Julius Caesar and Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

You could be forgiven for thinking that William Shakespeare and Nelson Mandela, have absolutely nothing in common. 

They come from different historical times, different countries and different cultures. However it was a copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, in particular a passage from Julius Caesar, that spoke to Mandela during one of the darkest times in his life – his imprisonment on Robben Island for his part in the uprising against Apartheid in South Africa.

The copy of the book, known as 'The Robben Island Bible' first made its way on to the island with political prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam, who could only own one book during his imprisonment. Being a former English student he chose The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Unfortunately as the environment in the prison worsened, the book was taken away from Venkatrathnam by prison guards and locked in a storeroom. In a sheer stroke of luck, one Sunday during the weekly prayer service, one of the guards ordered Sonny to go and get his Bible. 

Quick thinking Venkatrathnam answered that he had left it in the storeroom. He was allowed in to get this misplaced Bible and instead grabbed his copy of The Complete Works. He explained to the warden that it was his 'Bible' by William Shakespeare.' The God fearing wardens who could not understand the text written in Shakespearean English let him keep the book. 

The 'Bible' was passed between inmates during the 1970's, all of whom treasured the book and each signed their favourite passages with initials and a date. The book was signed a total of 32 times by prisoners, who highlighted passages and quotes that they found meaningful and profound. They now offer us an insight into how the words of Shakespeare resonated with these men who were imprisoned for campaigning for an equal South Africa.

The passage which spoke to Mandela and signed M, December 16th 1977 was from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar '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.'

Venkatrathnam who still owns the book has, to this day, refused numerous offers from people wanting to buy the priceless piece of history that is the 'Robben Island Bible'. 

Photo: Nelson Mandela in Brasil in 1998. From Agência Brasil.

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Teaching Shakespeare