Robben Island was the Alcatraz on the South Atlantic where Nelson Mandela and other South African political prisoners spent many years of their lives; the “Bible” was a collection of the complete works of William Shakespeare smuggled into the jail in the 1970s by a prisoner called Sonny Venkatrathnam. They called it the Bible because Venkatrathnam cheated the prison censorship system by telling his warders that it was a Hindu religious work. But there was another reason, too. As the book circulated, Shakespeare’s poems and plays acquired the condition of secular scripture, interpreted by one and all much as believers might the Koran, the Christian Bible or, for that matter, Karl Marx.
As Dora Thornton, the curator of the British Museum exhibition put it, “They used him as a way of developing their own moral sense.” With Shakespeare having anticipated and explored the competing questions of leadership and self-doubt, idealism and expediency, ambition and loyalty that bedevil politicians everywhere and always, but all the more urgently at times of national conflict, Mandela and his comrades drew from his works to shape political debate and lay the philosophical foundations for political action.”