British Museum blog

Shakespeare’s legacy: the Robben Island Bible

The works of Shakespeare, annotated by inmates at Robben Island Prison, South Africa. By permission of Shakespeare Birthplace TrustMatthew Hahn, playwright

I first heard about a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare known as the ‘Robben Island Bible’ when a good friend was reading Anthony Sampson’s wonderful biography on Nelson Mandela in 2002. I was fascinated by the story and found online the subsequent article that Sampson wrote ‘O, what men dare do’ in the Observer from 2001.

The works of Shakespeare, annotated by inmates at Robben Island Prison, South Africa. By permission of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

The book’s owner, South African Sonny Venkatrathnam, was a political prisoner on Robben Island from 1972 to 1978. He asked his wife to send him a book of Shakespeare’s complete works during a time when the prisoners were briefly allowed to have one book, other than a religious text, with them. The book’s ‘fame’ resides in the fact that Venkatrathnam passed the book to a number of his fellow political prisoners in the single cells. Each of them marked his favourite passage in the book and signed it with the date. It contains thirty-two signatures, including those of Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and Mac Maharaj, all luminaries in the struggle for a democratic South Africa.

These men signed passages within the text which they found particularly moving, meaningful and profound. The selection of text provides fascinating insight into the minds, thinking and soul of those political prisoners who fought for the transformation of South Africa. It also speaks to the power of Shakespeare’s resonance with the human spirit regardless of place or time. But, as he explains it, he just wanted a ‘souvenir’ of his time in the Leadership Section of Robben Island.

After hearing this fantastic tale, I determined to write a play based on interviews with as many of the former political prisoners I could find intertwined with the chosen Shakespearian texts. I first encountered Sonny’s ‘Bible’ in 2006 when it left South Africa for the first time to be a part of the Complete Works Exhibition hosted by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2008, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and interview Sonny and seven other signatories of the ‘Bible’ to form the foundation of the play. I returned to South Africa in 2010 for further interviews and to workshop the research with the Market Theatre Laboratory.

It is an honour to have had the opportunity to spend time with these most gentle of men – each one a lion in the fight against apartheid. Many opened their homes to me, a complete stranger, for a couple of hours, shared with me a cup of tea and what their lives were like under an oppressive regime. As Ahmed Kathrada said, ‘After being locked up for all of these years, when I get a chance to speak to someone who is interested in my story, I find it hard to keep quiet.’

I was, and continue to be, fascinated by the resonance of the chosen texts and the men’s biographies – how life imitates art and; how great art, like holy books, seems to give strength to the oppressed.

Read more about this post and Matthew Hahn’s work on his blog .

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, Shakespeare: staging the world, Uncategorized, , , ,

Not of an age, but for all time

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Shakespeare Goes Global looks at how Shakespeare’s audience left the Globe and became the whole world.

The works of Shakespeare, annotated by inmates at Robben Island Prison, South Africa. By permission of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust


Barrie Cook, radio series curator, British Museum

Working with Neil on the Shakespeare’s Restless World programmes as series curator, I usually felt I had a pretty good idea of the focus and trajectory of each episode as it reached broadcast point. This was not at all the case for the final programme Shakespeare Goes Global. So many ideas, so many directions, so many locations had been mooted throughout the development of the script that, listening to the final version, my inside knowledge wasn’t that much better than anyone else’s. For this final blog post, we thought it might be interesting to look at some of the ideas that got away, from some that were dismissed in an instant to others that remained for some time through the development process.

For a while, Shakespeare’s impact on popular culture was going to play a big part: a programme that could open with the Beatles (‘Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song’, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967) and end with the Arctic Monkeys (‘Oh, there ain’t no love, no Montagues or Capulets/ Are just banging tunes and DJ sets and/ Dirty dance-floors, and dreams of naughtiness!’). En route, we’d maybe call in on foreign-language Shakespeare, from the films of Kurosawa and Kozintsev, and dramatic re-workings like Forbidden Planet (The Tempest), My Own Private Idaho (Henry IV) and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Hamlet) and of course YouTube hits (Green Eggs and Hamlet; the Star Wars Macbeth).

