Robben Island signatures in Richard II

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This article includes information on signatures in Richard II 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.

Mac Maharaj, page 454

Mac Maharaj, one of the most celebrated of the Robben Island prisoners, was a close confidant of Nelson Mandela, and continues to be involved in the government of South Africa where he serves as spokesperson for President Jacob Zuma.

Maharaj signed his name by the final words of the dying Gaunt:

"Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain;
For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain."
(Richard II, 2.1.7–8)

In the context of life at Robben Island, these lines could resonate for any number of reasons. In one way similar to Duke Senior’s speech in As You Like It by which Mobbs Gqirana signed his name, these lines reflect the resolve of moral character through suffering. Yet it is hard to ignore the suggestion of truth achieved through torture, although accounts of torture have been suppressed or avoided.

Joe Gqabi, page 457

Joe Gqabi was a member of the African National Congress (ANC), who, like many of the prisoners who signed this book, also joined Umkhonto we Sizwe. He was arrested in the 1960s and charged under the Sabotage Act and served his 10 year sentence at Robben Island. He was a chief defendant in the 1977 Pretoria trial, and was acquitted. He was killed outside his home in Zimbabwe in July 1981 by an Apartheid hit-squad.

Gqabi selected a spare three lines from Richard II that register a tension between hope and despair – which one images was a prevalent experience amongst long-term prisoners.

NORTHUMBERLAND: …even through the hollow eyes of death
I spy life peering; but I dare not say
How near the tidings of our comfort is.
(Richard II, 2.1.271–3)