Robben Island signatures in Front Matter and The Tempest

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This article includes information on signatures in 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.

Front Matter

Sonny Venkatrathnam and Kadir Hassim, Front Matter

Sonny Venkatrathnam and Kadir Hassim signed the Robben Island Shakespeare on the title page and p. ix of the introduction, respectively. By not selecting a favorite passage, they signified a solidarity with other signers or readers or—in Hassim's case—with the book's owner, but they did not connect themselves to the meaning of any certain speech or sonnet.

Venkatrathnam brought the volume of Shakespeare to Robben Island as the one book he was allowed when he was arrested for conspiring against the state. Covering the volume in colorful, religious Diwali cards, celebrating the Hindu festival of lights, Venkatrathnam convinced a gullible warder that it was his bible, and when he was transferred to the small single-cell section where Nelson Mandela, among others, was kept, he took it with him.

Although the book was taken away from him on more than one occasion, he managed to keep it over the course of his time in prison, and in the late 1970s, he asked his fellow prisoners in the single cell block to sign and date their favorite passage in the book, while he himself signed a mark of ownership on the title page.

Hassim, who signed the introduction for reasons that are not known, was arrested in 1971 with twelve others for conspiring to overthrow the government of South Africa. He was imprisoned at Robben Island until 1978.

The Tempest

Billy Nair, page 6

Billy Nair was a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). He was arrested on July 6, 1963 and sentenced to twenty years in Robben Island prison. Although he was punished for his efforts at reforming conditions in the prison, he was ultimately successful in bringing about positive change. He was released from prison in February 1984, and continued to protest the Nationalist government, eventually becoming a member of parliament for the ANC in 1994. He died on October 27, 2008.

Nair signed his name near Caliban’s speech:

CALIBAN: I must eat my dinner.
This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother,
Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first,
Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in ’t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light and how the less,
That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee,
And showed thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile.
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you,
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ th’ island.
PROSPERO: Thou most lying slave,
Whom stripes may move, not kindness, I have used thee,
Filth as thou art, with humane care, and lodged thee
In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
The honor of my child.
CALIBAN: O ho, O ho! Would ’t had been done!
Thou didst prevent me. I had peopled else
This isle with Calibans.
(The Tempest, 1.2.331–350)

Among the thirty-four signatures in the Robben Island Shakespeare, Nair’s seems most strikingly resonant with his own imprisonment: Caliban the dispossessed, incarcerated upon an outcrop of rock and sand and heather that is rightfully his, is subjected to tortures, and forced into slave labor. Perhaps Nair registered Caliban’s claim simply: as his own, and as that of all the dispossessed inhabitants of South Africa.