Celebrating the life of the poet and bard at Notre Dame includes community outreach

Even 400 years after his death, William Shakespeare continues to be lauded as one of the greatest English writers, and his works are studied and performed regularly. What is it about Shakespeare that captures our imaginations, and how are we still fascinated with writings produced during a time so different from our own?

Scott Jackson, Executive Director of Shakespeare at Notre Dame, thinks the study and performance of Shakespeare allows us “to build bridges.” Modern readers and performers are confronted today by many of the same issues that Shakespeare’s plays and writings explored—friendship, government, vulnerability, emotion, love.

“By connecting ourselves to someone else’s circumstances, we’re able to learn more about ourselves,” Jackson explained to the Rover.

Jackson was originally drawn to Notre Dame because he “really connected to the overall ideal of the university where issues of social justice were confronted, debated, and sometimes resolved.”

This brings up the idea of the use of Shakespeare as a vehicle for social change: can engaging in the study and performance of Shakespeare solve some of our current issues such as crime, poverty, and poor education? Jackson and those who partner with Shakespeare at Notre Dame think so.

This week, Notre Dame and Shakespeare at Notre Dame are hosting the second biennial Shakespeare in Prisons Network (SPN) conference on campus. According to the SPN website, the conference promotes the use of Shakespeare in prisons and other alternative settings as a means of “bridging the space between our shared humanity and the isolation typical of incarcerated and marginalized individuals.” Notre Dame will host international experts to discuss the use of Shakespeare as a tool for social change.

Notre Dame is not only encouraging this dialogue but also its Westville Education Initiative (WEI) program that partners with the Westville Correctional Facility in Westville, Indiana, and Holy Cross College to offer an Associates in Arts degree to inmates. Jackson works with this program and teaches a class on Shakespeare at the correctional facility. Other Notre Dame and Holy Cross faculty members also teach classes in their respective fields.

Jackson said working with the inmates is meaningful because he is “presenting them with a vehicle that they may have never known existed. … Shakespeare engaged in great conflicts of humanity and we’re giving them a safe space to explore this and be human and perhaps to develop hope.”

Jackson anticipates more conversations on criminal justice reform in the near future. “As the national conversation turns toward criminal justice reform, anticipate more involvement in the arts.”

In addition to spearheading programs that engage traditionally marginalized groups with Shakespeare, Notre Dame also advocates for preventative measures by educating children and young adults. The university partners with the Robinson Community Center, which provides tutoring and other services to young minorities in the South Bend area. The Robinson Center also has a unique program, the Robinson Shakespeare Company (RSC), which engages young people.

Christine Burgess, Shakespeare Outreach Program Director, sees daily the positive effect that Shakespeare can have on the kids who pass through the Robinson Center.

“Research indicates a strong correlation between drama involvement and academic achievement,” Burgess said to the Rover. “Youthful theatre participants show improved reading comprehension, as well as better attendance, higher test scores, and a higher level of engagement in school than their non-drama counterparts.”

Charlie Ducey, a senior English and German double major from Knott Hall, volunteers at the Robinson Center and teaches Shakespeare. Ducey shared his thoughts on the RSC with the Rover: “I think the program is especially good because it builds confidence in the students, helps with concentration, and gives them a positive environment to have fun with students from other schools and backgrounds,” Ducey said.

“At times RSC staff and students have been asked ‘why Shakespeare?’ When the program initially started, there was skepticism about this choice; ‘Inner-city black kids are never going to be interested in Shakespeare!’ was a frequent comment,” Burgess added. “However, RSC youth have responded passionately to their work with Shakespeare. One RSC student sums these feelings up in her statement: ‘When people drive by me, they might think I’m a hood or a thug, but Shakespeare is mine, something that no one can take away from me.’ Shakespeare’s malleability allows students to take characters and put their own ‘flavor’ on them.”

If you are interested in learning more about Shakespeare, social justice programs, and Shakespeare events at Notre Dame, please visit the Shakespeare at Notre Dame website at www.shakespeare.nd.edu or the Robinson Center website at www.rclc.nd.edu.

Brie Bahe is a junior majoring in neuroscience and behavior with a minor in philosophy. She enjoys coffee and warm weather, and she really wants winter to be over soon. She can be reached at bbahe@nd.edu.