The first time this book left South Africa was in 2006, when it was brought to Stratford and put on show to the public in Nash’s House, Chapel Street.

Part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Complete Works exhibition, it coincided with the RSC’s Complete Works festival that year.

Today, Sir Antony Sher, who was born in South Africa, said: “Mandela embodied the best of being human. He made us South Africans proud. Now - cry the beloved country.”

The Robben Island bible was passed between the political prisoners of the African National Congress incarcerated in the notorious jail during the 1970s.


Mandela's signature in the Robben Island bible. 

Another anti-apartheid activist, Sonny Venkatrathnam, requested Shakespeare’s complete works as his one permitted book and circulated it amongst fellow inmates who initialled and dated their favourite passages.

Mandela signed his name next to a set of quotes from Julius Caesar.

"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)


Sonny Venkatrathnam with the Robben Island bible.

Last year, it inspired the current Artistic Director of the RSC, Greg Doran, to put on the first all-black production of a Shakespeare play in Stratford.

He said at the time: “One of the inspirations behind setting Julius Caesar in Africa was discovering the Robben Island Shakespeare and that Nelson Mandela had chosen to autograph lines from the play, asserting that it spoke in a particular way to his continent.

“It also struck me that there must be some reason why Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, had translated the play into Swahili.

“The actor John Kani put it most succinctly when he told me that Julius Caesar was quite simply ‘Shakespeare’s African play’.”

Responding to the news today, Doran described Mandela as “a truly valiant man.”

A spokesperson for the Royal Shakespeare Company added: “Everyone here is deeply saddened by the news. We mourn him but we also celebrate his amazing life. Rest in peace Madiba.”