supermax cells are concrete rooms five paces across and house prisoners who have been convicted of crimes such as murder, robbery, kidnapping or treason and are serving long sentences.

“There was no opportunity for prisoners to get out of that concrete box until I came into the program,” Bates said. “… In the program, isolated prisoners read, discuss and rewrite the plays of Shakespeare.”

Bates said that the program has a waiting list of 50 inmates who want to be a part of  “Shakespeare in Shackles.”

During her lecture,  Bates read excerpts from her book, such as writings from inmates she had taught who dug deeper into Shakespeare as they found ways to connect the works such as “Hamlet” or “Macbeth” to their personal lives. Bates said that this is what she hoped to accomplish.

In her discussions with the inmates, she said that she tried to give them a better insight into Shakespeare’s writing, so the inmates could interpret Shakespeare in their own ways and even rewrite his plays to fit their personal experiences.

Toward the end of the lecture, Bates showed clips of the inmates performing their rewritten plays, one being “Romeo and Juliet.” Bates hopes to be able to publish these rewrites, or at least get them into educational environments so that college or high school students have opportunities to see or read them and better relate to them and learn.

Senior English major Kristen Yates said that she enjoyed the lecture.

“From this lecture, I learned that it is important for us as not only writers but creators to think about those who don’t have the opportunities that we have and to help them in the best way that we can,” Yates said.

According to Bates, she hoped to inspire students with her work, as well as help them gain a better understanding of Shakespeare themselves. She said that she wants students to know that even works like “Romeo and Juliet” have themes that can relate to issues in their lives, such as peer pressure, teen violence and revenge.

She hopes that speaking out to students will help her cause and encourage more college students to volunteer with people who are incarcerated.

“I come to colleges and lecture students because I want to encourage them to get involved,” she said. “… For those that are lucky enough to obtain a college degree, I just want to encourage students to give back and make the world a better place.”


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