Rowan Williams, Playwright

The Shakespeare Project of Chicago will stage Shakeshafte, a play by the Rt. Rev. Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. Both performances will occur at libraries in Chicago and in Niles.

Michael Lenehan provides background in the Chicago Reader:

Lancashire, England, c. 1580: Two men sip wine in a stone-walled room whose dark and dampness are relieved only by a weak wood fire. One man, the elder, is a priest, a believer—in God, in the church, in a “harmony” worth pursuing. The younger man is an artist, or will be. He can’t hear the harmony; his head roils with a multitude of voices and characters clamoring to be heard and understood. For him, pursuing a harmony would mean shutting out some of those voices, which he cannot bring himself to do.

The priest is Edmund Campion, a Jesuit, who is traveling in England under an assumed name. His mission there, to minister to Roman Catholics forced underground during the reign of Elizabeth I, will soon earn him a grisly execution in the manner of the time: he and two coconspirators will be (according to the sentence read to them) “hanged and let down alive, and your privy parts cut off, and your entrails taken out and burnt in your sight; then your heads to be cut off and your bodies divided into four parts, to be disposed of at Her Majesty’s pleasure.”

The young artist will enjoy a happier fate. One day he will succeed in giving voice to those characters in his head and become the best-known writer of the English language.

At least that’s the way it’s been imagined by priest-turned-playwright Rowan Williams, the retired archbishop of Canterbury, whose play Shakeshafte comes to Chicago next week. Williams, who told me he’s been fascinated by Shakespeare since reading Macbeth at the age of ten, imagined the poet in conversation with a man like himself—a man of the church—and “he came alive for me in that.”

Read the rest.


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