This week in history: 400 years since death of Shakespeare

William Shakespeare died 400 years ago on April 23, 1616, in Stratford-on-Avon, England. April 23 also marks the date of his birth, in the same town, in 1564. He authored at least 36 plays and 154 timeless sonnets. What immortal characters, what prescient visions, what fantastic worlds, what all-comprehending humanity did this writer pluck from his imagination in his all too short 52 years before shuffling off his mortal coil!

The magnificent movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is deeply moving in so many ways that to single out one aspect would be misguided. And yet I must point to the prison scenes. So brutal were the conditions, so vicious the guards, that we wonder how Nelson Mandela endured it all. Twenty-seven years! What kept him from utter despair?

Yes, the film portrays a strong and dignified Mandela inspired by love for his people and a burning desire for freedom. But this otherwise fine film did not portray a profound factor than sustained Mandela and his many comrades.

That factor was a book. No, not the Koran, though it was a bible. No, neither was it the Christian Bible. It was “The Robben Island Bible,” the Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

One of the Indian prisoners, Sonny Venkatrathnam, kept a copy of Shakespeare’s works on his shelf disguised behind Indian religious pictures. He circulated the book to all the leading prisoners, asking them to autograph, in the margins, their favorite passages. All signed the book. Walter Sisulu, Mandela’s closest mentor and friend, chose Shylock’s

“Still have I borne it with a patient shrug, /For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe.”

Thirty-two prisoners signed that book, citing many plays. But Julius Caesar was their favorite. And Mandela with his signature dated Dec. 16, 1977, chose Julius Caesar’s words:

Cowards die many times before their deaths
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”

Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Mac Maharaj – all leaders in the struggle for a democratic South Africa – all signed the book. All found in Shakespeare a great teacher with deep understanding of human courage and sacrifice. Shakespeare reassured them that they were part of a much larger world.

When the prisoners were allowed to be together, they recited long passages from Shakespeare – the more militant passages from Coriolanus and Henry V as well as Julius Caesar.

In 2006 this “Robben Island Bible” left South Africa – temporarily. It was loaned to England to be part of the Complete Works Exhibition hosted by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon.

After he was freed and later became president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela continued to read, to quote and to love William Shakespeare.

Reprinted, slightly edited, from the Rossmoor News (Walnut Creek, Calif.), July 30, 2014, by kind permission of the author. An earlier version of this article appeared in PW on April 23, 2015.

Photo: Wikipedia (CC)