My students and I had the honor of hosting Shakespeare Behind Bars‘ Sammie Byron and his wife Barbara on the Oxford campus. In a very short time, Sammie taught us volumes about what Shakespeare does in both the head and the heart.
After describing his experiences with Shakespeare Behind Bars, Sammie opened the floor to questions: the Emory undergraduates asked for his interpretation on fine points of Hamlet and about his experience with Shakespeare’s other plays. Although Sammie spoke about his lengthy incarceration, the students were far more interested in Sammie’s interpretations of Shakespeare than what it was like to be in prison.
“If you could rewrite anything in Hamlet,” one student asked, “what would it be?” Sammie considered the question then said, “I’d change the way women are treated. The men treat Ophelia like a piece of property, and no woman is someone else’s property.”
Student responses after Sammie’s 2021 guest lecture on Hamlet:
Today, I had the pleasure of meeting Sammie Byron. I was a bit nervous to discuss Shakespeare with him at first, especially because he so incredibly fluent with Shakespeare’s work. However, Sammie is such a great listener and always understood our various perspectives on Shakespeare. Learning about Sammie’s story resonated with me deeply, so much so that I made it my duty to talk about him with my family at the dinner table today. To see someone endure some of the most painful life experiences and still manage to be so graceful is truly amazing. Listening to Sammie helped me understand some of the fundamental truths of life, which include the importance of forgiveness, the importance of empathy, the importance of education, and the importance in understanding that while we can’t change the past, we can readjust ourselves to ensure a better future. As college students in a pandemic, life sometimes gets very challenging. The isolation caused by the pandemic along with college-level rigor is often extremely overwhelming. However, hearing Sammie’s story allowed us to see that we can still create light in some of our darkest moments. As someone who is new to Shakespeare, I am much more eager to indulge in his work after seeing how it managed to enlighten Sammie and many of his peers. In respect to Shakespeare, I learned a lot from Sammie today. In respect to life, I learned even more. I hope I can someday join Dr. Higinbotham in her work in prison education. I hope someday I can have another conversation with Sammie. Thank you, Dr. Higinbotham, for giving us this experience. Most of all, thank you Sammie for sharing some of your wisdom with me. As a college student struggling to find my place in the world, hearing Sammie’s perspectives offered me a bit more clarity about life as I continue my journey. Thank you for a experience I won’t ever forget. — Charlize
I’ve been raised in a very rigid cultural mindset that humanities are a ‘hobby’, and that STEM is where the real meaning lies. But today’s session made me realize that while STEM might be tangible, analytical, and translatable, the humanities, especially English literature is a bundle of inspiration: a completely abstract entity, whose beauty lies in how it manifests in people’s minds. To think about Shakespeare as changing lives and becoming almost a currency for compassion and letting people be themselves (To thine own selves be true) is incredibly inspiring and beautiful. Sammie really emphasized the collaboration and shared experience behind understanding, enacting, and processing the play, and this really just showed me how much more special it is to have a conversation rather than sitting in one’s own mind. Sammie, if you’re reading this, I’m so grateful for what you shared with us today: you have completely changed my views of English literature, and now I think about these characters in Hamlet as people and actors who think and breathe and have a conscience, rather than just fictional characters. Thank you for bringing us this new dimension and sharing your story with us! — Nithya
There were certainly minor things illuminated about Hamlet that I learned from Sammie Byron; for example, I had read Polonius’ speech to Laertes as very empty and passive before hearing about Sammie’s interpretation of it being genuine and there to contrast what he says to Ophelia. But, more importantly, there were some major things that I learned today, especially about the the way Shakespeare’s works are broadly understood and how that affects the way we interact with them. Sammie shared how intimidating it was for some to join performance of Shakespeare due to how much we have built it up as an academic and highbrow affair. I knew that Shakespeare’s works would come with those difficulties, but I didn’t know the freedom that came from performing classics like these that have so much room for interpretation. It’s inspiring to hear about the use of Shakespeare’s works for vulnerability. It often feels that feelings are scholarship are opposed to one another, but it is the case that those who have intimately connected with the roles in these plays– especially those who are/have been incarcerated and and have a perspective very different than my own– have studied these plays in the most authentic way that’s possible. — Seger
This class was incredible!!! Sammie helped me gain a new appreciation for Shakespeare and the humanities in general. I remember in our advising meeting, you said that studying the humanities helps people gain empathy, and although I believed you, I didn’t really understand how. Hearing Sammie talk about how performing Shakespeare (especially that scene in Othello that reminded him of him and his victim) helps him to empathize with others helped me understand how. Now I understand both the value of empathy and a way to practice it. Not to mention how talented he is!!!! Even if all he did was read Polonius for us, I still would have learned a whole lot! I jotted down a few things he said which really stuck with me, but the one that resonated with me the most is how he taught us to stop saying “I got to” and start saying “I get to.” I could have stayed in the class listening to Sammie speak for hours. I hope we can talk with him again soon! — Celia
Sammie talked about how the quote, “To thine own self be true,” is important because it helps the individual (the actor) reflect over themselves within the play and in their lives. The Circle of Trust was a place free of judgement for the individual actors to strive for fulfilling this quote. I found it really amazing that they were able to reduce the rate from 70% to 6% because of this. I think Sammie did a wonderful job taking individual quotes and explaining how they applied to many of the members of this program, but also how we can use them for our own lives.From now on, I hope to deeply analyze Shakespeare’s quotes and try to apply them to my own life. — Hannah
