Robben Island signatures in Midsummer and Merchant

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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.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Elias Motsoaledi and Kwedi Mkalipi, page 222

Elias Motsoaledi, a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC, and Kwedi Mkalipi, a member of the opposing PAC, were both detained in the same B-section isolation cells of Robben Island as Nelson Mandela. Both signed their names by Puck’s apology at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

PUCK: If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream.
(A Midsummer Night's Dream, Epilogue, 1–6)

There is little in this passage to suggest a connection to politics or personal circumstance in Robben Island. More likely, the story here is one of familiarity. Did they each study this play in school, and memorize Puck’s final speech? Perhaps the lighthearted nature of the play was a warm contrast to cold years of confinement.

The passage no longer appealed to Mkalipi when he was interviewed in 2008. Reflecting on his time in Robben Island, he preferred Lady Macbeth’s lament:

"All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand," (Macbeth, 5.1.49),

taking it to mean that the damage done by Apartheid could never be repaid—a far more revolutionary selection than Puck’s whimsical farewell.

Merchant of Venice

Walter Sisulu, page 227

Walter Sisulu was a member with the ANC Youth League, along with Nelson Mandela. He played an active political role, and was arrested and jailed numerous times in the 1950s and 1960s. Following the Rivonia Trial, in which ten ANC leaders were tried for sabotage against the South African government, Sisulu was sentenced to life imprisonment and spent 26 years at Robben Island. He died in 2003.

Sisulu signed next to Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, a speech about shared humanity:

SHYLOCK: Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?
(The Merchant of Venice, 3.1.52–9)

This passage is particularly compelling to consider because, taken alone—as here—it reads as a call to and for equality and commonality. But Shylock goes on in the next line to say

"and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" (3.1.60).

There is no way of telling whether Sisulu, or any of his fellow signatories, read or viewed the plays as a whole, or what portion of a passage spoke most loudly to them in which moment.