Ex-archbishop's Shakespeare play hits the Swansea stage

By Neil Prior
BBC News

image source, Dylan Thomas Theatre
image captionThe cast of Shakeshafte

Not many debutant playwrights can sell out a theatre.

But then again, not many debutant playwrights used to be the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Set in 1581, Dr Rowan Williams' first play, Shakeshafte, opens this week at Swansea's Dylan Thomas Theatre.

The work, which deals with the so-called lost years of William Shakespeare's life, imagines he was a Catholic fleeing Elizabeth I's Protestant spies.

It depicts a meeting between Shakespeare - posing as a schoolmaster under the pseudonym Will Shakeshafte - and martyred Jesuit priest St Edmund Campion.

Swansea-born Dr Williams was Archbishop of Canterbury between 2002 and 2012, and since stepping down has spent four years as master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, studying the life of the Bard.

image source, The Dylan Thomas Theatre
image captionThe play depicts Shakespeare during his twenties

Reluctant church-goer

Although it was written in 2014, this week will be the first time the play has been performed in public, to coincide with the 400th anniversary celebrations of Shakespeare's death.

Speaking on its completion, Dr Williams said: "Shakespeare knows exactly where he does, and doesn't, want to go, in matters of church and state.

"He deliberately puts some of his plays right outside the Christian, Tudor/Jacobean framework.

"King Lear takes place in a pre-Christian Britain. 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 lost years

Although a fictional account, Shakeshafte draws on known historical events.

While there is relatively abundant information on Shakespeare's early life and family background, during his 20s in the 1580s, virtually no documentary evidence can be found of his existence.

In 1985 literary academic E. A. J. Honigmann unearthed a will, which he claimed showed that in 1581 a 'Will Shakeshafte' was acting as a schoolmaster for a Catholic family in Houghton Tower, Lancashire.

Mr Shakeshafte had been recommended for the post by John Cottam, who is reputed to have been Shakespeare's last schoolmaster in Stratford.

Edmund Campion is also known to have visited Houghton Tower around the same time as part of the Jesuits' campaign to re-catholicise England, although the meeting between the two is purely Dr Williams' conjecture.

He added: "We know they both stayed at the same house in Lancashire. I found this a wonderful idea to play with: what might a Jesuit martyr and Shakespeare have said to each other at a time when Queen Elizabeth I was spearheading a brutal repression of the Catholic faith?"

image source, The Dylan Thomas Theatre
image captionShakeshafte features specially commissioned Elizabethan dancing and music


Shakeshafte is being performed by the Swansea Little Theatre - Swansea's oldest company - for which Dr Williams himself was an actor in the late 1960s.

Swansea Little Theatre chairman, Dreena Morgan Harvey explained: "I read an article a couple of years ago about Rowan's research into Shakespeare, and we thought at the time, what better way to mark the 400th anniversary than to bring the play to life back home in Swansea.

"We wrote to Rowan, and he was delighted that we'd like to put it on.

"I hope we've done it justice. I think it will look spectacular, with specially-commissioned Elizabethan music and dancing, and wonderful costumes and scenery."

  • Shakeshafte runs from July 27 to July 30 at 19:30 BST at the Dylan Thomas Theatre, Swansea.

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