Shakespeare himself began as a purveyor of a vulgar form of entertainment, using understandable language full of references to the world he and his audience inhabited; he used clowns and caricatures and lots of jokes, good, bad and dirty. He wrote song and dance into his plays, some of which were virtually musicals well before Kiss Me Kate and West Side Story, and he set his own words to the pop hits of the day. He revisited other playwrights’ work and was happy to collaborate with co-authors, like a Hollywood screen-writer. So perhaps he wouldn’t have minded if, in turn, his own words and characters were adopted and adapted by generations of artists and entertainers. Even The Klingon Hamlet.

The core object for this final episode is one from the 20th century, a book of Shakespeare’s complete works annotated by prisoners from Robben Island. However, to keep in with the spirit of the series, we felt strongly that we also needed a firm root in the time of Shakespeare. Therefore the impact of the First Folio, the first Collected Works of Shakespeare, would inevitably loom large. Shakespeare himself, it seems, had next to no interest in publishing his plays (unlike Ben Jonson), so it was left to his friends to do it for him after his death.

There is so much to say about the First Folio – how many plays survive only through it, especially for the later part of his career; how important it was in creating the idea of the celebrity author and the cult of Shakespeare; how it changed attitudes to the importance of drama in English. For a while the story of the First Folio in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (acquired hot off the press in the 1620s and with a fascinating history), was going to be the focus of this approach, but it was too much of a digression. A little of this remains in the programme, now focussed on the British Library’s First Folio, but much does not.

The Eric Gill sculpture of Prospero and Ariel on the front
of BBC’s Broadcasting House

The interaction of Shakespeare with the BBC from the first broadcast of his work on 16 February 1923 was always going to be important, and remains in the final version of the programme. Inevitably dropping away was the bizarre controversy over the size of Ariel’s genitals on the Eric Gill sculpture of Prospero and Ariel on the front of Broadcasting House, arbitrated by a committee of eminent Shakespeareans and medical experts. Any reader of Shakespeare knows that prudery was not one of his characteristics and he would presumably have found this whole business in equal parts baffling and hilarious.

From the 2012 commemorative coinage to the opening ceremony of the Olympics (to take its cue from The Tempest’s ‘Be not afeard: the isle is full of voices’), Shakespeare is inescapable this year. Yet he always is; we just don’t usually focus on his importance so consciously.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Shakespeare Goes Global

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on

The legacy of a gruesome death

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode The Theatres of Cruelty considers spectacles of torture both on and off the stage.


Jan Graffius, Curator, Stonyhurst College

Relics like this one would be probably the most moving testament to the bravery of those priests who were working undercover in England. Although the contents are rather gruesome, it would have been a very beloved reminder of their faith and a powerful inspiration to the English Catholics to hold firm because men had given blood for their faith. It might even be an inspiration to young boys to follow in their footsteps and become priest themselves.

Relics served as a reminder of what was in front of you. For many priests, the crown of martyrdom was the ultimate sign of God’s favour. Jesuit priests who served in England and came back to Europe without having been caught often describe themselves as too unworthy to share the crown of martyrdom.

Martyrdom wasn’t something they sought but it was something that was a huge honour if it occurred to them. This small relic is a reminder of the brutality, the courage and also the rightness of the faith because if somebody is willing to lay down their life in the most horrible way, the most dreadful form of execution, they have to be absolutely certain that they are doing it for good, strong and true reasons.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme The Theatres of Cruelty

Find out more:

Stonyhurst College

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on

Description of the Arches

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode London Becomes Rome looks at the grand and theatrical coronation of King James I.


Ruth Levis, British Museum

The illustrations of the triumphal arches featured in today’s programme were published in a book, The Arches of Triumph, ‘invented and published’ by Stephen Harrison, the man behind the arches’ creation. Here is his description that accompanied The Temple of Janus (the Roman god of beginnings and transitions), the final arch in the procession.

The Temple of Janus. © Trustees of the British Museum

The seventh and last Pegme (within the Citie) was erected at Temple-barre [Temple Bar], beeing adioyned close to the Gate: The Building was in all points like a Temple, and dedicated to Janus Quadrifrons.

