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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