Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Power of Shakespeare

Robben Island lies 6.9 km west of the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. It has been used to jail political prisoners since the seventeenth century and it was there that Nobel laureate and former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned for 27 years (together with many other opponents of apartheid).

I listened to a BBC podcast recently (see below) which told the story of a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, belonging to one of the prisoners, Sonny Venkatrathnam.

He disguised it as a religious book by decorating it with pictures of Hindu gods in order to avoid it being confiscated by prison guards (inmates were allowed to keep only religious texts), and it became known, somewhat spuriously, as The Robben Island Bible. As he served his sentence, between 1972 and 1978, Venkatrathnam passed the book between the inmates and they signed their names next to their favourite passages.

This has been seen as a vindication the power of Shakespeare (and language) and the book has been hailed as a modern icon, not least by the British Museum which is displaying it as part of its exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World.

It is very poignant to read the passage highlighted by Mandela (from Julius Caesar), knowing in hindsight that he would leave prison, unbroken, to become president of his country. At the time, he, himself, might have expected to die on Robben Island, and there was no prospect of release. However, I have also read comments from a number of his fellow prisoners (including some high ranking members of the African National Congress) who don't regard the book as iconic (as reported in the Toronto Star below). Some of those who signed it saw it merely as a 'study aid', and it is perhaps understandable that some apartheid prisoners failed to develop a deep reverence for these pieces of European literature.
Robben Island Bible

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