When Nelson Mandela met Shakespeare: The Robben Island bible

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This is the story of an impossible meeting between two characters who became symbols of their respective centuries. A meeting which took place behind the bars of a prison, through the expressive force of literature: the one between William Shakespeare and Nelson Mandela.

The Nobel Peace Prize spent a third of its existence in South African prisons, victim of the Apartheid. The racial segregation established by South Africa’s white population remained active until 1991 and Mandela, together with other countless activists, was one of the protagonist of its end. The period spent in prison lasted 27 years, in which three phases are distinguished: the first – the one we will talk about,  a pivotal turn for Mandela’s ideology – lasted 18 years and took place in Robben Island, an island in front of Cape Town; the second phase saw Mandela as “guest” of Pollsmoor’s maximum security prison and the third one took place in Victor Verster, for a year, during which he had the last interactios with the regime that led to the cancelation of the Apartheid and Mandela’s deliverance in 1990.

The period in Robben Island will be crucial for Mandela’s thinking, thanks to the works of the most famous English playwright, lived over two centuries before Mandela. How was it possible to read Shakespeare’s works in a prison where newspapers and even letters were banned? With a Shakespearean deception.

The book, containing a complete collection of Shakespearean works and known today as the Robben Island Bible – was introduced clandestinely by Sonny Venkatrathnam, a political prisoner like Mandela, who cleverly succeeded to deceive the prison guards, masking the volume with a representation of Diwali, the “Festival of Lights” which represents one the most important Indian holidays: a celebration that represents the victory of good over evil. Thanks to this trick, Venkatrathnam convinced his jailers that he was introducing a simple Bible: a trick that led to the birth of a universal leadership philosophy that spans two centuries, conceived by Shakespeare and taken over by Mandela.


Between 1975 and 1978, the Robben Island bible passed from hand to hand among the political prisoners, who had in the meantime developed a common tradition: to annotate with date and signature the most important passages identified in the text, about topics that were still actual after centuries: political injustice and desire for revenge. These phrases, originally written to entertain the spectators of London theatres, have become, after being borrowed and assimilated, the words of an entire generation.

Billy Nair highlighted the phrase “This island is mine” which – if we read it retrospectively – communicates a repressed frustration shared with the character who pronounced it: Caliban, the slave in The Tempest, who desired to possess the island where he was prisoner. Shakespeare’s language proves to be timeless and universal.

The language of the playwright looks even more universal if we read the sentence highlighted by Mandela on December 16th, 1977, extracted from Julius Caesar, a work that fitted well to the fight against the regime carried out by political prisoners.

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.


These words not only reveal the similarities between Mandela and Caesar’s determination, but they are connected with a personal experience, when the South African leader escaped from the execution in 1960s. In his autobiography, we read similar words pronounced even before he’s read Julius Caesar: “I was prepared to die. One cannot be prepared for something while secretly believing it will not happen.”

Evocative is also the date when Mandela signed the passage of Shakespeare’s work: nowadays, n December 16th, South Africa celebrates the Day of Reconciliation, a festival dedicated to the national unity of all ethnicities. It is incredible how the shakespearean language has influenced one of the most important personalities of our years, who found in his works the affinity about good and bad leadership, about what’s right and what’s wrong, about plots and conspiracies. It can be seen as the definitive proof that Shakespeare’s words are universal and don’t belong to a specific time: Julius Caesar was set in the Ancient Rome, written in the seventeenth century and became the backbone of the South African National Revolution.

That collection represents, in its own way, a real Bible. A source of secular inspiration for South African heroes.

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