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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

The Robben Island Shakespeare

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 1

While Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on South Africa’s Robben Island, one of the other political prisoners, Sonny Venkatrathnam, managed to retain a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works. Venkatrathnam secretly circulated the book to many of his fellow prisoners—including Mandela—asking them to sign their names next to their favorite passages.

As South African Shakespeare scholar David Schalkwyk explains to interviewer Rebecca Sheir, there is something special about “a book that had passed through the hands of the people who had saved my country.” Schalkwyk shares some personal history and reveals what Shakespeare might have meant to the men who signed the Robben Island Shakespeare.

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David Schalkwyk is professor of English at the University of Cape Town and, beginning in 2009, served as director of research at the Folger Shakespeare Library and editor of Shakespeare Quarterly. He is also the author of Speech and Performance in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Plays, Literature and the Touch of the Real, and Shakespeare, Love and Service. His most recent book, Hamlet’s Dreams: The Robben Island Shakespeare, was published in February 2013.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Originally published in 2013, and rebroadcast July 19, 2022. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Cowards Die Many Times before Their Deaths; The Valiant Never Taste of Death but Once,” was produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul; Garland Scott, associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French and Ben Lauer are the web producers.

Next: Actresses on Shakespeare


The Folger Shakespeare: Julius Caesar
Read the play that features Nelson Mandela’s favorite quotation.

Shakespeare Unlimited: Shakespeare in Swahililand
Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o and Edward Wilson-Lee discuss Shakespeare and British colonialism in East Africa.


MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

In many English-speaking countries around the world, Shakespeare is a legacy of British colonialism, and it’s often fascinating to see how Shakespeare’s works reverberate in these cultures so far and so different from his home. Sometimes, Shakespeare appears in places you would absolutely not expect. That’s the story we’re going to hear in this podcast. We call it, “Cowards Die Many Times before Their Deaths; The Valiant Never Taste of Death but Once.”

It’s an interview with David Schalkwyk, a Shakespeare scholar who I first met when he was editing Shakespeare Quarterly and working as director of research at the Folger. David grew up in South Africa. The story he tells here is one of those unusual appearances of Shakespeare. He is interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

REBECCA SHEIR: So, David, we should probably start by telling people that this book came about because of a complete coincidence that involved a confluence of the two things you are most interested in, in the whole wide world. Can you tell us what those two things are, and then tell the story?

DAVID SCHALKWYK: Yes, certainly. I worked as an English professor in South Africa for a long time, and I was interested in South African prison writing, and there’s quite a lot of tradition of that with many, many people writing their memoirs about their time in prison during apartheid, but I was actually, mainly, a Shakespearean. But I kept the two completely apart.

And then I went to Stratford-upon-Avon to a conference in 2006. I was walking past Nash House, and it promised Shakespeare—The Complete Works. And I thought, “How could you possibly not go and see the complete works?” And so, I paid a lot of money and I went up rickety stairs to this exhibition. And I must say, I didn’t find the exhibition particularly interesting, but one work did catch my eye as I was leaving, and it was a scruffy volume of Shakespeare, The Complete Works. And I thought: What’s this doing here? And I looked more closely, and there was a passage from Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant only taste of death but once.” And it had a date, the 16th of December 1977, written in it, and it had the name N. R. Mandela.

This was a book that had, in fact, circulated among the single-cell prisoners. Mandela was kept apart from the general cells, together with about 34 others, mostly leaders of the ANC and the PAC, the political organizations that were opposed to apartheid. And one of the people in that group had this Complete Works of Shakespeare and passed it around, and asked each of the prisoners to sign their names against their favorite passages from Shakespeare. And well, here was Shakespeare and Robben Island [LAUGH] together in one book.

SHEIR: This was a major ah-ha moment for you.

SCHALKWYK: It was a major ah-ha moment. Yeah.

SHEIR: Discovering and seeing the actual Robben Island Shakespeare, also known as the Robben Island Bible, I understand?

SCHALKWYK: It’s also known as the Robben Island Bible. Now the reason for that is that Sonny Venkatrathnam, who is of Indian extraction, was allowed, when he first went into prison, was allowed one book, and he chose The Complete Works of Shakespeare. And there was a point at which regulations changed, depending on how strict the particular governor was at the time, and particular events on the island. Sonny caused some trouble, he was involved in a hunger strike, I think, if I am correct, and this book was confiscated.

And one day, as he tells the story, they were summoned to go to the church service, and he had a brilliant idea. And he said to the warder, “If I’m going to the church service, can I have my Bible back?” And the guy said, “What Bible?” And he said, “It’s in the warden’s office” and described it, and this fellow brought back The Complete Works of Shakespeare and gave it to him. And Sonny then had some Diwali cards and he pasted these Diwali cards on the outside of the book and he pretended that it was his Hindu Bible. [LAUGH] And so that’s why it’s known as the Robben Island Bible.

SHEIR: So, what he did was he took the book and he basically asked the men, “Pick a passage, sign your name”? What were some of the passages next to which people put their own names?

