Shakeshafte & Other Plays: A Review

Shakeshafte & Other Plays. Rowan Williams. Seattle, WA: Slant Books. 2021. 156pp. $28.

Readers of former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, may be surprised that this leading theologian has also published plays in addition to his very well-received books on theology, poetry (Carcanet recently published his collected poems), and literary criticism (his book on Dostoevsky is essential reading for anyone grappling with that great Russian author). The innovative new Christian publisher Slant Books has published Shakeshafte & Other Plays, introduced by poet and critic Jay Parini.[1] Parini claims that Williams’s plays ask perennial questions “with the kind of shimmering indirect eloquence that the drama affords” (xii), suggesting something of this genre’s ability to inspire articulate revelations through mostly dialogue. Whereas prose fiction can hold up despite an unsuccessful descriptive passage, drama fails if the dialogue falls flat. Shakeshafte, The Flat Roof of the World, and Lazarus are idiomatically rendered dramatic meditations on imagined meetings with real personages: Shakespeare and the Catholic martyr Edmund Campion; the modernist British poet David Jones; Jesus’ friend whom he raised from the grave, respectively. They succeed through their vivid language, their beautifully imagined worlds, and their profound pondering of Christian faith.

Shakeshafte, the longest of the three, is set in Lancashire, the home of wealthy Catholic Alexander Hoghton, who left a bequest to a “Will Shakeshafte.” Williams’s imagination transforms this young man into Shakespeare himself, who was thought to have worked for a similarly situated Catholic family in that English county. So, this is a speculative drama—but it takes its place as part of a popular trend in recent Shakespeare commentary, such as critic Stephen Greenblatt’s imaginative biography Will in the World (2004) and even the popular British television sitcom Upstart Crow, which began in 2016 and imagines the daily events of the playwright’s life during the inspiration and writing of his plays, beginning with Romeo and Juliet.

Shakeshafte operates on a variety of levels—as a meditation on a rapidly reforming England under Queen Elizabeth I, as a behind-the-scenes examination of domestic life (a sort of Elizabethan Upstairs, Downstairs or its more recent successor, Downton Abbey), as an exploration of the burgeoning imagination of a young man who became our greatest playwright. To take the last of these, Will Shakeshafte seeks the truth but comes to realize that he must listen to a multiplicity of voices and narratives in order to reproduce reality successfully. Hastings, who is the hunted Campion in disguise, offers Will his version of the truth—the Catholic faith—and invites Will to go and be trained on the continent as a priest so that he might return to England later and spread the faith, but Will rejects that truth in favor of the polyphony of voices he longs to hear and reproduce.

Fittingly, the Shakespeare intertext that haunts this play is the late romance, The Tempest, which, although not his most well-known at a popular level, is likely the Shakespeare play with the richest literary afterlife. You remember the story: the aging magician Prospero, exiled and islanded, must choose whether or not to divest himself of his magical powers or not in seeking to obtain his kingdom again. As one of Shakespeare’s last plays, it is often interpreted in part as the mature playwright’s meditation upon his own craft. In Williams’s imagination, young Will Shakeshafte is a sort of embryonic Prospero—almost as far removed from breaking his staff and renouncing his powers as possible. Instead, by drawing on allusions to that rich, otherworldly drama, Williams suggests how Will is starting to conceive of himself as a weaver of words, a poet-mage, in seeking to depict the truths of humanity.

Will Shakeshafte seeks the truth but comes to realize that he must listen to a multiplicity of voices and narratives in order to reproduce reality successfully.

Will seems to be willing to apprentice himself to what he conceives of as the true stage—that of the drama—rather than what he comes to believe is the false “stagecraft” of both the Catholic Campion and his huntress, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth. Both dress their part and don their makeup accordingly, but Williams suggests each believes a monolithic version of the truth that cannot admit the complexity of being human—our beliefs, desire, loves, and hates. As he plaintively asks, “once you choose which voices you listen to, once you decide what clothes to wear, what beliefs to put on in the morning, how can you say that one of them is truth?” (57). The play ends with Margery, Will’s one-time lover, imagining him going back to the Midlands to apprentice himself to his father, a glove-maker, but Shakeshafte has brilliantly suggested that his real apprenticeship—to the theater—began in Alexander Hoghton’s house in 1580-81 when he began to peer behind the curtain of both faith and politics and dream of complex narratives that would go behind those deathly certainties of his time in order to reach the truth.

