Rowan Williams Credit: Dan Kitwood

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.”

Shakeshafte is a brief but deep play of ideas, a what-if based on a tantalizing historical tidbit. Campion was indeed in Lancashire around 1580, holed up for a time in a Catholic safe house owned by one Alexander Hoghton. Also in the house around that time was a young man employed as a music teacher and a maker of household entertainments. His name was William Shakeshafte. Hoghton included him in his will, which came to light in the 1800s, and since then Shakespeare sleuths have speculated that this Shakeshafte was their man. Very little is known about the playwright’s life, but his father is believed by some to have been Catholic, and there’s a local tradition in Lancashire that young Will once worked for a Catholic family there. John Aubrey reports in the Brief Lives that young Shakespeare was at one time a “schoolmaster in the country.”

Some scholars think this theory is bunkum. But Williams finds it plausible enough to serve as the premise of a “fantasia” in which he imagines what the future saint and the future playwright—the older man not yet sentenced but resigned to his martyrdom, the younger full of ideas and ambition— might have had to say to each other.

The artist: Once you choose which voices to listen to, once you choose which clothes to wear, which beliefs to put on in the morning, how can you say that one of them is truth?

The priest: You don’t choose like that . . . you surrender to the harmony that you hear . . .

Artist: And what if you just can’t help hearing more all the time? If what’s asking you to surrender is just . . . well, bigger than what you and the others say, bigger than the harmony you can imagine?

The first American performance of Shakeshafte will be directed by Peter Garino, artistic director of the Shakespeare Project of Chicago, which gives free staged readings of Shakespeare and other classical works on a circuit of venues: the Newberry and five municipal libraries in the suburbs. The company’s profile is low because their shows never get reviewed—their runs are only five days long—but they often perform to full houses and they’ve been around for 22 years. They read “on book”—that is, script in hand—with minimal costumes and music, but the actors are mostly Equity pros. They’re paid, they rehearse, and their performances are energetic and convincing. So much of Shakespeare is in the language, acting is really all it takes.

Shakeshafte will be a new challenge for the group—it’s a historical play but quite modern in its attitude and language. Williams, who in addition to being a bishop and a member of Parliament is an accomplished author and poet, wrote it during his stormy tenure as archbishop of Canterbury. He served in that role from 2002 to 2012, while the Anglican church was beset by such divisive issues as female bishops, gay marriage, and sharia law. Since retiring from church life he has been the master of Magdalene College at Cambridge.

He has long been aware of and interested in the tension between the artistic and priestly ways of seeing the world, and he found a way to dramatize that tension in the scholarly speculation about the “hidden years” of Shakespeare’s youth. “I found it fascinating trying to imagine a young Shakespeare kind of breaking through a certain kind of old Catholicism,” Williams says, “respecting it and loving it and yet not being able quite to work with it.” As for the priest, “There’s something in Edmund which deep down acknowledges the limitations of the religious mind-set. He’s not meant to be just a conventionally pious figure. He sort of knows you can’t turn the clock back. But he wants to know if Will has any better ideas.”

Williams’s play includes sexual rivalry, gossiping servants, filial betrayal, and more, but at its core it’s a contest between religion and art. The playwright doesn’t pick a winner, but he insists it’s important to understand the differences and to give the artist his ground. “As a priest I believe that in the longest of long runs, they converge,” Williams says. “But meanwhile, there’s a bit of rub, a bit of tension, and I just want to give that room.”  v