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Museum to display Robben Island copy of Shakespeare's works

Press Trust of India  |  London 

One of the prize exhibits at the British Museum's major new exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World, is the copy of Complete Works which inmates of South Africa's notorious apartheid-era Robben Island prison passed around from cell to cell and read secretively.

The book was circulated by owner Sonny Venkatrathnam in an exercise that initially set out to collect signatures as a memento, the Daily Telegraph reported.

Venkatrathnam, who was a prisoner from 1972 to 1978, managed to smuggle it in to the jail. He then passed it around and asked all the leading prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, to sign their favourite sections.

As prisoners were not allowed any reading material and even letters from families were either withheld or heavily censored, the book became a prized possession to be shared between freedom fighters such as Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada and others.

To avoid detection by wardens, Venkatrathnam covered it with pictures of Hindu deities cut out of Diwali cards sent by family members and told them that it was a "Hindu Bible", resulting in them showing some form of respect to it.

Beside the passage in Julius Caesar beginning, "Cowards die many times before their deaths" is Mandela's signature and the date, December 16 1977.

It contains 32 signatures in total.

"We weren't allowed any reading material and I applied for permission to go to the library. They eventually they agreed for me to have one book," Venkatrathnam said.

"The only thing I could think of that would keep me going was Shakespeare's Complete Works so I got that," he said.

"It is an object that says so much about what Shakespeare still means," exhibition curator Dora Thornton said. "It is wonderful to have it in the show."

The book is one of more than 190 objects in the show, which is open from 19-25 July at the British Museum, London.

Meanwhile, Mandela the revered South African statesman turned 94 today as school children sang happy birthday to anti-apartheid hero joining in the global praise for the much loved leader.


First Published: Wed, July 18 2012. 17:37 IST