SCHALKWYK: Well, I’ve already mentioned Mandela.

SHEIR: Of course, of course.

SCHALKWYK: That’s what everyone will know. There is a wonderful theatrical practitioner in England called Matthew Hahn, and Matthew has, in fact, written a play based on the Robben Island Shakespeare. And Matthew has interviewed a number of the prisoners. And one of the things that has come out of the interviews is some of them feel, that well, “You wouldn’t really choose a comedy, would you?” Because this is serious political stuff.

But, in fact, if you look at the number of passages that were chosen, a large number were from the comedies, and, in fact, a large number from the sonnets. Out of the 34 signatures, five have chosen the sonnets. The most interesting choice for me, as far as this is concerned, is the fact that Govan Mbeki, who was a real Stalinist firebrand… So, what would you expect Govan Mbeki, the Stalinist, to have chosen? Well, he chose, “If music be the food of love, play on. / Give me excess of it.”

So, you know, you see this choice and a whole lot of prejudices or expectations about what people will choose, or what their values will be, or what will be most important to them under these circumstances, is challenged. I think this is one of the things the book does, is it challenges our conceptions of value, and it also challenges our conceptions of what Shakespeare might mean to particular people, at a particular point in time, and in the world as a whole.

SHEIR: We’re seeing a whole other side of these people we might not perhaps see from their political role.

SCHALKWYK: Yes, exactly. Then the other choice, with regard to the comedies, which I find absolutely fascinating, is that three people chose passages from As You Like It. But it’s interesting to see which passages they actually chose. And the most striking passage is the very, very opening of the play, in which Orlando complains to Adam about the way in which his brother has treated him. And he says, “As I remember, Adam, it was upon this fashion bequeathed me by will but poor a thousand crowns, and, as thou sayest, charged my brother on his blessing to breed me well. And there begins my sadness.”

And what he complains about is the fact that his brother has dispossessed him and is treating him poorly. Now that is a reading of that particular comedy, which is extremely prescient. It sees in the comedy a struggle over inheritance and possession and relationships amongst brothers, which are deeply, deeply political.

SHEIR: Now, do we know, whether they had the time to sit there and read at the plays, then make their decisions?

SCHALKWYK: They did. Whether they actually did that or not, is another matter. I mean this is what is so intriguing about the book, is that, especially in my position, trying to make sense of those choices, is I really don’t know what made them choose particular passages. You know, Matthew has asked a number of people and what is very interesting about that, is he presented three of the prisoners with the passages that they chose, and you know they chose them, because their signatures are against those passages, and all three of them said, “No, I didn’t choose that passage. I couldn’t possibly have chosen that passage.”

SHEIR: Really?

SCHALKWYK: Now this is fascinating, because what it indicates to us, I think, is that these people, at a particular point, saw in Shakespeare’s words some kind of mirror of themselves. So, you’re sitting in your prison cell, you read the play and it seems to speak to you. Thirty years later, under a completely different set of circumstances, you’re no longer the same person, and so, you don’t see yourself in the mirror of the words that you’ve actually chosen. And I find it really, really, a fascinating reflection on the nature of human identity.

So, what I’ve done with this book is, I have, in fact, treated it as a kind of communal and individual unconscious. So, for example, many of the people who chose passages from the Robben Island Bible have written memoirs about their experience on Robben Island. Now the problem with the memoirs that come after Robben Island is that they tend to tell a communal story, which fits in with a particular kind of political grand narrative. And I think what the Robben Island Shakespeare does, is it allows us to see a different story emerging in the unconscious, which, of course, has been forgotten or repressed or whatever, for whatever reason.

SHEIR: When you say, the unconscious, when you mention the unconscious, I think about the title of the book, Hamlet’s Dreams. Where did that title come from?

SCHALKWYK: Well yes. I was. [LAUGH] This was really just a practical problem I had. In America, they don’t have inaugural lectures. And I was trying to figure out, they’ve been badgering me for five years, saying, you must give this lecture. And I couldn’t figure out anything. And I then decided, it was just after I’d seen the book in Stratford, that I needed some kind of hook on this book. I didn’t just want to talk about the signatures themselves. And what struck me was Hamlet’s statement that he could be “king of infinite space” even if “I were bounded in a nutshell,” “were it not that I have bad dreams.”

What Hamlet’s saying there is that in the imagination, even if you were totally imprisoned, you could be totally free, but, of course, he is haunted by bad dreams. And then, that is connected to his sense of Denmark being a prison. And so, I thought that I would explore the affinities and differences between that sense in Hamlet, of being imprisoned in an extremely repressive political system, and the signatures in the Robben Island Shakespeare by actual prisoners. And what I focused on there was a sense of identity that is either individual or communal.

