Robben Island signatures in Twelfth Night

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This article includes information on signatures in Twelfth Night 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.

Govan Mbeki, page 349

Govan Mbeki rivaled Nelson Mandela for the position of leader on Robben Island, and he maintained a radical communist position. He was sentenced to life imprisonment after the Rivonia Trial, and served 24 years there. After his release, he served on the South African Senate from 1994-97. He is the father of former South African president Thabo Mbeki.

For a radical and active political figure, Mbeki chose what seems a surprisingly light-hearted passage. His signature appears on the opening page of Twefth Night. Although it is not clear whether there is a specific passage on the page that appealed to Mbeki, by far the most well-known passage is Orsino’s opening monologue on love, music, and desire:

"If music be the food of love, play on." (Twelfth Night, 1.1.1)

Wilton Mkwayi, page 361

Wilton Mkwayi, like so many others at Robben Island, was a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC. He was charged with treason in 1956, and sentenced to life in prison in 1964. He was released in 1989 and died in 2004.

Mkwayi’s is the second signed passage in Twelfth Night. He included his name in Venkatrathnam’s Shakespeare by a passage in which Malvolio responds eagerly to what he supposed to be Olivia’s invitation and encouragement:

"If this fall into thy hand, revolve. In my stars I am above thee, but be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em."
(Twelfth Night, 2.5.132–4)

In the play, these lines are a jab at an ambitious fool, but taken on their own, could be a serious meditation on the nature of resolve and leadership. In the context of Mkwayi’s personal situation in prison, perhaps they spoke to him of thwarted longing, something he surely felt as he was imprisoned just before he was set to be married to his fiancé.