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The Robben Island Shakespeare is a 1970 edition of The Alexander Text of the Complete Works of Shakespeare—probably the most widely sold and read scholarly edition of Shakespeare’s texts in the twentieth century. It belongs to former political prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam, who chose it as the one book he was permitted when first imprisoned.
Covering the volume in colorful, religious Diwali cards, celebrating the Hindu festival of lights, Venkatrathnam convinced a gullible warder that it was his bible, and when he was transferred to the small single-cell section where Nelson Mandela, among others, was kept, he took it with him. He then circulated the book to his fellow prisoners in the single cells, asking them to mark their favorite passages from Shakespeare with their signature and the date. Between 1975 and 1978 thirty-three of Venkatrathnam’s fellow prisoners signed the book.
It is impossible to know from the signed passages in the Robben Island Shakespeare why those lines from Shakespeare might have made an impression, or might have spoken to a prisoner in a particular moment. Indeed, some passages seem to shout their relevance to the hardships of imprisonment, or of political unrest, or of injustice. Other signed passages do not, and instead may have been familiar, learned in school, or read for the first time. Some readers may have been struck by fantasy, in the way that any good book removes you from your present circumstance.
The images of signatures that follow, and their accompanying descriptions, offer some speculation about what passages may have meant. These are drawn from David Schalkwyk’s book, Hamlet’s Dreams, in which he writes that making sense of the signatures in the Robben Island Shakespeare “is an impossible task. But it is also irresistibly compelling.”
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