Reading ‘Hamlet’ behind bars

Share via
David Schalkwyk is director of research at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington and editor of the Shakespeare Quarterly. He is the author of "Hamlet's Dreams: The Robben Island Shakespeare." He will be lecturing at the Huntington Library in San Marino on Monday evening.

It doesn’t look like much -- just a tattered, 1970 edition of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.” But inside, the book bears testament to an era.

Currently on display at the British Museum as part of an exhibition called “Shakespeare: Staging the World,” the book belongs to Sonny Venkatrathnam, who was incarcerated during the 1970s in South Africa’s apartheid-era political prison, Robben Island. Having convinced a warden that the volume was a Hindu religious text, Venkatrathnam was allowed to keep it with him in prison, where it was passed from prisoner to prisoner. At Venkatrathnam’s request, his comrades signed their names beside their favorite passages.

On Dec. 16, 1977, Nelson Mandela signed next to these lines: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once.”


Walter Sisulu, another African National Congress leader and close confidant of Mandela, put his name beside a passage in “The Merchant of Venice,” in which Shylock talks about the abuse he has taken as a Jewish money-lender: “Still have I borne it with a patient shrug / For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.”

And Billy Nair, who went on to become a member of Parliament in the new South Africa, chose Caliban’s challenge to Prospero from “The Tempest”: “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother / Which thou tak’st from me.”

The Robben Island Shakespeare is the only book from the prison that records an act of personal literary appreciation by the major figures incarcerated at the time, many of whom went on to play major roles in post-apartheid South Africa. It is a kind of “guest book,” bearing the signatures of 34 of the Robben Island prisoners. But is also more than that.

When they signed their names against Shakespeare’s text, each prisoner recognized something of himself and his relation to others in the words of a stranger. The Robben Island Shakespeare records that community of character and signature as an example of Shakespeare’s global reach and as a historically specific witness to a common human identity and shared experience.

It’s not at all clear how big a role the book played in the lives of prisoners other than Venkatrathnam. Not one of the memoirs written by inmates at Robben Island mentions the volume. And when the ANC was asked to comment on the significance of the book this year, its spokesman asked, “What is this ‘Robben Island Bible’?” He denied that it had played any special role in the struggle against oppression.

Nevertheless, all the accounts of political imprisonment in South Africa during the apartheid era suggest that the humanities were central to the lives and needs of the prisoners. In an environment of extreme sensory deprivation, designed to deny people their affinity with others and to strip away humanity, the soul staked its claims with striking insistence. Music, some prisoners declared, was more important to them than food; many were prepared to suffer physical punishment for the sake of a book or a newspaper; and the cold of concrete and steel was turned into the warmth of community through common reading and shared education. Jacob Zuma, the current president of South Africa, has said he received his basic education at the “University of Robben Island.”


And Shakespeare was very much a part of the lives of literate inmates, though his works were not the only things they read. The prisoners were avid readers of novels, histories, poetry and plays. Mandela’s favorite authors included Clausewitz, Tolstoy and Dickens. Impressed by the depth and relevance of Greek tragedy, he played Creon in a famous Robben Island performance of “Antigone.”

Ahmed Kathrada, who signed his name in Venkatrathnam’s book beside the passage “Once more into the breach,” from “Henry V,” filled his prison notebooks with quotations from Donne and Herbert, Euripides and Sophocles, Lewis Carroll and Charlie Chaplin. The Chaplin entry dismisses Shakespeare for being elitist and irrelevant. Even so, as Kathrada told a Mandela biographer, “Somehow Shakespeare always had something to say to us.”

Some ex-prisoners, including Kathrada, have said they no longer recognize themselves in the passages that bear their signatures, or that they now prefer other plays, sonnets or speeches. But that shouldn’t be surprising. One’s relationship with literature is always in flux, a product of personal history, social situation and common conversation. Venkatrathnam’s Robben Island “Bible” isn’t so much a reminder of the importance of one book or of Shakespeare but rather of how the humanities are akin to the air we need to stay alive.

Some years ago, I was given the opportunity to examine Venkatrathnam’s Shakespeare. In addition to the moving signatures and their passages, I found eucalyptus leaves pressed between its pages, still carrying their faint, heady scent of menthol. The leaves had been carried from beyond the cell’s dreary confines, picked up on the way back from hard labor in the quarry or the lime pit, a reminder of Coriolanus’ words: “There is a world elsewhere.”

Shakespeare filled only a small part of the creative and spiritual needs to which the Robben Island prisoners bear witness. But he remains the best record we have of everything that continues to make us human. And Venkatrathnam’s humble volume provides an elegant testament to that.