A Book Behind Bars: The Robben Island Shakespeare

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A Book Behind Bars: The Robben Island Shakespeare, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger, opened on May 25, 2013 and closed on October 2, 2013. The exhibition highlights a 1970 edition of The Alexander Text of the Complete Works of Shakespeare that circulated throughout the Robben Island prison in South Africa from 1975 to 1978.

List of Shakespeare's works with signatures

The Robben Island Shakespeare is a 1970 edition of The Alexander Text of the Complete Works of Shakespeare—probably the most widely sold and read scholarly edition of Shakespeare’s texts in the twentieth century. It belongs to former political prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam, who chose it as the one book he was permitted when first imprisoned.

When moved to the small single-cell section where Nelson Mandela, among others, was kept, he circulated the book to his fellow prisoners asking them to mark their favorite passages from Shakespeare with their signature and the date. Between 1975 and 1978 thirty-three of Venkatrathnam’s fellow prisoners signed the book.

It is impossible to know from the signed passages in the Robben Island Shakespeare why those lines from Shakespeare might have made an impression, or might have spoken to a prisoner in a particular moment. Indeed, some passages seem to shout their relevance to the hardships of imprisonment, or of political unrest, or of injustice. Other signed passages do not, and instead may have been familiar, learned in school, or read for the first time. Some readers may have been struck by fantasy, in the way that any good book removes you from your present circumstance.

The images of signatures that follow, and their accompanying descriptions, offer some speculation about what passages may have meant. These are drawn from David Schalkwyk’s book, Hamlet’s Dreams, in which he writes that making sense of the signatures in the Robben Island Shakespeare "is an impossible task. But it is also irresistibly compelling."

Front Matter and The Tempest

Book owner Sonny Venkatrathnam signed his name in the front matter of the Robben Island Shakespeare, as did Kadir Hassim.

Billy Nair signed his name in The Tempest.

A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice

Elias Motsoaledi and Kwedi Mkalipi signed pages in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Walter Sisulu signed his name to a page in The Merchant of Venice.

As You Like It

Three prisoners, Sandi Sijake, Mobbs Gqirana, and J.B. Vusani, all signed their names in pages of As You Like It.

Tweflth Night

Govan Mbeki and Wilton Mkwayi signed their names in Twelfth Night.

Richard II

Mac Maharaj and Joe Gqabi both signed their names in Richard II.

Henry V

Sibusiso Bengu and Ahmed Kathrada signed their names in pages of Henry V.

Julius Caesar

One of Robben Island's most famous prisoners, Nelson Mandela, signed his name in a page of Julius Caesar as did two others: Andrew Masondo and Liloo Chiba.

Macbeth

At the time of imprisonment, Andrew Mlengeni and Eddie Daniels signed their names in the margins of Macbeth. Andrew Mlengeni now identifies with a different Shakespeare quote.

Hamlet

Michael Dingake, Saths Cooper, and Strini Moodley all signed their name along passages from Hamlet.

King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra

Frank Anthony, Justice Mpanza, and M. Essop all added their signatures to King Lear.

T. Dawetti signed a passage of Caesar's in Antony and Cleopatra.

Shakespeare's sonnets

Five prisoners, J Nzuza, Don Davis, Neville Alexander, T. Cholo, and R. Mhlaba selected to sign their names to one or two of Shakepeare's sonnets.

Supplemental materials

Audio

Rebecca Sheir, host of the Folger's Shakespeare Unlimited series, talks with David Schalkwyk, also a South African, about what Shakespeare might have meant to the men who signed the Robben Island Shakespeare.

In the News

Reading Hamlet Behind Bars by David Schalkwyk, November 12, 2012, for The Los Angeles Times.

Shakespeare Writings Inspired South African Prisoners: Sketches by Nelson Mandela Included in Exhibit at Folger, by Margaret Summers, July 2, 2013 for The Washington Informer.

Shakespeare Inspired Robben Island Inmates, Including Mandala, by Suzanne Presto, July 17, 2013 for Voice of America.

Mandela's 'Robben Island Shakespeare' on Display in D.C., by Bobbi Booker, August 22, 2013 for The Philadelphia Tribune.

Related programs

Folger Theatre