Who Is In the Mirror?

Entirely Unexpected

I recently finished reading a extraordinary book on Kindle, a memoir titled, “Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary With the Bard,” written by Laura Bates, a professor and volunteer teacher of Shakespeare in a maximum security prison in Indiana.  

As a retired Professor of English myself, with over 20 years experience teaching some of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as numerous other challenging texts in literature and composition classes (Seriously?  War and Peace?), while also teaching English majors to teach English as secondary education teachers (grades 7-12) for many years, I was poignantly reminded while reading this book of my own struggles to make my classes not only interesting for my students, but also challenging and meaningful, not to mention obtaining tenure and promotions.  

My students were usually very motivated to become teachers themselves, or at least complete their undergraduate degrees. I never considered, however, that teaching Hamlet, Macbeth, or Othello would bring significant changes into my students’ lives.  

Professor Bates, however, taught Shakespeare’s plays not only to prisoners, but also to the worst criminal offenders who had been confined in a supermax solitary prison. While doing so, she had to hand out assignments and hold group discussions with only eight students, yet all had to sit in separate cells, conversing through the very small “windows” used to pass meals to the prisoners.    

One of the Worst

One of these prisoners was Larry Newman, known to be the most dangerous prisoner in the Indiana state’s Westville supermax prison” (Bates, 17).  Although he was a fifth-grade dropout and a convicted murderer, with two escape attempts on his record, stabbing one of the prison guards during one attempt, Larry is the focus of much of the book because of his life-changing encounters while reading and studying Shakespeare’s plays.

Larry Newman’s experiences growing up in an abusive home and a crime-filled neighborhood gave him significant insights into some of the problems raised in Shakespeare’s plays, such as the gang-warfare in Romeo and Juliet (Capulets versus the Montagues) or the murders of King Duncan in Macbeth and Othello’s murder of his wife Desdemona because of Othello’s jealous rage. While reading these scenes in Shakespeare’s plays, Newman must confront the decisions he has made in his own life and is forced to challenge his own tightly held positions.  

Consequently, studying Shakespeare’s plays under Laura Bates changed his life, and he became one of the reasons why Bates’ program was so successful with other prisoners, as he participated with her in the classes, continually adding insightful contributions to the weekly lessons and discussions. Ultimately, he even partnered with Dr. Bates in writing a detailed guide to teaching Shakespeare’s plays to inmates, and he even began taking classes to obtain a Ph. D. while in prison to pursue his goal of becoming a professor himself, even though parole would never be possible in his lifetime.

Previously, Newman had spent over ten years in solitary confinement, his only contact with another human being occurring when he was handcuffed and escorted to a restroom, or when he was finally allowed to attend the Shakespeare classes with Dr. Bates.  In the class, titled “Shakespeare in Shackles,” Newman is confronted with such topics as honor, revenge, and conscience, forcing him and the other prisoners to consider their own actions from a new perspective provided by Shakespeare 400 years ago.

A Changed Man

At one point, after three years of partnering with Dr. Bates, the following conversation took place (Bates, 174):

“Where do you think you would be without Shakespeare?”  

Newman responded, saying, “I wouldn’t be anywhere I am today.  I know that.  I’d either be in deeper trouble–tried to escape and been in worse trouble than I was–or maybe I would’ve just that one day developed the courage to . . . you know what I mean?”

“Suicide?” I asked hesitantly.

Heck, yeah,” he replied.  “I was ready to go! I can’t tell you how much I was.” 

After musing on his suicidal thoughts, Newman continued to say,

“But the point is, the being dead part never worried me.  It seemed like a very plausible alternative.  So that’s not even what makes me the happiest.  I like being alive, I like my life, but what makes me the happiest is that I just really feel like I can go anywhere and do anything. I make decisions now ’cause that’s what makes me the happiest.  

Laura Bares is amazed and speechless:

I had worked with this prisoner for more than three years, but I had no idea that Shakespeare–and I–had that kind of impact on him.  I had never had that kind of impact on anyone.  I had never saved anyone’s life before (176).

Finding the Pattern

As both a literature teacher and a student of the Bible, I am always intrigued when I see “patterns” in a text, particularly the Scriptures.  These patterns might also be described as “similarities,” or “repeated phrases,” or “repeated themes,” for these patterns reveal helpful insights into the truths of the biblical teachings, the “mysteries” that the Holy Spirit desires to reveal to us.  

One such pattern is found in the following verses:

  • When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known (I Corinthians 13:12).
  • But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit (II Corinthians 3:18).
  • For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:23-25).

Beholding As In a Mirror

By reading these passages closely you will see that they all use the example of “looking into a mirror” to reveal how we are to see ourselves–not as we think we are but as we truly are.
The pattern revealed in these similar passages first highlights the perspectives of looking into the mirror as a “child,” or with a “veiled” face, or by merely seeing the “natural face” that appears.  This image may quickly be forgotten, while the image that appears in the “perfect law of liberty,” or a different kind of mirror, is an image that once adhered to leads to being blessed in all that we do. 
A significant indicator, therefore, of spiritual maturity is the ability to see ourselves consistently not through our natural senses but through the perspectives, we gain by “thinking with the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16), or seeing ourselves as Christ sees us.  

While no record exists of Larry Newman’s encountering Jesus Christ and finding eternal salvation through Him, he did escape earthly destruction by viewing and identifying with human encounters through the examples of Shakespeare’s plays which enabled him to reorder his thoughts and find new directions not based on his previous misconceptions about life and death.  

Ironically, however, Shakespeare’s plays do not provide the same kind of freedom and liberty that the Word of God provides, for His Word is “perfect”:

But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does (James 1:25).

Sadly, many representations in our culture today have stated that not only is God dead, but also Truth is dead, as portrayed on a recent edition of Time Magazine (Source).

April 8, 1966

Commenting on these covers, Jonathan Van Maren writes,

As far as our culture is concerned, God is dead, and so is truth. An institution no less respected than TIME Magazine announced their respective departures from the culture. But I can’t help but think of the origin of the phrase “God is dead.” It came from the nihilist philosopher Friedrich Nietszche, in his parable “The Madman,” where he wondered with appropriate panic, where morality would come from once God left (Source).

Van Maren continues to expose the latest examples of the opposition of fact and fiction:

We now reject every constraint on our own so-called right to radical self-determination, even if those constraints are biology and reality. That is why a full-grown man can decide to leave his family and live as a six-year-old girl, and the media coverage of this is largely subdued and respectful. That is why there is a new group of human beings who identify as non-human beings—rather, they are “Otherkin,” people who identify as certain animals. This is treated with long-faced solemnity by our cultural elites, because truth is dead and people can be whatever they want, even if they are obviously not what or who they say they are (Source).

Larry Newman found much freedom, not by denying the truths about himself and his life but by acknowledging the truths about his mistakes and misconceptions about himself.  May God give him the grace to see all the way to “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:16).

 

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

WordPress Themes