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The Robben Island Bible

Antiapartheid Heroes Emerge
Through Reading Shakespeare

By Matthew Hahn
Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Monday, June 3, 2013, C–1&3 (center left stalls)
A reading directed by Matthew Hahn

"Somehow, Shakespeare always seems to have something to say to us." Nelson MandelaThe quotation from Nelson Mandela to the right is on the home page. I chose it for two reasons: It so succinctly sums up the point of this website, and it comes from the greatest statesman and humanist of our time. Mandela, in fact, believed that politicians should quote Shakespeare at least once in every speech, a model he himself followed.

Mandela served 27 years behind bars for his role in fighting the apartheid policies of South Africa's then-ruling Afrikaner nationalists. He spent 18 of those years in the notorious Robben Island prison off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, where he along with 33 other political prisoners signed their names to favorite passages of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Known as the Robben Island Bible, the book is currently the centerpiece of an exhibit at the Folger Library in Washington, D.C.

To celebrate the opening of the exhibit, the Folger Theater staged a reading of Matthew Hahn's play The Robben Island Bible, a piece based on interviews with many of those political prisoners. While the "bible" itself has achieved the status of sacred artifact among Shakespeareans, it is the play that reveals how relevant The Bard can be to even the most singular of circumstances. Meanwhile, Hahn's script opens a window into a specific time and place we all need to understand better.

The real hero in this particular Shakespearean tale is not Mandela but Sonny Venkatratham, who was held at Robben Island from 1972 to 1978. Prisoners were allowed to keep one book, so he asked his wife to send him The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. In Hahn's play—which Hahn calls "verbatim theater," noting that about 90 percent of the script was lifted directly from his interviews—Sonny contends that he chose Shakespeare in part because of its variety: "Pick any page to be entertained and educated," he says. But he also did the math: He was allowed only one book but he ended up with 38 plays and 154 sonnets.

When their books were later confiscated, Sonny convinced a gullible guard that his book was really a Bible. This particular edition of The Complete Works is the 1970 Alexander Text. Sonny covered the outside with Indian diety figures, that, together with two-column pages of numbered verses, looks very like a Bible. "Religion has done some good with these guards," Sonny says in the play. The guard gave Sonny his "Bible", and Sonny in turn passed it around to the prisoners in their single cells, asking them to sign their favorite passages. His motivation was simply to have a souvenir of his time at Robben Island.

In the staged reading of the play, Nehal Joshi plays Sonny, while various other prisoners are played by Nasser Faris, KenYatta Rogers, and André De Shields. All professional actors, each brings distinct voices and manners to their many prisoners who offer up brief biographical sketches, explain the reason for choosing their particular Shakespearean passage, and then recite that passage. As the play is a series of speeches with occasional interjections by other characters, its theatricality lies totally in the words; but those words are themselves packed with action, and in the mouths of such good actors as these, you've seldom heard readings of Shakespeare's lines resonate more deeply. David Schalkwyk, director of research at the Folger, professor of English at the University of Cape Town, and author of Hamlet's Dreams: The Robben Island Shakespeare (Arden/Bloomsbury, 2013) that was also featured at this event, filled in as a warder, judge, and the gullible guard.

The Folger exhibit cautions viewers against investing too much meaning in Shakespeare's presence among the prisoners: "To claim that Shakespeare constituted a 'common text' that united Robben Island's prisoners assumes a universal role for The Bard that exaggerates and romanticizes his influence." Some of the prisoners later couldn't remember what passages they signed, and one had changed his selection from Puck's closing speech in A Midsummer Night's Dream to a line from Lady Macbeth. The exhibit's argument is that the prisoner, as did others, probably chose Puck out of familiarity with the play from high school studies.

But this downplays the significance of that particular prisoner's later choice from Macbeth: " Here's the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand." Whereas Puck offers a prisoner hope while waiting out the time in an isolated cell—"Think but this, and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear; and this weak and idle theme, no more yield but a dream"—the enfranchised prisoner afterward can look back on the era of apartheid and his own detention as a bloody spot on South Africa's history and his own life that can never be washed off.

