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.

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In 1966 the Beatles were number one with Paperback Writer, Lyndon Johnson was asked to ‘get out’ of Vietnam, and a gallon of gas cost $0.32. American artist Ed Ruscha travelled 1,400 miles on Route 66 from LA to his hometown of Oklahoma, recording the gas stations dotted along the road. Influenced by graphic design and advertising, he transformed everyday images like this into dramatic works of art.

See this work on loan from @themuseumofmodernart in our #AmericanDream exhibition – follow the link in our bio to book tickets.

Edward Ruscha (b. 1937), Standard Station. Screenprint, 1966. @themuseumofmodernart New York/Scala, Florence. © Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

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See some of Warhol’s most iconic works in our major exhibition. Follow the link in our bio to find out more.

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You can see some of his prints in our upcoming #AmericanDream exhibition – book your tickets by following the link in our bio.

Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920), Gumball Machine. Colour linocut, 1970. © Wayne Thiebaud/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016.
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See this beautiful beaded blanket in our special exhibition #SouthAfricanArt, which traces the history of this nation over 100,000 years. Follow the link in our bio to book your tickets before the exhibition closes on 26 Feb.
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Learn more about the fascinating history of this nation in our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, closing 26 Feb 2017. Follow the link in our bio to find out more.
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Mahlangu’s Art Car combines tradition and history with contemporary art and politics; themes  that are explored in our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition. Catch it before it ends on 26 February 2017 – you can book tickets by following the link in our bio.
#SouthAfrica #mybritishmuseum #britishmuseum #regram #repost
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