December 10, 2013
William Shakespeare inspired Nelson Mandela in prison.
Mandela, the iconic imprisoned apartheid foe who became South Africa's first black president, was one of a few dozen men imprisoned on Robben Island who shared the "Bible" of fellow prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam. The "Bible" was, in reality, Shakespeare's complete works.
Venkathrathnam was imprisoned from 1972 to 1978. After fierce petitioning, he was allowed one book. His wife sent him the Shakespeare book, and he passed it round to other political prisoners, who read it and signed their names next to passages that inspired them. To keep the book from being seized, Venkathrathnam disguised the cover with greeting cards celebrating the Hindu festival of Diwali.
Among the most popular and widely discussed plays were Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and The Tempest. Mandela's signature appears next to this line from Julius Caesar:
"Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once."
Spoken by Caesar himself, the line appears in Act II, Scene 2, when Caesar is on his way to the Senate on the Ideas of March.
Mandela added the date on which he affixed his signature: December 16, 1977. That day is now a public holiday in South Africa, as Reconciliation Day is celebrated every December 16. It was formerly the Day of the Vow, a public holiday that had become a day of anti-apartheid protest. It was also the day of the founding in 1961 of Umkhonto we Sizwe, an adjunct of the African National Congress advocating armed resistance to apartheid. December 16 became Reconciliation Day in 1994, after the country's first multi-racial elections.
The "Bible" has 32 signatures in all, including those of Mandela and others who struggled mightily against apartheid, namely Ahmed Kathrada, Mac Maharaj, Govan Mbeki, and Walter Sisulu.
The story inspired American playwright Matthew Hahn to write a dramatic work titled The Robben Island Bible. He interviewed many of the former prisoners who had signed their names in the book, and those interviews formed the basis of the play.