Robben Island signatures in Julius Caesar

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This article includes information on signatures in the margins of Julius Caesar 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.

Nelson Mandela, page 980

The most famous of Robben Island’s political prisoners is Nelson Mandela, a founding member of the ANC’s Youth League and co-founder of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). He was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. Incarcerated for twenty-seven years (first in Robben Island, then at Pollsmoor Prison), he was released in 1990. He served as ANC President from 1991 to 1997 and as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mandela’s signature in Venkatrathnam’s Shakespeare is penned next to this speech:

CAESAR: Cowards die many times before their deaths:
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
(Julius Caesar, 2.2.32–7)

Mandela has shown an affinity for quoting Shakespeare—in political speeches, and in his autobiography—and tended to select a passage reflecting resolution in the face of death. For him to sign his name by Julius Caesar’s stoic declaration, then, is not so surprising. The larger irony of this selection lies in its context as the speech of a would-be tyrant. The stoic sentiment, out of context, may have spoken to the condition of his life as a revolutionary leader, but Mandela—so unlike Caesar—was ready to die because of the fullness of his life, and his dedication to a just, fulfilled existence for all people.

Andrew Masondo, page 985

Andrew Masondo also chose a passage from Julius Caesar, but his selection registers a much more personal affinity with a character trapped in the muddy waters of political compromise. In the speech, Mark Antony grieves and delivers an elegy and prophecy over Caesar’s body.

ANTONY: O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers.
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever livèd in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!
Over thy wounds now do I prophesy
(Which like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue)
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war,
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds;
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men groaning for burial.
(Julius Caesar, 3.1.254–276)

In the context of the play, it seems a curious selection for a revolutionary whose aim was to overthrow a tyrannical regime. But, as a stand-alone speech with a call to war and overtones of revenge, it is perhaps appropriate for Masondo—a soldier who joined MK in the early 1960s and was later in charge of the ANC’s own internment camps in Angola.

Liloo Chiba, page 993

A third prisoner, Liloo Chiba, selected a passage from Julius Caesar as well. Chiba’s selection is Brutus’s conviction that action must be timely and tactical:

BRUTUS: There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.
(Julius Caesar, 4.3.216–22)

Again, there is a tension between the speech in and out of context, and one can’t be sure of the date Chiba signed the book—but, if it was in December 1977, like those of Mandela and Kathrada, it would make sense as a reference to a moment needing to be grasped. As an aphorism, Brutus’s speech is one of timeless wisdom, but in the context of the play, it is beset by the irony that Brutus dismisses Cassius’s considered judgment, and the outcome is disastrous.