Reading “Hamlet” Behind Bars
By David Schalkwyk
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.’ [….]
The rest of the article is here.
(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.)
Here’s an inspirational story of an inmate “sentenced to 16 years for felony assault, a period extended by three years after an altercation with a guard in prison,” whose prison reading contributed to his becoming something of an expert on hieroglyphs: “Hieroglyphics Turn Prisoner Away from a Life of Crime.”
Duly inspired, here’s a link to the Prison Book Program.
And this may be a propitious occasion for those of us dispositionally inclined to read the likes of Aristotle, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Michael Sandel, Iris Marion Young, G.A. Cohen, Thomas Pogge, and Amartya Sen on justice (distributive and otherwise), to be reminded of the relevance of Shakespeare, who also speaks to us about such things: A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare’s Plays Teach Us About Justice (2011).