Robben Island signatures in Henry V

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This article includes information on prisoners who signed in the margins of Henry V 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.

Sibusiso Bengu, page 555

There are two signatures in Henry V, one by Sibusiso Bengu and the other by Ahmed Kathrada. Bengu became Minister of Education in Mandela’s first cabinet, after his release from prison.

Bengu’s selection is odd in that it is unfamiliar—a passage almost always cut in performance. In this speech of political rhetoric, the Archbishop of Canterbury discussed Henry’s right to go to war against France. Although Bengu did not date his signature as many others did, there are no signatures before 1975 or after 1977, so it is likely that he read the passage after the arrival of a group of new revolutionaries, most of whom were members of the Black Consciousness Movement, and many of whom displayed contempt for the older, “meeker” prisoners who had been at Robben Island for some 15 years. In Henry V, the Archbishop’s speech emphasizes order and obedience, and could well have been selected because it reflected on the problem of maintaining unity in the face of the new, disruptive revolutionaries.

ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY: ... Setting endeavor in continual motion,
To which is fixèd as an aim or butt
Obedience; for so work the honeybees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king and officers of sorts,
Where some like magistrates correct at home,
Others like merchants venture trade abroad,
Others like soldiers armèd in their stings
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent royal of their emperor,
Who, busied in his majesty, surveys
The singing masons building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens kneading up the honey,
The poor mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
The sad-eyed justice with his surly hum
Delivering o’er to executors pale
The lazy yawning drone. I this infer:
That many things, having full reference
To one consent, may work contrariously,
As many arrows loosèd several ways
Come to one mark, as many ways meet in one town,
As many fresh streams meet in one salt sea,
As many lines close in the dial’s center,
So may a thousand actions, once afoot,
End in one purpose and be all well borne
Without defeat.
(Henry V, 1.2.185–213)

Ahmed Kathrada, page 563

Ahmed Kathrada was one of the activists charged with sabotage during the 1963 Rivonia Trial. He was imprisoned on Robben Island for 18 years, and while there completed correspondence degrees through the University of South Africa. After his release in 1989, Kathrada was part of the ANC’s Executive Committee and Head of Public Relations. In 1994, he was elected a member of parliament and became President Mandela’s Parliamentary Counsellor.

The open lines of Kathrada’s selection are some of the most familiar lines of Shakespeare:

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,…" (Henry V, 3.1.1)

The speech—as it loses its familiarity for most of us—goes on to be an appeal to English nationalism, and speaks to a mutuality and pulling together for a common cause.

Interestingly, Kathrada filled seven prison notebooks with quotations from Shakespeare, so there was much in Shakespeare’s work that he was moved by. The speech he signed by at Venkatrathnam’s invitation is uncharacteristic of him as a person, judging from his letters, memoirs, and testimony. The signed passage, then, seems to have been more a public than a personal choice, bespeaking solidarity in imprisonment and in cause, while his more personal, favorite moments in Shakespeare were reserved for himself or letters home to family.