Anyone who doubts that accolade for the playwright dead almost 400 years might want to go to the new “Shakespeare: Staging the World” exhibition at the British Museum, and look at the final exhibit, a well-worn, one-volume collection of Shakespeare’s plays.
The book is the property of Sonny Venkatrathnam, a former South African anti-apartheid prisoner. He secretly kept it the notorious Robben Island prison but shared it with other inmates, who underlined and autographed the passages that meant the most to them.
The book lies open at lines from “Julius Caesar” — “Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once” — signed “N.R.D. Mandela.” “In a way, Nelson was the Caesar of the ANC,” said Venkatrathnam, who spent several years in the prison with African National Congress leader Mandela in the 1970s. “I think it resonated with his philosophy.”
Mandela — now the revered 94-year-old former president of post-apartheid South Africa — is one of more than 30 inmates whom Venkatrathnam asked to sign the volume. It became known as the “Robben Island Bible,” because Venkatrathnam told prison warders — who had banned nonreligious books — that it was “the Bible by William Shakespeare.” He plastered its cover with cards celebrating the Hindu festival of Diwali in a successful bid to disguise the contents from guards.
“They would come and say, ‘What’s that?’ I’d say ‘It’s my Bible,’” said Venkatrathnam, a dapper 76-year-old who traveled to London for the opening of the exhibition. “For all the years on the island they wouldn’t touch it.”
Other helpings of the Bard include a cycle of history plays, currently being shown on Saturday night prime-time BBC television, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s epic World Shakespeare Festival. Since April, the RSC, based in Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon, has been bringing companies from around the world to stage his plays in Britain.
The productions, in more than 40 languages, have ranged from an Iraqi “Romeo and Juliet” to a Russian “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and a Brazilian circus “Richard III.” American director Peter Sellars, whose contribution to the festival is “Desdemona” — a reimagining of “Othello” by U.S. writer Toni Morrison and Malian singer Rokia Traore — said Shakespeare is truly a writer for the whole world.
In Shakespeare’s day, London was just beginning to attract people from around the world, emerging as the center of a nascent empire. “As the world comes to London in 2012, this Olympic summer, we are going to look at how the world came to London and how London saw the world 400 years ago,” said Jonathan Bate, co-curator of the exhibition.
The exhibition roams through Shakespeare’s influences, from the rural English landscapes of his youth to the country’s dynastic power struggles, the discoveries emerging from the New World, the arrival of visitors from abroad and the creation of Britain as a country with the union of the crowns of England and Scotland under James I.
Some items suggest a cold, violent world a long way from our own. There’s King Henry V’s jousting helmet, a bear skull excavated from the site of an Elizabethan theater — where bear-baiting went on alongside drama — and an iron “witch’s collar” and metal gag used to punish women accused of sorcery.
But the parallels with our own era of migration, globalization and political uncertainty are ever-present. It is hard to nail down the secret of Shakespeare’s genius. It rests on some combination of the exuberance of his language and the resonance of the human predicaments he depicts, from lovers battling family disapproval to kings struggling to live up to the burdens of power.
Shakespeare set plays in Venice and Verona, Denmark and Egypt — places he had read about but never visited. His plays in turn helped create the world view of his audience, and have been influencing audiences around the world ever since.