Briyyz/Flickr and the National Portrait Gallery

Adapted from Gavin Drake, ACNS

A play written by the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, about the “lost years” of celebrated English playwright Williams Shakespeare has opened at the Dylan Thomas Theatre in Swansea, 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.”

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

A BBC Online review explains that very little documentary evidence can be found for Shakespeare’s existence in his 20s. A will unearthed in 1851 shows that a Will Shakeshafte, on the recommendation of a John Cottam, was acting as a schoolmaster for a Roman 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’s 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.”

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.”

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, he 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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