Sammy helped influence my thinking about Shakespeare, as he opened my eyes to the idea that there is no correct way of interpreting the work. He said that he lives by “To thine self be true” which is a very important standard to live by. His personal story of being incarcerated evokes this message, which sticks with me. — Anton
Sammie Byron influenced how much I think about the power of Shakespeare. At a first glance, Shakespeare’s plays are just words, written down centuries ago that miraculously survived the test of time, but he showed me how much those words matter. Each little word adds meaning, which accumulates into these amazing, famous, complex, but most importantly, relatable roles. He said that Shakespeare showed him how the single change of a word creates a whole new perspective, going from “I’ve got to do this ” to “I get to do this.” Most of the time, I try to acknowledge my privilege, as a white person, as a citizen of the United States, of being financially stable and having a loving family, but one privilege I don’t acknowledge enough is that I get to learn. I get to go to an amazing university and meet amazing people like Sammie and I get to learn. He allowed me the ability to acknowledge that privilege. Going back to the power of words, they really aren’t just words. They are building blocks that when strung together in the correct way come alive. They are foundational and fundamental to understanding ourselves and other people. Thank you for bringing Sammie to our class! — Emma
Wow. I was simply blown away at today’s class. Never have I listened to a speaker that was more inspirational, comedic, and caring all at once. Sammie Byron created a welcoming atmosphere in such a short matter of time, yet was able to discuss more mature topics in the most appropriate way possible. He was such a joy to listen to and I really hope that I can hear him speak soon. I don’t know how else to say that I was so moved by today’s class, it will always stay with me. Sammie’s message about empathy was so touching and wise. If you’re reading this, thank you so much, I hope you know that you have made an impression on me that is so strong. I hope you, your puppy, and your wife are doing well. Best, Tamsin! Also, “Brevity is the soul of wit” 🙂 — Tamsin
Understanding how something we take for granted—being able to read, analyze, and learn from Shakespeare—can change the lives of people was something invaluable to my learning experience. Of course, prior to this class, I understood the greatness of the Hamlet: the impact of it on our language, the countless productions that it has inspired, and the overall impact on culture; however, I did not realize how much of an impact it could have on someone. Seeing how much hope it provided to people like Sammie and other inmates has changed my view on Shakespeare. His work not only is a literary phenomenon, but one that can actual change someone’s entire perspective on life. — Max
Sammie’s story is obviously really beautiful and intense for a number of reasons. For one I think it’s pretty amazing how literally the language of Shakespeare itself is actually a linguistic lesson in etymology and syllabic emphasis. I also thought it really cool how during Shakespeare Behind Bars, they immediately started out by acting out the scenes not just reading it. I think it’s inspiring me to go convince my friends to act out sections together – it seems vital to the understanding of the play. His emotional story too about his friend working hard to memorize lines without even being able to read really moved me. I loved his comparison of learning to see and pronounce the value in every word from Shakespeare to learning to see the value in each individual person; that was very powerful. — Gabe
Hearing what Sammie had to say, especially his reciting of Polonius’s and Hamlet’s lines, made me realize that Shakespeare is steeped in meaning. I have a hard time enjoying “classics” like Hamlet: most are pretty overhyped, or at least seem so after they are called “classics” and fawned upon for so long. Sammie’s readings completely blew me away; he brought out the comedy and emotion of the two passages in a way that made me realize how truly profound they were. I’ve enjoyed studying Hamlet so far, but this was the first time I enjoyed Hamlet. — Sebastian
Studying Hamlet with Sammie Byron not only gave me a better understanding of the characters that we discussed and the way Shakespeare uses humor to incorporate commentary which would’ve been contentious at the time, it also showed me the power of art and literature and the ways in which the same text can mean different things to different people. Mr. Byron’s story about helping a fellow member of the Shakespeare Behind Bars group who had dyslexia by reading his lines out loud to help him memorize them stood out to me. It highlighted both the way that the plays brought people together, giving them a sense of community and camaraderie, and also that they resonated so deeply that he was willing to put in the effort to memorize lines phonetically. He also spoke beautifully about how his study of Shakespeare’s often flawed characters helped him realize the power of forgiveness and hope, which I found to be a deeply moving and heartwarming message. — Minal
I have read and or watched eight Shakespeare plays, and I have always enjoyed his works. However, Sammie Byron gave me a new perspective, he gave me a deeper appreciation for Shakespeare’s work and the impact it can have. I walked away from our meeting even more excited for the rest of the semester in this class.
Please invite him back if possible. — Ian
Today’s session showed me how inspiring Shakespeare can be and is not just a piece of literature to be studied. I feel that since most people are required to study Shakespeare at some point in their educational career, they are unwilling to dig further into those plays outside of class. I now learned from Sammie, not just applying to Shakespeare but also to everything else, to give everything a chance because until you try, you won’t know how big of an impact it may have on your life. — Michael
Sammie’s testimony pushed me to understand just how impactful Shakespeare’s works can be. The precision at which Shakespeare conveys feelings and emotions through his characterization is awe inspiring. The main takeaway I had, however, was that of redemption. Whether you made one tiny mistake or are continuously making all the wrong decisions, as long as you humble yourself and truly learn from your mistakes, you don’t have to let the past define you. I feel this message is very important especially for students at a school of this caliber, wherein many have perfectionist habits, obsessing over their tiniest mistakes and thereby putting themselves down. There is no use in stressing over what was or could have been, you just have to let go, commit to self improvement, and keep moving forward. — Steven