Robben Island signatures in Hamlet

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This article includes information on signatures in the margins of Hamlet 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.

Michael Dingake, page 1034

The first of three signatures in Hamlet is that of Michael Dingake, another political activist who spent 15 years on Robben Island for his involvement with the ANC.

Dingake selected Polonius’s advice to his son Laertes:

POLONIUS: The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stayed for. There, my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character....
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel...
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment...
Neither a borrower nor a lender be...
This above all—to thine own self be true...
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell. My blessing season this in thee.
(Hamlet, 1.3.56–81)

Like many other passages, this selection as an aphorism, or taken out of context, is but practical advice given from father to son, and contains some of the more familiar and repeated lines of Shakespeare. Dingake, a strikingly informed and intelligent commentator on his situation, was unlikely to have missed the nuance of Shakespeare’s placing this sage advice from father to son within the context of entrapment and mistrust. This passage, instead, was likely to have been a familiar or a favorite, or cherry-picked for the folk wisdom contained in this isolated bit of text.

Saths Cooper, page 1035

In his explanation of his choice from Hamlet, Saths Cooper reflected on the “Falling off” of the values of the struggle against Apartheid in the “new” South Africa.

In the speech, Hamlet reflects on the nature of custom and the drinking habits of his uncle:

HAMLET: This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduc’d and tax’d of other nations;
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and, indeed, it takes
From our achievements, though perform’d at height,
The pith and marrow of our attribute.
So, oft it chances in particular men
That, for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As in their birth, wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin;
By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason;
Or by some habit that too much o’erleavens
The form of plausive manners—that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery or fortune’s star,
His virtues else be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo,
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. The dram of eale
Doth all the nobel substance of a doubt
To his own scandal.
(Hamlet, 1.3.17–38)

Cooper notes that he was attracted to this speech in part because so many of the famous speeches had already been chosen by his fellow prisoners, and in part because he wanted to avoid the obvious choice. Most of all, however, it appealed to him because it seemed to him that on Robben Island, in the midst of struggle, "the hardships, the frailties, the sheer dehumanization that you had to confront … brought out often the worst in us than the best."†

From interview with playwright Matthew Hahn, February 5, 2008.

Strini Moodley, page 104

Founding member of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement, Strinivasa “Strini” Moodley was convicted of terrorism and imprisoned on Robben Island in 1976.

Moodley also selected a passage from Hamlet, although his choice is a more familiar passage than Cooper’s:

HAMLET: What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving, how
express and admirable! in action, how like an angel!
in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.
(Hamlet, 2.2.305–7)

In this passage, Hamlet is alienated from his home country, estranged from his own language, and the very concept of the human is brought into question. Robben Island, it seems fair to say, highlighted this sort of meditation on the essential nature of man.