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

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

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, , , , ,

What is the city but the people?


Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum

In 2012, as the world’s gaze turns on London in this Olympic year, the British Museum will be exploring this capital city from a slightly different viewpoint – by trying to get inside the heads of the people who lived here over 400 years ago.

In Shakespeare’s Restless World, a series starting on BBC Radio 4 next week, we will explore the stories of 20 objects – some grand, some everyday things – that help us imagine what the world looked like to the groundlings inside the Globe theatre around 1600.

I’ll be talking to Shakespeare scholars, historians and experts on the fascinating issues these 20 objects raise – everything from exploration and discovery abroad to entertainment, monarchy and even the deadly threat of plague closer to home.

Detail of London ('The Long View'), Wencelaus Hollar, 1647, showing the Globe Theatre.

Detail of London ('The Long View'), Wencelaus Hollar, 1647, showing the Globe Theatre.

As well as objects from the British Museum, many are from collections across the UK. I have been travelling across Britain to get a closer look at what these objects, such as a fork found on the site of the Rose Theatre, a book of royal murder plots, and sunken treasure from Morocco, can reveal to us about daily life, national politics and global economics at the turn of the 16th century.

Throughout the series there is something else that allows us to picture these turbulent times so vividly: the works of William Shakespeare himself. In the programmes, we delve into his plots and characters, his speeches and soliloquies, to seek glimpses of the uncertain times in which he lived.

Later in the year, the British Museum will open its doors to Shakespeare: staging the world, bringing together a vast and eclectic array of Elizabethan and Jacobean objects, including the 20 featured in the radio series. This exhibition will provide a unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city four hundred years ago, interpreted through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays. Featured alongside these objects will be digital media and performance created in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and soon you will be able to follow the work that’s going on behind the scenes here on this blog.

From next week on the blog, to coincide with the series broadcast on BBC Radio 4, we will be featuring contributions from some of the many people I’ve spoken to in the making of Shakespeare’s Restless World.

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

Shakespeare: staging the world opens at the British Museum on 19 July 2012.
Supported by BP
In collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival

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

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