Last night (Thursday 3rd November 2016) I went to the first performance in England of what was called a ‘fantasia’ by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. ‘Shakeshafte’ is a play imagining William Shakespeare’s lost years between school and stage. There has been much speculation about where he went but in this new play Williams imagines him travelling to Lancashire to teach in the household of a wealthy Roman Catholic family. During his stay Williams brings him into contact with the clandestine Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, who visits the house in great secrecy. The play was all the more special for being performed in Shakespeare’s own Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he is buried in the chancel.
The imaginings are not completely wild. They draw on known events, John Shakespeare, his father being prosecuted for non-attendance at the parish church, his own links with recusant families and the speculation over whether he held Catholic sympathies himself. Many have wondered. And so Rowan Williams gives us a young man clearly influenced by a Catholic sympathising schoolmaster and as a bright young man being encouraged to pursue the cause. Plays give us the chance to play with words and events, to explore possibilities.
Two scenes in the play stood out for me. The first half presents us with a young William struggling with how you understand people deeply, by ‘entering them’. He exclaims that he wants to be inside them. There is a bawdy play on the words with a maid taking this as a sexual reference. But the young William, and Williams for that matter, is going much more deeply. How can we know another from their inside out and he also feels that the Jesuit Campion, whom he has met, as a skilled spiritual director has understood him in a way very few others have. There are echoes of how the gospels portray Jesus knowing people deeply and seeing them in a way others do not. The woman whom Jesus meets at the well goes with great excitement to tell her fellow villagers, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” (John 4:29). That level of perception and deep listening, deep seeing, leaves an impression. For a budding playwright, studying people so that they are understood from the inside is a sign of Shakespeare’s genius and certainly a quality many admire in his plays.
In the second half there is a scene with William talking with Campion. The discourse presents us with a joust between dogma and poetry, and the poetic seems to win., at least for Shakespeare and I suspect for Rowan Williams too. I could almost hear William’s own voice in this conversation. The young Shakespeare is struggling with how truth can be known when there are so many competing voices. It is a modern question too and certainly one for any child of the Reformation, which of course Shakespeare was. To Edmund Campion the dogma is held by Holy Church, which can be trusted, and by the lives of the saints, observance of whose days keeps us tuned in. Yes, there are many voices, but not all of them produce harmony. Listen for the harmonies and filter out the discordant noises, Will is told. This will not do for William(s). The different voices hint at truth being harder to grasp, much bigger than we can grasp or narrow down, but possible to be glimpsed in the poetry of the different voices. I watched this on the day the Church of England remembers Richard Hooker, Shakespeare’s contemporary whose gift to us was the three pillars of Scripture, Tradition and Reason as our tools to assess truth. Scripture is the story of faith, tradition is how we have got to where we are and the journey of faith, reason is the use of our intellect to understand – perhaps the dogmatic and the poetic need one another more than they realise.
Campion is in disguise as a merchant of jewels. He plays with the double imagery of this – he offers the pearl of great price in the gospel. By happy coincidence, this came up in the Old Testament reading on Friday. To the writer of Proverbs, wisdom is a jewel more prized than all wealth (Proverbs 3:13-18).
The name ‘Shakeshafte’ comes from one of the four known examples of William Shakespeare’s signature and his grandfather went by that name.
The imagined conversation between Shakespeare (Shakeshafte) and Campion implies the former’s courting with Roman Catholicism, much speculated over, but I get the feeling Rowan Williams thinks he found its dogma wanting, even if he was attracted by the mystery and the sacramentalism. The poetic always offers the prospect of more to be seen, from the depths of the inside.