The collection’s second play, The Flat Roof of the World, takes as its subject the Welsh poet David Jones. There has been a considerable recent revival of interest in Jones’s work–his exceedingly difficult verse reached its apogee with In Parenthesis (1937), a startling mélange of fragmented and broken lines meant to suggest the horrors of WWI, a fitting written companion to Picasso’s massive and disturbing anti-war canvas Guernica, also painted in that year. Another long sequence reflecting on his post-war Catholic faith, Anathemata, followed in 1952. New editions of his poetry have been published recently along with several monographs and chapters in scholarly books. Jones served in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers from December 1915 through March 1918, and the war’s bewildering array of weapons, such as mustard gas, aerial bombardment, machine guns, and tanks, permeate his poetry and haunt The Flat Roof of the World, suggesting the truth that Paul Fussell articulated in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975): European consciousness became lastingly cynical after those horrors. In his quest for meaning, Jones joined the Catholic artistic community headed by Eric Gill after the war.

Williams suggests that both the Catholic Campion and Protestant Queen Elizabeth believe a monolithic version of the truth that cannot admit the complexity of being human.

Flat Roof shares with Shakeshafte a search for truth on the part of its protagonist, and here that search is epitomized by Jones’s Catholic faith. Over against Gill’s utilitarianism, which even extended to his desire to get his daughters married off and pregnant as soon as they were grown, Jones draws on Gill’s language of “making” and “doing,” yet employs those terms to evoke the transcendent. He muses about wandering into a Catholic mass held in a barn during the war, noting, “they were all doing something, all right, yes, making something…. just a something, a pattern where all the paths light up and the whole thing—breathes, or whatever. That’s what I want to do, I thought. . .” (83).

Jones articulates his search for the truth through invoking repeatedly the central image of the play—his walking through the fog at dawn on the battlefield, “Where nothing had edges or boundaries, and things were still possible, where you were walking high…. The roof of the world” (87). Whereas Gill wants to separate and divide everything and everyone into categories, Jones desires a theory that will connect us all. But the Great War became the central event of Jones’s life and prevented him from ever having a successful sexual relationship (with Valerie in the play’s present of the 1950s) or marriage (to Petra, one of Gill’s daughters, in the 1920s). He simply cannot imagine being whole, being healed, and he perversely seems to enjoy living in the “wound” of that horrific war (“I knew what I wanted was the wound,” as he says on p. 119), even as he believes he is still mentally “[w]aiting for the word that changes things. The effing word. The Efficacious Word” (93). That word is the Logos, the Christ.

Lazarus critiques the lack of faith held by a modern vicar, who cannot explain Christ’s language in the phrase “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”

Christ’s words on the resurrection drive the action of the last drama in this collection, Lazarus, the shortest of these three plays. This drama critiques the lack of faith held by a modern vicar, who cannot explain Christ’s language in the phrase “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” He proclaims these words at the funeral of a dead seventeen-year-old boy, where he is questioned about their meaning by a character named simply “First Voice,” a middle-aged guest attending the funeral. The play then subtly contrasts the vicar’s inability to articulate his faith with that held by the Second and Third Voices. The Second Voice seems to be Lazarus’s enraged wife, who shouts at the late-arriving Christ and blames him for not arriving on time to save her husband, while the young male Third Voice serves as eyewitness to Lazarus’s resurrection. Third Voice gives us a very human Christ–“shivering as if he had a cold or flu” (132) on the way to the cemetery with Lazarus’s wife–who nonetheless is fully supernatural. He emphasizes the power of Christ’s voice at the miraculous moment: “Then just, ‘Come.’ Like that, flat, short, dropping like a stone in the dust. ‘Lazarus, come forth’” (133). The storm that rises in that moment parallels the one narrated by the First Voice who had a nightmare about his aunt coming to life in the coffin (134). And Lazarus brings together these voices from the past and present through Christ’s still, small voice saying, “I’m what’s left. You may go away, I won’t” (135). Here we find the Logos that David Jones sought. It is articulated by the formerly skeptical First Voice, reciting John 1, “The Word was with God and the Word was God,” as he imagines being in a storm with water pouring down, “[a]nd all those big plain words just sitting there. . .” (135). As the silent Lazarus and taciturn Christ sit at the table in Lazarus’s house, his wife and the others silently listen. And so do we, while the play ends and the speakers stand and silently look at each other, as the recorded voice that began the play reads “I am the Resurrection and the life,” followed by a wooden gong struck three times to emphasize the booming thunder of the preceding thunderstorms, which cuts through the isolation and death that surround us in our daily lives.

Movingly and memorably across multiple times and places, Shakeshafte & Other Plays reminds us that the search for truth is ongoing and finally embodied by the One who spoke the world into being and gave us the language to write such imaginative literature.

Richard Rankin Russell is Professor of English and Graduate Program Director at Baylor University

[1] Shakeshafte & Other Plays by Rowan Williams. Seattle: Slant Books, 2022, $16, pp. 156.


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