Beneath that Foure-fac’d head of Janus was advancd the Armes of the Kingdome, with the Supporters cut out to the life: from whence being remoude they now are placed in the Guild Hall.

The wals and gates of this Temple were brasse; the Pillars silver, their Capitals and Bases gold: All the Frontispice (downeward from those Armes) was beutified and supported by twelve rich Columnes, of which the foure lowermost, being great Corinthian pillers, stood upon two large Pedestals, with a faire Vaux over them in stead of Architriue, Frieze and Cornice.

Above them, eight Columnes more, were likewise set, two and two upon a large Pedestall; for as our worke began (for his Maiesties entrance) with Rusticke, so did wee thinke it fit, that this out Temple, should end with the most famous Columne, whose beauty and goodlinesse is derived both from the Tuscane, Doricke, Ionicke and Corinthian, and received his full perfection from Titus Vespasin, who advanced it to the highest place of dignitie his Arch Triumphall, and (by reason that the beauties of it were a mixture taken from the rest) he gave it the name of Composita or Italica: within the Temple stood an Altar, with burning Incese upon it, before which a Flamin appears, and to the Flamin comes the Genius of the City.

The principall person in this Temple, was Peace. At her feete lay Warre groueling. At her right hand stood Wealth. On the same hand likewise, but somewhat remote, and in a Cant by her selfe, Quiet was seated, the first hand maide of Peace, whose feete stood vpon Tumult. On the left hand (at the former distance) Liberty the second hand-maide of Peace had her place, at whose feete Seruitude lay subiected. Beneath these (on distinct degrees) sate two other hand maides of Peace, Safey and Felicity, Safety trampling upon Danger and Felcity upon Unhappinesse. Genius and Flamin spake thus much.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme London Becomes Rome

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on

Avoiding the plague

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Plague and the Playhouse looks at impact of the plague on Shakespeare’s London.

Plague proclamations from King James I. © The British Library Board


Dr Richard Barnett, Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow and Honorary Research Fellow, UCL

The most common kind of plague and the kind most associated with historical plague is bubonic plague. The bacterium gets into the body and into the lymph nodes, generally found in the neck, shoulder, armpit, and groin. The bacterium reproduce in these lymph nodes and swell up and go black. In some cases they burst open and you get really nasty abscesses.

With bubonic plague you fall into a deep fever, you get multiple organ failure, your body starts to shut down and it has about 30 – 60% mortality rate. A period of about a week is the period in which you would either die or recover from the disease.

Certainly in modern terms it is treatable and there are various interventions with drugs and organ support that can be done. In terms of the medicine available in Shakespeare’s time, it was widely acknowledged by physicians and priests and the state that by far the best thing to do was just not to get this disease.

Most of the interventions that people make are about prevention and then about isolating people when they do get the disease. The classic image of prevention is the pictures of doctors wearing these very striking, rather beak-like masks which are filled up with herbs and the idea is that if you breathe through these masks you will purify the putrescent air that is causing the plague so you won’t suffer it yourself. One reads of aristocrats carrying around pomanders and nose-gays and walking through poor areas with these things held to their faces to try and purify the air.

There is also a very strong emphasis on keeping yourself healthy and this isn’t just about physical health, this is as much about what we would now call a spiritual and emotional and religious health. It is about confessing your sins, making sure you have a good relationship with God, so that God doesn’t decide to strike you down with this disease.

Going to the theatre was a very bad idea for your health, not only physically because you were crammed into a space with all these other terrible, dirty groundlings, but because the theatre was an immoral pastime.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Plague and the Playhouse

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on

Perceptions of time

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode A Time of Change, a Change of Time explores the shifts in how time was measured and perceived.


Paul Glennie, University of Bristol

Most places had particularly elaborate ringing of the day bell, a period of continuous ringing for two or three minutes or more. It was an unmistakable marker of the day and it had important cueing information. It was a priming trigger, as it were.

There wasn’t a standard hour at which everything started but work very often started at a set time for a particular task or a particular workshop – and the presence of several people may have been necessary because work needed to be coordinated. If one imagines a Blacksmith’s, one needed to have a number of people working at the same time and in phase with one another so they all needed to be present once the forge was up and running, but those who were responsible for maintaining the fire need to be present earlier to get things started and so forth.

