A copy of William Shakespeare's works that is on display in the United States for the first time has a backstory as compelling as the plays it contains. This volume tells a chapter of South Africa's history and the struggles against apartheid, and it gives insight into those who were imprisoned on Robben Island, including Nelson Mandela.
Shakespeare in Prison
Front and back cover of "Robben Island Shakespeare" (Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library)
The hardcover copy of "Shakespeare's Complete Works" is known as the "Robben Island Shakespeare," named for the South African jail that held political prisoners.
"One of the prisoners, a man named Sonny Venkatrathnam had a book - a copy of Shakespeare - and asked that he be allowed to keep it in his cell," explained Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library
in Washington, where the book is on exhibit.
Venkatrathnam, who was imprisoned at Robben Island in the 1970s, used brightly colored cards featuring Hindu figures to disguise the book's real cover. He told his jailers it was a sacred text.
"So he was allowed to keep the book, and when he was in prison, he passed it to other inmates and asked them to look at the book and identify passages from Shakespeare that really spoke to them," said Witmore.
Mandela Connects with Julius Caesar
Nelson Mandela's signature alongside from Julius Caesar on "Robben Island Shakespeare" p. 980 (Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library)
Among those prisoners was Nelson Mandela. His signature and the date December 16, 1977, appear in blue ink alongside a passage from Julius Caesar.
Cowards die many times before their deaths.
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
Mandela notably incorporated lines from the passage in his closing address at the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, in July 2000. At that time, Mandela said the passage was one he often repeated, especially when faced with having to say goodbye to someone.
Witmore, a Shakespeare scholar, said readers' connections to Shakespeare are deeply personal, so he cautioned against trying to divine precisely why this particular passage appealed to Mandela.
"Those of us who read this play think about that passage as being an example of stoicism," he said. "It's a philosophy that was around in the Renaissance, and I think it's something that Mandela connected with, that is: 'You should not be paralyzed by fear. You should use your reason and the desire to do things that are important to you and overcome those fears.'"
In all, 34 prisoners who held the book selected passages and signed their names. Venkatrathnam signed the title page. Another chose a line from The Tempest
, "This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother, Which thou tak'st from me." Others signed beside Puck's lighthearted final speech in A Midsummer Night's Dream
Witmore said both the physical book and the author's words remained relevant today.
"I think that's what I love about this story," he explained. "It shows that far away, in a very different place from the one I live in, I can understand, maybe, what it was like, maybe just a little, for these people to take this book and say, 'here's something that I want to remember.'"
Mandela, the artist
Also on exhibit are sketches Mandela began about a decade ago, as he reflected on Robben Island, his prison of 18 years. Black outlines are filled in with vivid hues of purple, blue, yellow and green, depicting the harbor, his jail cell and a church that prisoners were not allowed to enter.
A placard that accompanies the sketches quotes Mandela as describing that out of the darkness of the prison "has come a wonderful brightness, a light so powerful that it could not be hidden behind prison walls."
The Robben Island exhibit will remain at the Folger Shakespeare Library through September. Its centerpiece, a once-common 1970 edition of Shakespeare's works, still belongs to the man who passed it around the prison, Sonny Venkatrathnam.