The essay conjoins two things that may be considered to be unusual bedfellows: first, a rigorous etymological analysis of the word ‘earth’ (and its difference from the apparent cognate, ‘land’) as it is used in Shakespeare’s plays, especially Richard II, and, second, an investigation of the role of the concept in the context of South Africa as a place in which settlers and the indigenous population struggled variously over land and earth as the fundamental materials of sustenance, place and identity. Our analysis is conceptual and literary, not historical or political. The connection that we trace between the concepts is allusive and suggestive rather than causal, stemming from the contingency of a mediating text, the “Robben Island Shakespeare” that was signed by some 34 prisoners on Robben Island who were Mandela’s companions in the mid to late 1970s. The essay tests some of the broad assumptions of the battle lines that South African Shakespeareans drew in the late 1980s between political commitment to local conditions and responsibilities, an apparently apolitical philological reading of Shakespeare, and the different, and unexpected, ways in which a historical reading of the language Shakespeare uses may reflect on seemingly remote contexts. We argue that a careful etymological reading of the concepts may complicate the oversimplifications of immediate political commitment and reveal the political nuances available to a properly sensitive attention to the historical sedimentation of key words in Shakespeare.