July 2013 | Rebecca Rego Barry

The Mandela-Signed Shakespeare

RobbenShakespeare-Folger.jpgOn view at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., this summer is the well-worn copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare signed by Nelson Mandela. The Robben Island Shakespeare, so named for the jail off the coast of South Africa where Mandela spent eighteen years as a political prisoner, is just an ordinary collection of the Bard's plays, although it is covered in colorful Diwali cards (part of its disguise as a Hindu bible). The book was owned by Mandela's fellow inmate, Sonny Venkatrathnam, who circulated the book to prisoners--among them Mac Maharaj, Raymond Mhlaba, Billy Nair, and Govan Mbeki--asking them to note their favorite passages. Between 1975 and 1978, thirty-three prisoners signed the book.

Mandela-Folger.jpgMandela signed his name in Julius Caesar (Act 2, scene 2, lines 32-37):

Cowards die many times before their deaths:
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come. (2.2.32-7)

This marks the book's first visit to the U.S. A Book Behind Bars: The Robben Island Shakespeare will be on exhibit at the Folger through Sept. 29.
Images Courtesy of The Folger Shakespeare Library.