Mandela served 27 years behind bars for his role in fighting the apartheid policies of South Africa's then-ruling Afrikaner nationalists. He spent 18 of those years in the notorious Robben Island prison off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, where he along with 33 other political prisoners signed their names to favorite passages of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Known as the Robben Island Bible, the book is currently the centerpiece of an exhibit at the Folger Library in Washington, D.C.
The Folger exhibit cautions viewers against investing too much meaning in Shakespeare's presence among the prisoners: "To claim that Shakespeare constituted a 'common text' that united Robben Island's prisoners assumes a universal role for The Bard that exaggerates and romanticizes his influence." Some of the prisoners later couldn't remember what passages they signed, and one had changed his selection from Puck's closing speech in A Midsummer Night's Dream to a line from Lady Macbeth. The exhibit's argument is that the prisoner, as did others, probably chose Puck out of familiarity with the play from high school studies.
Meanwhile, one prisoner finds himself in the exact same context of a Shakespearean character: "This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother, which thou takest from me," says Calaban to Prospero in The Tempest. Another prisoner identifies with Othello as he risked six months in prison for dating a white woman (an admission that garners shouts of appreciation and approval from the other actors on stage); he avoided the woman and joined the antiapartheid movement and for that received a life sentence. One prisoner chose Sonnets 122 and 123, Shakespeare's defiance to Time; another noted, as does Macbeth, how "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time."
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.