Robben Island signatures in As You Like It

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This article includes information on signatures in As You Like It from 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 and was featured in A Book Behind Bars: The Robben Island Shakespeare, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger.

Sandi Sijake, page 254

Sandi Sijake, an Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) cadre who became a Major-General in the new South African National Defence Force, signed his name by Orlando’s opening complaint in As You Like It.

Like Orlando, Sijake was a soldier. He chose a play steeped in questions of the arbitrary exercise of power, disinheritance, relations between master and servant, and access to land. These complaints are quite parallel to conditions on Robben Island, and furthermore, the rebelliousness of the younger son in Orlando’s speech is resonate with rebellion against Apartheid’s forced servitude.

Mobbs Gqirana, page 260

Mobbs Gqirana, who disappeared without a trace in 1983, is presumed dead, perhaps killed by police following his release from Robben Island. From Venkatrathnam’s Shakespeare, Gqirana selected a passage from As You Like It: the Duke’s celebration of the “sweet…uses of adversity” in the exile of the forest. The conditions enumerated in the Duke’s speech could be parallel, again, to conditions on Robben Island, in particular the biting cold of the winters there. In the speech, Duke Senior highlights the moral rigor that grows from hardship:

DUKE SENIOR: Now my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The season’s difference. As the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even as I shrink with cold, I smile and say…
Sweet are the used of adversity;
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it.
(As You Like It, 2.2.1–18)

J.B. Vusani, page 266

The third prisoner to sign within the text of As You Like It was J. B. Vusani.

Vusani selected Jacques’s famous account of the seven ages of man, in which the phases of life are enumerated: infant, school-boy, lover, soldier, justice, aged, and extreme old age.

JAQUES: All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
(As You Like It, 2.7.139–136)

To which phase of life might Vusani have related most? Perhaps the lover or the soldier, but also, perhaps, the second childhood of old age, where Jacques remarks on old age’s dependency and “oblivion; sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” (2.7.165–6) Though Vusani was not in “second childhood” during his time at Robben Island, conditions at the prison were miserable, easily comparable to “oblivion” and a life “sans everything.”