Shakespeare's "universality" is a matter of context; from individual lines to whole plays, his works are amazingly malleable to changing times, situations, and people. That's why Coriolanus can be embraced by communists and Nazis alike; why Henry V has been presented as a prowar play and as an antiwar play; why The Merchant of Venice can read as a racist comedy or a great humanist tract; why Measure for Measure is a different play every decade you happen to see or read it. Many directors and audiences want their Shakespeare to take sides, but he frustratingly takes all sides even in the context of his plots. Those contexts thus ride a continuum through space and time, adapting to the context of specific circumstances.

I've always scoffed at people who quote Shakespeare's famous lines out of context, particularly "To thine own self be true," which is spoken by a duplicitous lord. I will scoff no more, hearing one prisoner use Polonius' precepts to Laertes as his own creed for getting through prison life. "Think about everything: I suppose that is what Polonius is saying," the prisoner says. Yet another prisoner takes Henry IV's lament that "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" and turns it outside in, giving it the perspective of a revolutionary. Uneasy should lie the head of any king, prime minister, or president, he asserts. "Whether my interpretation is correct, that is how I perceive it is," he says.

Meanwhile, one prisoner finds himself in the exact same context of a Shakespearean character: "This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother, which thou takest from me," says Calaban to Prospero in The Tempest. Another prisoner identifies with Othello as he risked six months in prison for dating a white woman (an admission that garners shouts of appreciation and approval from the other actors on stage); he avoided the woman and joined the antiapartheid movement and for that received a life sentence. One prisoner chose Sonnets 122 and 123, Shakespeare's defiance to Time; another noted, as does Macbeth, how "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time."

Through their biographies, their choices, and their interpretations, each prisoner comes to life. If, as one remarks, Shakespeare "is a voyage of discovery," their own presence is likewise a voyage of discovery for us. Western nations largely took an indifferent stance regarding not only apartheid but the Afrikaner regime's brutal enforcement of its racist policy of disenfranchisement for the majority of the nation's population. The United States was dealing with its own legal and sublegal variants on apartheid to give the Robben Island inmates much heed. Hahn's play allows us to make up for that historical lapse and to get to know the couple dozen men who ended up bringing about a whole new social order for their nation.

The full front, back, and spine cover, featuring a man and woman in traditional Indian garb amid a bright blooming yellow and pink flower
  The cover of Venkratratham's Complete Works. Photo courtesy of the Folger Library.

Notably, they are not a unified force. Hailing from different political factions, the prisoners recount their distrust of each other as much as they do their frustration with whites. One prisoner announces how much he hates all whites, but turns away from this absolutism when a white priest, offering him communion, is berated by the warden who doesn't allow the prisoners any alcoholic drink, including wine that has been blessed. It wasn't black versus white, the prisoner realized, but people abusing people. Finding understanding if not compassion for your opponents is essential in achieving peaceful social change.

Consider what is happening in Syria right now and the brewing unrest in several other countries, including your own (whether the unrest is utilizing sticks and stones or hurtful rhetoric). Consider the violence of recent regime changes and the civil wars and armed revolutions that have occurred in every nation of every person reading this essay. Then consider how South Africa moved to a true democracy and rid itself of institutional apartheid relatively peacefully through many years of orderly negotiations. Like Shakespeare, the Robben Island inmates learned to take all sides, first among themselves and eventually across the whole of their society.

Among them emerged one man who grasped that philosophy as fully as anybody and, fortunately, ended up leading his nation through that difficult transition. Notably, Nelson Mandela gets sparse mention in The Robben Island Bible. Hahn specifically decided not to interview Mandela because he didn't want the Nobel laureate to become the play's focus and overshadow the other prisoners. The whole was more important than the individual hero in this play.

When Mandela does show up at play's end, he merely recites his chosen passage:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

This is spoken by Julius Caesar. If it seems ironic that Mandela would identify himself with a passage from a despotic ruler, remember the context of his circumstances when he signed this passage: a political prisoner in a brutal environment under a continuous threat of death by any number of means. Mandela would go on to quote Shakespeare many more times in many other contexts, but here he turned to The Bard for words of courage and resolve.

Eric Minton
June 6, 2013

[The Folger Library exhibit, "A Book Behind Bars: The Robben Island Shakespeare," runs to Sept. 29, 2013. Details here.]

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