News / Arts & Entertainment

Shakespeare Inspired Robben Island Inmates, Including Mandela

Shakespeare Inspired Robben Island Inmates, Including Mandela i
X
July 17, 2013 7:24 PM
Books can provide inspiration, hope and a sense of escape, but a copy of William Shakespeare's works on display in the United States for the first time yields something more. VOA's Suzanne Presto in Washington reports that this volume tells a chapter of South Africa's history and the struggle against apartheid, and it gives insight into those who were imprisoned on Robben Island, including Nelson Mandela.
Suzanne Presto
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)Front and back cover of "Robben Island Shakespeare" (Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library)
x
Front and back cover of "Robben Island Shakespeare" (Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library)
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)Nelson Mandela's signature alongside from Julius Caesar on "Robben Island Shakespeare" p. 980 (Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library)
x
Nelson Mandela's signature alongside from Julius Caesar on "Robben Island Shakespeare" p. 980 (Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library)
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.'"

Signing Shakespeare

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.

You May Like

US Imposes Sanctions on Alleged Honduran Drug Gang

Treasury department alleges Los Valles group is responsible for smuggling tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into US each month More

At 91, Marvel Creator Stan Lee Continues to Expand his Universe

Company's chief emeritus hopes to interest new generation of children in superheroes of all shapes and sizes by publishing content across multiple media platforms More

Photogallery New Drug Protects Against Virus in Ebola Family

Study by researchers at University of Texas Medical Branch, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals is first looking at drug's effectiveness after onset of symptoms More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
July 17, 2013 11:48 PM
This article reminds me of Jefferson's Bible. This is only my curiosity that how much does this pesonal copy would bid if it goes to auction.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebolai
X
George Putic
August 20, 2014 8:57 PM
While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls For Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

The Hamilton Live

Paquito D'Rivera, who has won 12 Grammys, is celebrated both for his artistry in Latin jazz and his achievements as a classical composer. D'Rivera's latest project, “Jazz Meets the Classics,” was released this month. He joins us on the latest edition of "The Hamilton Live."