The so-called ‘Robben Island Bible’ is one of the holy relics of Shakespeare criticism. It is a copy of a 1970 edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, kept by a political prisoner on Robben Island, the notorious island jail off Cape Town, during the 1970s and 1980s.
The possession of such a book was against the rules, but its owner, Sonny Venkatrathnam, convinced the guards that this was a Bible, and inside the prison it functioned as something like a holy text. The inmates passed around the collection of plays and poems, and 34 signed their names next to a favourite passage. Apartheid was founded upon division. In sharing the Robben Island Bible among themselves, these prisoners used Shakespeare to found their own community.
The most famous of them, Nelson Mandela, signed his name next to a defiant passage from Julius Caesar: ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths,/ The valiant never taste of death but once.’ Other prisoners were less predictable, choosing passages because the words reminded them of a world elsewhere, or because they resonated with the all-too-familiar corrupt power structures in the world around them. David Schalkwyk takes this single volume and its 34 signatures as the entry-point for a much larger — and very moving — consideration of apartheid, and its impact on the identities of those who suffered under it.
Sandi Sijake, a soldier who ‘became a Major-General in the new South African National Defence Force and is currently President of the ANC Veterans’ League’ signed his name beside a passage from As You Like It — an apparently odd choice, given that the play is a pastoral fantasy of cross-dressing and lovesick shepherds. But Schalkwyk reminds us that it is also ‘a play steeped in questions of the arbitrary exercise of power, disinheritance, relations between master and servant and access to land.’ MacMahara (now spokesman for Jacob Zuma) chose John of Gaunt’s dying words from Richard II: ‘Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain.’
At its heart, this is a book about the power of Shakespeare. The context in which we read a play may alter our understanding of it; equally, the play may transform our understanding of the place in which we are. Schalkwyk uses Hamlet as a way to explain the history and political structures of South Africa. The prince feels that ‘Denmark’s a prison,’ and is driven by claustrophobia and paranoia to great violence. ‘Prison was the lived condition of the majority of South Africans,’ writes Schalkwyk:
Black South Africans found themselves in effect under house arrest in the country of their birth, as the appalling pass laws, which extended the Native Land Act of 1913, confined their legal domicile to a mere 13 per cent of the country.
The play may help us read the history, and the history in turn may lead us back to the play.
As the dispossessed native Caliban insists in The Tempest, ‘This island’s mine’ — the favourite line, naturally, of one of the inmates. Hamlet’s Dreams is about the experience of reading Shakespeare in the particular context of Robben Island; but it is equally about the transformative power of great literature.