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 Front and back cover of "Robben Island Shakespeare" (Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library)
x
Front and back cover of
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 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
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

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book 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.
Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festivali
X
April 24, 2015 4:09 AM
Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Keeping Washington Airspace Safe Is Tall Order

Being the home of all three branches of the U.S. federal government makes Washington, D.C. the prime target for those who want to make their messages and ideas heard. Unfortunately, many of them choose to deliver them in unorthodox ways, including from the air, as a recent incident clearly showed involving a gyrocopter landing on the Capitol’s West Lawn. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC and the Sunshine Band – comes to VOA’s Studio 4 to talk with "Border Crossings" host Larry London and perform songs from his new album, “Feeling You! The 60s.”