Former Archbishop turns tables on William Shakespeare

Dr Rowan Williams and William Shakespeare. Photo Credit: Briyyz/Flickr and the National Portrait Gallery
Published July 29, 2016

A play written by the former Archbishop of Canterbury and Wales, Rowan Williams, about the “lost years” of celebrated English playwright Williams Shakespeare has opened in a theatre in Wales. Shakeshafte is set in 1581 and depicts Shakespeare as a Roman Catholic at the time of Elizabeth I’s suppression of the “old religion.”

The play is fictional but draws on a creative interpretation of known events.

A review of the play by BBC Online explains that very little documentary evidence can be found for Shakespeare’s existence in his 20s; but that a will unearthed in 1851 shows that a Will Shakeshafte, on the recommendation of a John Cottam, was acting as a schoolmaster for a Catholic family in Houghton Tower, Lancashire. Cottam is said to have been Shakespeare’s last schoolmaster in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The play is based on Rowan Williams’ supposition that William Shakespeare and Will Shakeshafte are the same person.

“Shakespeare knows exactly where he does, and doesn’t, want to go, in matters of church and state,” Rowan Williams said in an interview with the South Wales Echo last year. “He deliberately puts some of his plays right outside the Christian, Tudor/Jacobean framework.

“For instance, King Lear takes place in a pre-Christian Britain. Again, some people argue that Cymbeline is about a rupture with Rome, leading to a reconciliation.

“I think Shakespeare did have a recusant Catholic background. My own hunch though is that he didn’t go to church much.”

The theatre’s publicity for the play says: “It is 1581 and the Protestant queen, Elizabeth I, is half way through her long reign, but not all her people are happy to turn from their Catholic past and obey the Protestant regime.

“Talk of Catholic invasions and assassination of the queen is rife and those of the ‘old religion’ live in fear and ever watchful spies.

“This is the setting for ‘Shakeshafte’ by Rowan Williams when Edmund Campion, a Jesuit priest travelling incognito from one household to another, meets a young Will Shakeshafte who has been hidden at the request of a schoolmaster in Stratford!

“Based on some truth, gossip and rumour, it is an exciting play, full of suspense and drama and Rowan has used his poetical and philosophical gifts to create Will’s depth of thought and feelings about human relationships and to elaborate on the personal choices that he has to make.”

The play is being staged this weekend at the Dylan Thomas Theatre in Swansea, South Wales, as part of commemorations marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

Since retiring as Archbishop of Canterbury in December 2012, after 10 years in the post, Rowan Williams has been Master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University. Before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Williams served as Bishop of Monmouth in the Church of Wales from 1992, becoming Archbishop and Primate of the Province in 2000.



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