Wednesday, 8 October 2008

A bit of background.......

Hamlet’s Dreams
David Schalkwyk

If you were to visit Stratford-upon-Avon this year in search of Shakespeare you would be offered, alongside the usual attractions of the ‘Birthplace’ and Anne Hathaway’s cottage, an exhibition entitled ‘Shakespeare – The Complete Works’. Intrigued, you would part with the equivalent of fifty rand, and take the narrow sixteenth-century staircase up to a low-ceilinged room that promises not merely Shakespeare, but the complete Shakespeare.

One exhibit is arresting. Given an independent case – a large, free-standing cabinet at the head of the stairway – there is a single medium-sized volume that could mark either the beginning or the end of your tour. The volume currently on display in Nash House is the 1970 imprint. What makes it so special? It is not owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust which sponsored the exhibition, or the Shakespeare Institute of the University of Birmingham, which has its offices down the road, but by a South African: Sonny Venkatrathnam. It is the so-called ‘Robben Island Shakespeare’ (also known as the Robben Island Bible). A political prisoner on Robben Island during the 1970s, Venkatratham was able to smuggle his copy of Shakespeare’s works into the prison by persuading his warders that it was a religious Hindu text. He then surreptitiously passed the book to a number of his fellow prisoners in the single cells. Over a period of four or
five years (this process took a long time) each prisoner marked his favourite passage, and signed it with the date. The Robben Island Shakespeare contains thirty-two signatures, including those of Walter Sisulu, Neville Alexander, Billy Nair, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Masondo, and Mac Maharaj. The page on which Venkatrathnam’s Shakespeare is open for display in Stratford was signed on the16th of December 1979, with the name ‘Nelson Mandela’: ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths / The valiant never taste of death but once’ (Shakespeare, 2005: Julius Caesar, 2.2.32-3).

It is clear that those who made their personal marks of identification in Venkatrathnam’s book found something in Shakespeare – whether from their time at school, or before they entered the prison, or even in the prison itself, through which they could express their personal and collective voices.

There are 32 signatures in the book that Venkatrathnam circulated, a fraction of the number imprisoned on the Island in the nineteen-seventies. The signatories were members of a literate elite, separated from the vast body of prisoners in the communal cells. So to claim that Shakespeare united all ‘the prisoners at Robben Island’ is somewhat wishful, or negligent, or both. But if Shakespeare may be said to have invigorated the bleak life of the Robben Island elite, Robben Island itself also invigorates and legitimises the idea of
Shakespeare in present-day Stratford. Having been circulated stealthily as a force of memory, inspiration, perhaps even of mere piety, in the South African prison more than two decades ago, Shakespeare is himself now released in this contemporary British exhibition of cultural capital from obscurity and irrelevance by the mythical force of Mandela and his island.