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

Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving

Feasts centering on turkeys with an array of traditional sides and desserts are part of the holiday's traditions, which falls on the fourth Thursday in November More

Video For Obama, Ferguson Violence is a Personal Issue

With two years left in term, analysts say, president has less to lose by taking conversation on race further More

Video Italian Espresso Expands Into Space

When Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti headed for the ISS, her countrymen worried how she would survive six months drinking only instant coffee 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.
US Community Kicks Off Thanksgiving With Paradei
X
Anush Avetisyan
November 26, 2014 10:57 PM
Thursday is Thanksgiving in the United States, a holiday whose roots go back to the country's earliest days as a British colony. One way Americans celebrate the occasion is with parades. Anush Avetisyan takes us to one such event on the day before Thanksgiving near Washington, where a community's diversity is on display. Joy Wagner narrates
Video

Video US Community Kicks Off Thanksgiving With Parade

Thursday is Thanksgiving in the United States, a holiday whose roots go back to the country's earliest days as a British colony. One way Americans celebrate the occasion is with parades. Anush Avetisyan takes us to one such event on the day before Thanksgiving near Washington, where a community's diversity is on display. Joy Wagner narrates
Video

Video For Obama, Ferguson Violence is a Personal Issue

Throughout the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, President Barack Obama has urged calm, restraint and respect for the rule of law. But the events in Ferguson have prompted him to call — more openly than he has before — for profound changes to end the racism and distrust that he believes still exists between whites and blacks in the United States. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Online Magazine Gets Kids Discussing Big Questions

Teen culture in America is often criticized for being superficial. But an online magazine has been encouraging some teenagers to explore deeper issues, and rewarding their efforts. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky went to this year’s Kidspirit awards ceremony in New York.
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Soul Lounge

Avery Sunshine is known for her irresistible combination of soul, jazz and gospel influences. She’s traveled the world entertaining audiences with her powerful voice, inspiring lyrics and infectious spirit. She joins host Shawna Renee on "The Soul Lounge" to perform and share the stories behind her new album, "The Sun Room."