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

Hezbollah Chief Says Does Not Want War But Ready for One

VOA's Jerusalem correspondent reports that with an Israeli election looming and Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, neither side appears interested in a wider conflict More

Multimedia VOA SPECIAL REPORT: Despite Danger, Best US Minds Battle Deadly Virus

Scientists at America's premier biological research center race in military confinement to find effective drugs, speedier tests and a safe vaccine amid the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in history More

Kurdish Poet Battles to Defend Language, Culture

Kawa Nemir's work is an example of what he sees as an irreversible cultural and political assertiveness among Kurds in Turkey 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.
Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unresti
X
Heather Murdock
January 30, 2015 8:00 PM
Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Threat of Creeping Lava Has Hawaiians on Edge

Residents of the small town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii face an advancing threat from the Kilauea volcano. Local residents are keeping a watchful eye on creeping lava. Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Pro-Kremlin Youth Group Creatively Promotes 'Patriotic' Propaganda

As Russia's President Vladimir Putin faces international pressure over Ukraine and a failing economy, unofficial domestic groups are rallying to his support. One such youth organization, CET, or Network, uses creative multimedia to appeal to Russia's urban youth with patriotic propaganda. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Mobile Infrared Scanners May Help Homeowners Save Energy

Mobile photo scanners have been successfully employed for navigational purposes, such as Google Maps. Now, a group of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the same technology could help homeowners better insulate their houses and save some money. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Filmmakers Produce Hand-Painted Documentary on Van Gogh

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Issues or Ethnicity? Question Divides Nigeria

As Nigeria goes to the polls next month, many expect the two top presidential contenders to gain much of their support from constituencies organized along ethnic or religious lines. But are faith and regional blocs really what political power in Nigeria is about? Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

Singer Leyla McCalla takes up not only the guitar, but the banjo and cello to perform songs from her new disc, “A Tribute to Langston Hughes,” music that mixes the Creole rhythms of Haiti with the French Quarter flavor of New Orleans on this edition of "The Hamilton Live."