Friday, September 28, 2012

An Upstart Crow Has Himself a Little Moment at the British Museum

“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.”
-Julius Caesar Act II, scene ii

This past week we went as a class to the British Museum, which, despite what the brothers Gershwin would have you believe, has not lost its charm. I can’t imagine anyone having time to go through and fully appreciate everything on display there. One of our British instructors joked that the British Museum is essentially England’s way of making up for how much stuff it’s looted from other countries during the time of the British Empire. Anyway, for this week’s post, we were specifically asked to post about a specific exhibit and though I promised myself going in that I would try to not talk about Shakespeare (Up until the last ten minutes at the museum, I was planning on talking about the impressive collection of Buddhist artifacts in the museum’s permanent collection), I ended up seeing something that just has to be commented on.

The Robben’s Island Bible

So, one of the big draws of the Museum this summer has been a special exhibition titled Shakespeare: Staging the World, which takes an historicist approach to Shakespeare’s work. The artifacts on display are generally contemporary to his life and connected to his work. The attendant comments discuss the manner in which the world he lived in effected the content of his plays. This was all interesting; some of it was stuff I already knew, while there were good swaths of information I’d never heard before. However, the only thing that is really worth extended discussion, in my opinion, is the very last object in the exhibition.

The last room of the exhibit is mainly focused on The Tempest, generally accepted as the last play Shakespeare wrote entirely on his own, so I’d read a great deal of plaques about early colonialism and European attitudes to tribal cultures and the like. I listened to the sound-bite of Sir Ian McKellen doing the “Such stuff as dreams are made on” speech and was about to leave when I noticed one last glass case right before the donation box. Inside was this:

The exhibition didn't allow photography, so I had to take this from a newspaper article.

This particular book is nicknamed “The Robben Island Bible.” During the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, Robben Island was one of the main facilities used to house political prisoners. One of the internees was a man named Sonny Venkatrathnam, who brought with him a copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works. Prisoners were not allowed reading material and the book was confiscated. However, Venkatrathnam managed to get it back by convincing the warden, who we can only assume was not greatly knowledgeable in the fields of English literature or eastern religion, that the book was a Hindu Bible written by William Shakespeare. To further the ruse, he pasted images of Hindu deities from Diwali cards sent to him by his family to the spine and cover.

The book became a source of discussion and entertainment for the anti-apartheid activists interned at Robben Island, including future South African president Nelson Mandela. Venkatrathnam encouraged the inmates to sign their names next to passages they found particularly moving. Mandela selected Julius Caesar’s short speech to his wife, which I have excerpted for the introductory quote for this post.

I think this is an absolutely incredible story. I’ll admit that I know very little about the struggle against apartheid, having been born in a country that is famously under-informed about foreign affairs two years after the official abolishment of the policy and two years before Mandela was elected. However, I do know that it was far from a tidy little conflict and that political prisoners were not treated in the most humane manner. I think its fascinating that in the face of such terrible circumstances, this book that was brought in under the guise of a Bible ended up serving the same purpose: to give comfort to people in times of difficulty. I think that this is the kind of story that needs to be told more often. The average person doesn’t ever think of Shakespeare as much other than really old plays that they have to read for English class in High School. But once you get past the initial difficulty of the language (Which, in my experience, doesn’t take very long if you’re really willing to try), there’s such an immense amount to be drawn from his works. I don’t think the men on Robben Island could have been better off if they had a real Bible.

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