So, if you recall what Hamlet is constantly trying to do, is he’s trying to find a self that is deep within that “passes show,” and these are but the suits and “trappings” of woe. And the experience of the prisoners on Robben Island tends to be the exact opposite. The constant emphasis is on community and communal identity. And I try to show that real experience, real identity, a real sense of selfhood, has to negotiate its path between these two extremes of being communal and being individual. Though, in fact, as Hamlet tries to find that which is within himself that is the core of his identity, he finds himself more and more and more trapped. It’s like putting yourself into solitary confinement, to try to find out who you really are.

SHEIR: I want to talk more about that, that idea of the collective, of the community. Would it be silly to say that Shakespeare united these prisoners?

SCHALKWYK: If you go and look at all the memoirs, the memoirs will all state that Shakespeare was a binding force for these prisoners. Well, let’s ask who these prisoners were. On Robben Island, there were thousands of prisoners, many of them illiterate. The Robben Island Shakespeare was passed among 34 highly literate, elite prisoners. So, the general blanket claim that Shakespeare united everyone on Robben Island can’t possibly be true. And you know it’s very interesting that people say this, because we are so used to thinking that Shakespeare is this unifying, universal, unifying global presence or factor.

And I think it does us well just to step back a little and look at that critically and to ask, you know: Does Shakespeare perhaps divide people? You know, in some ways, if you have a look at the passages that are chosen in this book, you can actually notice divisions. Now one of the interesting passages, it’s really, really fascinating. I’m going to read you a couple of lines from it. And I’m going to ask if anybody can tell me where it comes from:

Therefore doth heaven divide
The state of man in divers functions,
Setting endeavor in continual motion,
To which is fixèd as an aim or butt
Obedience; for so work the honeybees.

And then there’s a whole thing about what honeybees do and all the rest of it. And at the very end you have four lines.

As many fresh streams meet in one salt sea,
As many lines close in the dial’s center,
So may a thousand actions, once afoot,
End in one purpose and be all well borne
Without defeat.

I would give a prize to anybody who could tell me where that comes from.

SHEIR: I took many a Shakespeare course in college, and I’m coming up short here.

SCHALKWYK: It’s the Archbishop of Canterbury speech at the end of the first scene of Henry V, when the archbishop is trying to persuade Henry that he has a right to go to war, to France. And almost all productions cut it, because it is… you have already had the whole thing about Salic law and stuff, you don’t want more of this stuff. But Sibusiso Bengu, who became the minister of education in Mandela’s cabinet, chose that utterly obscure speech. Why?

The only reason that I can think of is that about the time that this book was circulating amongst the leadership, a new, radical young group of prisoners entered Robben Island, and this came after the 1976 uprisings amongst the youth in South Africa, which just put the whole struggle against apartheid into a completely different gear. This was a completely different generation, and it was a generation that had decided it was going to defy its own elders.

These people came into the prison. They looked at what these old men who had been there for 15 years were doing, and what they were suffering, and they decided to make the prison ungovernable. They opposed the philosophy of people like Mandela and his comrades. Now you would have thought that a revolutionary would not choose a speech which is about obedience, and people doing the same thing, right? I think that what struck a chord in him… and I think he read the whole play, saw the speech, and in the context of these rebellious young men in the prison, he chose a speech in which an authority figure is telling others that the only way to win is through obedience and harmony.

SHEIR: Speaking of rebellion, you say that in the end the prisoners in Robben Island ended up owning the prison—that they won, in a way?

SCHALKWYK: In a sense, yes. What happened is that through a gradual process, through resistance, you know, across the board, different kinds of resistance, and a gradual decision by the regime to improve conditions on Robben Island, things did improve enormously. And as the restrictions were lifted, people had much more chance to talk freely, to read, books were made available. They actually turned the island into what they regarded as the university, and many people who went in illiterate came out with two degrees, for example. Jacob Zuma, who is present president of South Africa, was on Robben Island in one of the communal cells. He was illiterate, and, in fact, he was taught to read and write on Robben Island.

And one of the pieces that was chosen, which, of course, it just seems so obvious now, in the Robben Island Shakespeare is by Billy Nair, who chose Caliban’s statement: “This island’s mine by Sycorax, my mother, / Which thou tak’st from me.”

SHEIR: Is that one from The Tempest?

SCHALKWYK: It’s from The Tempest and it’s an enormously prescient reading of The Tempest, if you compare—at about that time, I was at university and we were being taught The Tempest as a study in forgiveness and nobility and so on, and so we were ignoring completely the colonial foundations of that text. And here, Billy Nair sees in Caliban’s claim, “this island’s mine,” a voice that he can see as his own. And of course, the claim is not just for the island, the Robben Island that they’re on, but for South Africa as a whole, and, of course, in 1994.

SHEIR: Well, David Schalkwyk, thank you so much.

SCHALKWYK: Pleasure.

WITMORE: David Schalkwyk was interviewed by Rebecca Sheir. His book about the Robben Island Shakespeare, titled Hamlet’s Dreams, is available from Continuum.

“Cowards Die Many Times before Their Deaths; The Valiant Never Taste of Death but Once” was recorded and edited by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It is part of the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series, which comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.