On May 25, the Robben Island Bible will be displayed at the Folger Shakespeare Library and will remain displayed until September 25.
Last week I reviewed the RSC’s U.S. production of Julius Caesar, set in a contemporary African nation-state. This week, I turn to the (partial inspiration) for this particular adaptation: Robben Island Bible. RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran (in a roundtable discussion at the Ohio State University on May 2, 2013) explains that Julius Caesar is “Shakespeare’s African play” and cites Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, who translated Julius Caesar into Swahili. OSU Professor of African American and African Studies Lupenga Mphande describes Julius Caesar (alongside Merchant of Venice and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) as an essential text studied by South African schoolboys as part of the focus on the three “C”s: commerce (Merchant), civilization (Caesar), and Christianity (Progress). Doran’s production of Julius Caesar with a stellar all-black cast is set in a contemporary (although undisclosed) African nation-state.
I was lucky enough to see the Robben Island Prison Bible last year at the British Museum’s Shakespeare: Staging the World exhibit. In the last gallery space, devoted to “Shakespeare’s Legacy,” only one item was on display. Even amongst the beauty, depth, and breadth of the exhibit, this particular piece is by far the most resonating and moving item.
Nicknamed the Robben Island Bible, this cheap copy of Shakespeare’s collected works was disguised as a Hindu text, passed amongst, and read by South African anti-apartheid activists imprisoned at Robben Island Prison. The book’s owner, Sonny Venkatrathnam, asked his fellow inmates to each mark his favorite passage and sign it.
Nelson Mandela chose a passage from Julius Caesar. Despite bad omens and against his frightened wife’s wishes, Caesar is determined to go to the Forum the following morning:
“Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste death but once.”
When Mandela chose his passage and dated it December 16, 1977—the anniversary of The Battle of Blood River, the defeat of the Zulus by the Afrikaners—he reclaimed that date as not a day of defeat, but of active resistance. After his release from prison 23 more years and his election to president, Mandela reclaimed and renamed the holiday as “Reconciliation Day.” He, too, knew the contemporary political urgency of Julius Caesar, and that the passage that Mandela chose so many years ago—expressing courage, defiance, resoluteness, and grace—is a fitting summary of his own ideologies and experiences.
Doran believes that Mandela chose this date to reaffirm his struggle with the “divinely sanctioned approach to Apartheid” and that he needed the courage of Julius Caesar, even knowing Caesar’s bleak demise shortly after his brave pronouncement. Professor Mphande offered another reading of this particular passage; Mandela was moving away from the non-violent resistance model of Gandhi and toward more radical and, if necessary, violent forms of resistance.
Mphande offered the story of the assassination of Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, the Prime Minister of South Africa (1958-1966) who was dubbed the “Architect of Apartheid.” The appointed Parliamentary messenger, Dimitri Tsafendas, gained access to Verwoerd while the Prime Minister attended a meeting at the House of Assembly. Tsafendas stated that he had a private message he wished to whisper into Verwoed’s ear, and when Verwoed leaned back to hear “the whisper was a kitchen knife that cut through his throat.” This assassination also has close parrallels with Shakespeare’s tragedy: oppressed citizens becoming killers, suitors asking for private conference, a leader with a deaf ear to conspirators, and the closest of confidants acting as murderer. Mandela knew Verwoed’s end; he knew Caesar’s end; and he intimately knew the power of Shakespeare’s words.
The Robben Island Bible also has the marks and signatures of thirty-three other inmates. One highlighted passage I remember distinctly seeing at the British Museum exhibit was Caliban’s defiant line as native “Other” claiming his right to his land colonized by the European Prospero:
This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou takest from me.
The Folger is hosting several events in conjunction with this moving exhibit.
David Schalkwyk, Director of Research at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington D.C. and Professor of English at the University of Cape Town, South Africa has written Hamlet’s Dream, an Arden Shakespeare Now! (pub. 2013) work that intricately links the prison of Hamlet’s Denmark with the notorious South African prison.
A reading of Matthew Hahn’s play Robben Island Bible, based on interviews Hahn conducted with several former prisoners including Venkatrathnam, will be produced at the Folger Shakespeare Library on June 3, 2013.
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