A great man passes.

This is, I guess, off topic. And I was going to put up the last part of the Virgin Martyrs tonight, but while I was out at the department’s Christmas party, someone checked Facebook or whatever gave them the news, and told us that Nelson Mandela had died. He was, of course, quite old–ninety-five–and had been ill, and certainly can be said to have used his time to make the biggest difference he could. I am not generally a person who comments publicly on people’s deaths, especially people I don’t know.

But here is a thing I remember. In 2012 I went to see the World of Shakespeare exhibition at the British Museum. Among the treasures on display was the Robben Island Shakespeare–a copy of the Complete Works that a prisoner named Sonny Venkatrathnam had managed to keep in his cell disguised as a Hindi sacred text. He’d passed it around, and asked other prisoners to mark passages that they found especially meaningful or important. Seeing this book remains one of the most profound examples I’ve ever encountered of the power of literature to feed the spirit–all those names, scribbled next to underlined bits of text from a five-hundred-year-old play. Robben Island was a place for political prisoners, so these were idealogues and dreamers and there seemed to be a touch of them still lingering around the pages.

Mandela had chosen a passage 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.” (2.2.32–7)

And so it does.


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