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"The Valiant Never Taste of Death but Once": Mandela and Shakespeare

In memory of the passing of Nelson Mandela, we're reflecting on his inspiring life and origins from which he drew his own strength.

Sheila McVey

Today we’ve heard the sad news of Nelson Mandela’s passing. Mandela’s lasting legacy will be bridging the great divides in South Africa, which has inspired people around the world. He in turn drew inspiration from many sources including the works of William Shakespeare.

A very unassuming length of white ribbon in our museum collection reveals the powerful ability of Shakespeare’s words to cross boundaries and transcend borders.

Lichtenburg Tribute Ribbon
A tribute from South Africa, 1972 [SBT 1972-49]

The ribbon bears a tribute to William Shakespeare and is signed by the pupils of Lichtenburg Afrikaans Medium High School who wished to ‘pay homage to the great master.’ This was in 1972, when South Africa was under apartheid. The ribbon is filled with very Dutch and English sounding names of students being educated in a white school. Their teacher hand-delivered this signed tribute to a guide at the Birthplace later that year and it is currently on display in the Treasures Exhibition in the Shakespeare Centre.

The same year that this ribbon from Lichtenburg was delivered to the Birthplace, Sonny Venkatrathnam was imprisoned on Robben Island as a political prisoner. Like fellow inmate Nelson Mandela, he was imprisoned on Robben Island for his involvement in anti-apartheid activism. Venkatrathnam requested Shakespeare’s complete works as his one permitted book and circulated it amongst fellow inmates who initialled and dated their favourite passages.

Sonny Venkatrathnam
Sonny Venkatrathnam with the ‘Robben Island’ Shakespeare

This book is now well known as the ‘Robben Island Bible.’ Mandela selected the following passage and initialled it ‘M, December 16th 1977’:

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

Julius Caesar (Act 2, Scene 2)


How true these words ring today as we remember the life of a great man.