Nelson Mandela’s Favorite Shakespeare Passage

Located off the coast of Capetown, South Africa, Robben Island has been used to hold anti-apartheid insurgents and outcasts since the end of the 1800s. Revolutionaries, lepers, and political prisoners have all called Robben Island home.

Most notably, Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison as an inmate at Robben Island. While there, he came across a copy of The Alexander Text of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, brought into the prison by a Hindu inmate named Sonny Venkatrathnam.

In order to get his book past the guards, Venkatrathnam covered the volume in Diwali cards (Diwali being the Hindu festival of lights). He convinced a guard the book was a Hindu “Bible” of sorts.

The Robben Island Shakespeare

Venkatrathnam’s Bible made its rounds through the single cell area of the prison, where both he and Mandela were placed. He asked his fellow prisoners to sign and date their favorite passages. After about three years, 33 prisoners had done so.

A lot of the prisoners signed very familiar passages, like Puck’s monologue at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Possibly they did so because it reminded them of childhood and home, since it was a common speech to learn in school.

But a few prisoners signed passages that seem very relevant to their struggle for independence at that time in history. For example, anti-apartheid activist and future member of Parliament Billy Nair signed his name to a haunting speech by Caliban in The Tempest that includes the line:

“This island’s mine . . . / Which thou tak’st from me”

The Tempest 1.2.331-2

Billy Nair's passage in Robben Island Shakespeare

Still, perhaps the most appropriate passage belongs to the man who celebrates his 95th birthday today from a hospital bed.

Nelson Mandela is prone to quoting Shakespeare, and he likely thought of many options for his “favorite passage.”

While he doesn’t share much in common with Julius Caesar, he signed his name on this quote from the would-be tyrant:

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.

Julius Caesar 2.2.32-7

Nelson Mandela's Signature in Robben Island Shakespeare

The Robben Island Shakespeare, along with a few sketches and poems by Mandela, is on exhibit at Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, until September 29. Admission is free.

10 Responses to “Nelson Mandela’s Favorite Shakespeare Passage”
  1. julia castle says:

    The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes….It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown….But mercy is above this sceptered sway…it is an attribute of God himself. And earthly power doth show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice. Merchant of Venice

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  1. […] today I wrote about this tiny but fascinating exhibit at Folger Shakespeare Library – the Robben Island Shakespeare. That article includes Nelson Mandela’s favorite Shakespeare passage while he was in prison, […]

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