In Shakespeare’s time there would be plenty of sectors of the London economy in which workers were rather familiar with the idea of being driven hard to make sure that they worked a full day. But there was plenty of complaining about the volume and intensity of work and about hard task-masters long before time discipline comes in.

Although it might be very easy to blame the clock and the strong sense of urgency it brings, anyone who supposes that life in the pre-industrial countryside was an idyllic kind of existence doesn’t have a sense of how urgent it was to get the harvest in before it rained, for example.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme A Time of Change, a Change of Time

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on

Building a nation

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode The Flag That Failed examines some of the challenges involved in uniting England and Scotland.

Design proposals for the new flag of Great Britain, from 1603-4. © The Trustees of the National Library of Scotland


John Morrill, Professor of Early Modern History, University of Cambridge

I think James had real problems with the union of England and Scotland from the very beginning. There was the great problem that he was a Scot taking over England – the junior kingdom taking over the senior kingdom, as it were – by which I mean that for many centuries the English had claimed that Scotland was a feudal dependency of England.

Such historical prejudices and historical legacies made it very difficult for a rapid movement. Initially, James went for an all-out push for union; political union, economic union, religious union. But very quickly he saw that the scale of the opposition was too great so he backed off and went for what he called the `union of hearts and minds’.

There was such a long animosity between the peoples of England and Scotland that the idea of them becoming one new people came up against a huge amount of prejudice. James wanted to try and get rid of this prejudice. For many centuries there had been border raiding and people in the far north of England rustling and stealing in southern Scotland and visa versa. What James did was to create a new administrative structure called the Middle Shires which brought the English and Scots together to sort out lawlessness in this particular region, and it worked pretty well.

James did small things wherever he could which slowly and surely moved the two nations towards being willing to have more of a union. He created a new coinage and, as we hear in today’s programme, he attempts to create a flag for this new nation.

What he couldn’t do is anything which affected legal freedom, and he couldn’t touch the property of the subjects in either kingdom without the agreements of his parliaments. The problem was the English would always preferred to create common institutions covering the whole of the island, so there would be one parliament, there would be one system of law, there would be one church. What the Scots preferred was a federal structure in which both countries retained independent institutions but they co-ordinated, they worked together. In a sense the Scots would always prefer devolution to integration.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme The Flag That Failed

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, , , , , ,

The role of the pedlar

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Disguise and Deception looks at the importance of appearances in Elizabethan England.


Margaret Spufford, historian

The pedlar was a very elusive figure indeed. He (or she – there were women pedlars too) was peripatetic and they lived literally near the edge of society, the vagrant fringe.

Pedlars were essentially salesmen who worked in and out of markets and there were large groups of them around big towns. London had the largest contingent of pedlars who would have worked out of the city, up and down the roads. There would have been people circulating to and fro; some people travelled as far as Edinburgh to London and back. They travelled by foot, carrying their wares in packs on their backs. As they became more prosperous, they might have been able to afford to buy a horse.

As well as pedlars based in the bigger cities, there were those based solely in individual market towns all over the country. They would live in a market town and would work out of it, circulating during the week to spread wares.

Pedlars were also entertainers. They were certainly multi-skilled and often earned their night’s lodging by singing. They sang, told stories, shared the latest news. Pedlars were talkers and were highly socially skilled people. In fact, I would say that the whole business of singing and performing which you find amongst these people is an aid to selling. The skills are almost indistinguishable, they have to be entertainers to make a living.

Their role was extremely important in circulating goods and news very widely, but they were unpopular with the authorities. Pedlars were heavily legislated against. I think there were something like 11 bills in parliament against pedlars and hawkers in the 17th century. They were beaten, they were unpopular and with a town’s shopkeeper they were very unpopular indeed because their living was being undercut by the pedlars’ presence.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Disguise and Deception

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, , , , ,

The Salcombe Bay treasure

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode From London to Marrakech looks at sunken treasure and global trade networks.


