Robben Island signatures in Shakespeare's sonnets

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This article includes information on signatures along the margins of sonnets 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.

J. Nzuza, page 1312 & Don Davis, page 1313

Six Robben Island prisoners made their signatures in the back of the Collected Works, by Shakespeare’s sonnets. J. Nzuza and Don Davies selected sonnets 25 and 30, respectively, both of which are poems celebrating the constancy of friendship:

Sonnet 25

Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whome fortune of such triumph bars,
Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.
Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye;
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die,
The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foil’d,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toil’d.
Then happy I, that love and am beloved
Where I may not remove nor be removed.

Sonnet 30

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up rememberance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I soughts,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan th’ espense of many a vanish’d sight.
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paide before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.

Neville Alexander, page 1318–19

Neville Alexander spent 10 years on Robben Island, from 1964–74, following his conviction for conspiracy to commit sabotage. Highly educated, Alexander had been studying and teaching in Germany prior to his return to South Africa following the Sharpeville massacre.

In Venkatrathnam’s book, Dr. Alexander marked Sonnets 60 and 65, both poems that meditate on mortality and the relentless passing of time—a subject sure to be on the mind of any prisoner:

Sonnet 60

Like as the waves makes towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,
Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow.
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

Sonnet 65

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of batt’ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! Where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift food back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

T. Cholo, page 1329

Prisoner Theo Cholo also marked a sonnet—his selection was Sonnet 123, a commentary on memory and a defiance of time and its transformations in the context of close relationships. Themes of friendship, love, and time are overarching themes in many of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Sonnet 123

No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change.
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old,
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wond’ring at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
This I do vow, and this shall ever be:
I will be true, despite they scythe and thee.

R. Mhlaba, page 1332

The final prisoner to leave his mark among Shakespeare’s sonnets was Raymond Mhlaba, ANC member and Rivonia Trialist. He liked Sonnet 140, a “dark lady” sonnet that deals with love, and which would seem to have little to do with his time as a Robben Island prisoner.

Sonnet 140

Be wise as though art cruel; do not press
My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain
Lest sorrow lend me words, and words express
The manner of my pity-wanting pain.
If I might teach thee wit, better it were,
Though not to love, yet, love, to tell me so;
As testy sick men, when their deaths be near,
No news but health from their physicians know.
For, if I should despair, I should grow mad,
And in my madness might speak ill of thee.
Now this ill-wresting world is grown so bad
Mad slanderers by mad ears believed be.
That I may not be so, nor thou belied,
Bear thine eyes straight, though thy proud heart go wide.