- Hamlet’s Dreams: The Robben Island Shakespeare by David Schalkwyk
David Schalkwyk begins Hamlet’s Dreams with a possible experience: “Had you visited London during the summer of 2012 and attended … the British Library exhibition, ‘Shakespeare: Staging the World’, you would have encountered a curious exhibit at the very end” (x). I had that encounter, but I did not find the object “curious.” The “somewhat scruffy” copy of Peter Alexander’s edition of Shakespeare, not unlike the copy that was the first “complete” Shakespeare I owned, brought me to the edge of tears, something that is not exactly my most frequent response at the end of a long trail through a vast show. The exhibition, immensely rich in its gathering [End Page 138] of the material traces of early modern culture and of Shakespeare’s place within it, had generated many emotions—wonder, delight, and fascination among them. But this final object was different. After the exhibit’s fairly perfunctory section on the history of Shakespeare reception, it made an emphatic statement as it barred the way to the exit, defining Shakespeare in relation to recent politics of oppression and liberation. I knew it was coming, for the press coverage had been more interested in the presence of the “Robben Island Bible” than anything else the curators had brought together. Sonny Venkatrathnam’s book—which he had kept, in spite of the prison regulations, by fooling the guards into believing that it was a Hindu religious text—had been passed from cell to cell, from prisoner to prisoner, many of whom marked a passage and placed their names beside it. And, of course, the book was open on the Julius Caesar passage chosen by Robben Island’s most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela: “Cowards die many times before their deaths [;] / The valiant never taste of death but once” (2.2.32–3).
The book’s marginalia encourage us to view it with a kind of religious reverence, a symbol of the long history of the struggle against apartheid and that struggle’s ultimate victory. The double name by which it is known—Robben Island Shakespeare or Robben Island Bible—produces an equivalence that mimics our response, the potency of its presence magnified by its twin cultural referents (xi). Complex, both in itself and in the many forms of our approving reactions to it, the object demands to be read with a full and penetrating awareness of what and how it comes to signify in the history of the late twentieth century, with all its manifestations of histories of race and colonialism. And that reading is precisely what Schalkwyk’s brilliant study aims to provide, a book that connects both words in the series’ name in which it appears—Shakespeare Now!—as an edition of Shakespeare places itself both in the now of the moment of its (literal) inscriptions and the then of the distance between its moment of making and the present of a post-apartheid country.
But, in many ways, Hamlet’s Dreams is in the wrong series. It is not really about Shakespeare now (or Now!) but rather about South Africa now, the present of the nation always being placed in relation to the moment—that long, long moment—of the imprisonment of African National Congress (ANC) activists and others. For long stretches, Schalkwyk ignores Shakespeare, concentrating on the biographies of the prisoners and their subsequent political careers. Schalkwyk is, of course, the perfect guide, and the emphasis, from the start, on his own identity politics is nothing like the rather tiresome I-am-sorry-for-being-a-white-male gestures that have characterized certain periods of Shakespeare political criticism. Instead, as Schalkwyk moves from remembering barely reading his father’s copy of Shakespeare and mostly looking at the illustrations as he grew up on the diamond mine where his father was manager through to his tourist visits to the museum that Robben Island has become, he shows exactly why it matters to him—and hence to us—to explore the marginalia...