Venetia Porter, curator, British Museum

This extraordinary find, discovered at Salcombe Bay in Devon in 1994, provides a glimpse into a fascinating period of history. In 1585, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Barbary Company was established to facilitate trade between England and Morocco. English merchants were excited by the commercial possibilities of obtaining sugar, saltpetre for making gunpowder and gold which was in short supply in Europe at this time.

Stories of the Moroccan ruler Ahmad al-Masur’s 1591 conquest of gold-rich Timbuktu and Gao in West Africa filtered out to the West and increased the desire for trade. A letter from one Laurence Madoc to Anthony Dassel (called ‘a merchant of London’ in Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations) describes the feat of the conquest: ‘there went… for those parts seventeen hundred men: who passing over the sands for want of water perished one third part of them: and at their coming the Negroes made some resistance but to small purpose.’ Madoc marvels at the quality of gold available to the Moroccan ruler: ‘The rent of Tomboto [Timbuktu] is 60 quintals of golde by the yeere’ (approximately 600 kilos).

Ahmad al-Mansur (r.1578-1603) was known as al-Dhahabi, ‘the golden one’. He is said to have paid his functionaries in pure gold; his palace supposedly had golden walls. Legend also has it that during his reign, ‘1,400 hammers continuously struck coins at the palace gate.’ He had excellent relations with Elizabeth I. About a quarter of the coins from the wreck – more than a hundred – were struck by this ruler, and another hundred were struck by one of his sons Mawlay Zaydan (r.1608-27). The rest are mostly coins of other members of the family, down to the 1630s.

How were they acquired? In the souk of any city in the Islamic world, money-changers and dealers in jewellery would have been located together and often conducted both businesses. The fact that much of the jewellery is in pieces suggests that out merchant or sea captain obtained this as bullion to be melted down.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme From London to Marrakech

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, , , , , , ,

Venetian glass

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Sex and the City looks at the role Venice in Shakespeare’s England.


Dora Thornton, curator, British Museum

In the mid 15th century, Venetian glass workers perfected a wonderful new medium: Cristallo or crystalline glass. It’s called Cristallo because it has the clarity and transparency of rock crystal. Unlike rock crystal, however, it can be moulded and blown into fantastic forms and shapes. It can also be decorated, as this goblet is, with beautiful brightly-coloured enamels and gilding to make a really splendid object to hold in your hand, admire and drink from.

The making of Cristallo was a very closely-guarded trade secret. The glassmaking guilds in Venice controlled not only their workmen, but the trade and import of the raw materials for their industry. There are many materials needed to make this goblet and Venice dominated the trade in those precious commodities.

To make the glass body (known as “metal”) for this object you would need ingredients from all over the world: plant ash imported from Syria; a special kind of river pebble from the River Ticino in northern Italy; and manganese as a decolourant. Analysis in the British Museum by x-ray fluorescence of the enamels used to paint the woman on the glass indicates that the striking cobalt blue is likely to come from the Erzgebirge mountains on the German/Czech border. We can also tell that the white colour, which is made from tin oxide, has probably been made using tin imported from Cornwall or Brittany. The gold, heavily used all over the rim and for touching up details and for the arms, is probably from Africa.

Questions remain about this particular glass. We do not know for certain that it is Venetian, made on the island of Murano in the lagoon. It may have been made by Venetian glassmakers who had set up a glasshouse elsewhere, as happened throughout the 1500s. It belongs to a group of rather heavy glasses all of which have full-length enamelled portraits of men and women and German-style arms. Enamelling like this was less fashionable in Venice from the mid 1500s but continued to be admired in Northern Europe. Was this glass made in Venice for a German, Swiss or Austrian customer (I have not yet been able to identify the arms) as a kind of souvenir of the city? The way the woman is presented is a picture-postcard stereotype of the beautiful Venetian lady or courtesan. Or was the glass made in a German or Austrian glasshouse by a Venetian emigrant, or by a native craftsman working in the Venetian tradition? Either way, when we’re looking at this goblet, we can not only marvel at the highly-skilled craftsmanship involved in its creation but also the extensive global trade networks that were fundamental to its production.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Sex and the City

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on

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