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Unisa Press

Reading Revolution - Shakespeare on Robben Island

Reading RvolutionPublished by Unisa Press, first edition, first impression


Ashwin Desai


January 2012



Number of pages:

144 Pages, Hardback


South Africa: R350 (incl VAT) | Africa: R341 | USD: $44 | GBP: £31 | Euro: €36

Reviewed by John Green on Review 31:

About the book

This book centres on a copy of The complete works of William Shakespeare, which was smuggled onto the Island and disguised with religious Indian greeting cards, and in which many of the most famous political prisoners including Nelson Mandela signed next to their favourite Shakespeare lines.

This is a full colour production boasting 144 pages with hardback & dust jacket containing colour pictures and historic photographs. With unique features (32cmx24cm) this is an ideal coffee table book for gifts & souvenir. It is a socio-political book with historical elements designed to be a classic collectors’ item with unique design features fit for gifting.

This is a book to be enjoyed by academics, scholars, politicians and the reading public. Universities and libraries will also find it valuable to have.

About the story

The prison authorities on Robben Island displayed a remarkable obsession with censoring the news that prisoners could receive of the outside world. Yet, as the pages of this book reveal, political prisoners managed to escape these constraints through literature, travelling to the sites of contemporary revolutionary struggles and to the frontlines of the French and Bolshevik revolutions. Tolstoy jostled with Trotsky, while Shakespeare ‘winged’ his way over the walls of the single and communal cells. As the prisoners brought their experiences to bear on the text, the works of Shakespeare were mined for their anti-colonial and anti-apartheid inspirations as much as for the power and beauty of their words. The texts also left their mark on the consciousness and memories of liberation fighters, with many prisoners reciting lines from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets some three decades after their release.

Through the memories and biographical accounts written by former political inmates, the book evocatively brings to life the voices of prisoners who furtively copied books at night before they were snatched back by the warders. This book is about those books, about how words can inspire the human spirit, light up the intellect and free the reader to travel the world. But this is not a book simply about the past. By opening the all too quickly forgotten pages of history, the book seeks to ignite once more a reading revolution, to stir up the imagination, in a South Africa whose democratic transition seeks to consolidate power from above while being increasingly contested by insurgent protest from below.