At the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction, nine inmates are taking a class on Shakespeare, alongside a few students from Amherst College. The class, taught by Restless Books publisher and Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans, is part of the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program and includes students from inside and outside the prison studying and learning together.
The classes give a few select inmates a chance to earn college credit and begin rebuilding their post-incarceration lives, and it also exposes the college students to a different view of life.
Stavans, whose belief in the enduring power of classic literature is evident in our line of Restless Classics, teaches some of Shakespeare’s most iconic works, including Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet—plays that many would argue are not easily accessible in today’s world. Stavans believes, however, that Shakespeare is actually very simple to understand, no matter your background, education, or life experiences.
“[It]’s all about life,” Stavans said. “He has a lot to teach us about living. We can all learn from him.”
To encourage the most personal and honest responses from his students, Stavans allows them to respond in whatever form feels the most comfortable, whether that is poetry or a short story or an essay. His approach seems to be working. Many of his “inside” students have connected to Shakespeare’s works in a deeply personal and heartfelt way, and have been able to share that connection with the rest of the class.
“I feel the same way Macbeth felt,” said Wolf, an “inside” student, during a classroom discussion. He shared how he had been torn apart by the death of his young son. In studying Macbeth, he was able to empathize with the characters, because he understood how “one thing in your life can be the seed of your destruction.”