Magazine article The Spectator

Finding the Will to Live

Magazine article The Spectator

Finding the Will to Live

Article excerpt

Hamlet's Dreams: The Robben Island Shakespeare by David Schalkwyk Methuen, £14.99, pp.191, ISBN 9781441129284 The so-called 'Robben Island Bible' is one of the holy relics of Shakespeare criticism. It is a copy of a 1970 edition of Shakespeare's complete works, kept by a political prisoner on Robben Island, the notorious island jail off Cape Town, during the 1970s and 1980s.

The possession of such a book was against the rules, but its owner, Sonny Venkatrathnam, convinced the guards that this was a Bible, and inside the prison it functioned as something like a holy text. The inmates passed around the collection of plays and poems, and 34 signed their names next to a favourite passage. Apartheid was founded upon division. In sharing the Robben Island Bible among themselves, these prisoners used Shakespeare to found their own community.

The most famous of them, Nelson Mandela, signed his name next to a defiant passage from Julius Caesar: 'Cowards die many times before their deaths, / The valiant never taste of death but once.' Other prisoners were less predictable, choosing passages because the words reminded them of a world elsewhere, or because they resonated with the all-too-familiar corrupt power structures in the world around them. …

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