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    Sir John Gilbert's 1849 painting: The Plays of William Shakespeare , containing scenes and characters from several of William Shakespeare 's plays.

    The Power and Limit of Words

    Rowan Williams talks to Plough about three of his latest plays, and the importance of trying to bring to expression things for which words prove inadequate.

    By Rowan Williams and Joy Clarkson

    November 15, 2022
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    Joy Clarkson: This past year you embarked on a new endeavor: publishing a collection of three plays. Tell us about the first and title play in your collection: Shakeshafte.

    Rowan Williams: A disclaimer to begin with: anybody who writes a play about Shakespeare is really heading for a major fall in all kinds of ways. But I’ve always been a huge Shakespeare enthusiast. I’ve written a bit about him and gone back to him again and again and again. I take part in an annual Shakespeare retreat in which a group of about fifty of us get together and spend a week reflecting on one of Shakespeare’s plays. So Shakespeare is very much in the blood.

    I also have some interest in Shakespeare’s own history and convictions. Many years back, I read Ernst Honigmann’s book about the young Shakespeare, in which Honigmann advances the theory that Shakespeare spent some time in Lancaster as a young man. We know that there’s mention of this period in Shakespeare’s life in a will of Alexander Houghton from 1581, who was a big landowner in Lancaster. It mentions the bequest of some musical instruments, playing clothes, and theatrical equipment in connection with two men called Will Shakeshafte and Fulk Gillom.

    The spirit in the artist almost has to bracket deep personal conviction in order to be host to all the different voices of humankind.

    Seeing this name in the will, Will Shakeshafte, it’s quite tempting to think that this might be the Will Shakespeare. And the evidence builds up in a certain direction because Houghton was a major Catholic, a recusant. He was under suspicion from the authorities because he didn’t conform to the state religion. We also know that a local family, the Cottons, provided for both a Jesuit martyr and a school master who taught in Stratford-upon-Avon. And there are other connections as well between the Lancaster circle and some of the powerful Catholic networks at the time, including the Earl of Darby, with whom Shakespeare has connections. In various ways, these are connected with that faintly familiar name, Will Shakeshafte.

    The second bit of the jigsaw is that we know that the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion spent some time in Lancaster and stayed with the Houghton family at one of their residences. Well, you put two and two together and make twenty-two. The theory is that Shakeshafte is indeed William Shakespeare who came from a recusant Catholic background in Stratford, and spent some time with the Houghton family in Lancaster as a tutor and dogsbody in the household. And if he was at Houghton Hall some time between 1580 and 1581, Campion was there at the same time. What might a future martyr and a future literary genius have had to say to each other? That’s how the idea for the play began.

    Sir John Gilbert's 1849 painting: The Plays of William Shakespeare , containing scenes and characters from several of William Shakespeare 's plays.

    Sir John Gilbert, The Plays of William Shakespeare, oil on canvas, 1849

    The way you portray both of these characters is very interesting. Will feels oddly contemporary, postmodern even. He seems almost bound to a certain kind of agnosticism out of duty to the vast diversity of the world and mankind.

    What I was trying to convey was something of that spirit in the artist, which almost has to bracket deep personal conviction in order to be host to all the different voices of humankind. You see this even in somebody like Dostoyevsky, who has this fantastically passionate personal conviction about Christian faith. But when he’s writing, he has to let every voice loose. He has to let the bear garden emerge as it were, and quite deliberately. We don’t really know what Shakespeare thought or believed, except of course that there are moments in his plays and sonnets where you get a flash of insight about Christian truth.

    I wrote something a few years ago on prayer in Shakespeare, and the ways in which some of Shakespeare’s characters approach praying. In Hamlet, Claudius tries to articulate a prayer of penance and finds that it won’t work. He can’t find it in his heart, really, to be sorry. Then there’s the prayer of Henry the Fifth before the Battle of Agincourt where he’s aware that he’s king because of a history of sin and rebellion and violence, and he’s trying to come to terms with that. And there’s Angelo in Measure for Measure discovering that he can’t pray because he’s obsessed with lust for Isabella. Shakespeare knew something about praying, and what it was and what it wasn’t.

    This particular play feels very relatable to our present moment in history. The Reformation was a confusing and fracturing time; things once held to be axiomatic were cast into doubt. There’s a sense in which that disruption might not be so different from what most of us feel in what we might call the postmodern age, where there are all these different voices vying for attention, and no sturdy ground to stand on. I found those resonances striking.

    That is where Campion steps in. As a priest and theologian, he says to Will that it’s all very well, this psychological exploration in art and literature, but fundamentally the problem that you and I both face is that we’re stuck in a situation where so many people feel they’ve got to make themselves up. They don’t know who they are. They are stuck with all these rival religious convictions, complicated political unsettlement, and feeling this burden of identity. In a way, the question that they are both dealing with is this one: How do we know who we are? Shakespeare, of course, gives that astonishingly vivid expression again and again in his play King Lear: “Who is it who can tell me who I am?”

    Shakespeare knew something about praying, and what it was and what it wasn’t.

    One of the things that Shakeshafte is saying is that you can’t just go back to the Middle Ages. We’ve discovered ways of talking about and understanding ourselves which we can’t unlearn. The question now is: How do we lead that back into something that’s integrative, not just fragmenting and destructive?

    Let’s talk a bit about the next play in the collection, The Roof of the World, and its subject: David Jones.

    David Jones was born in London to an English mother and a Welsh father. He was really fascinated by his Welsh heritage. I sometimes call him an Anglo-Welsh writer, which is perhaps not strictly true, but he’s certainly an English writer with profound Welsh affiliations. He became fascinated by the whole history of Welsh mythology and classical Welsh literature, and that’s all woven into his work. He served in the trenches in the First World War and was wounded. He was part of the unspeakable horror of the battle of Mametz Wood, where thousands and thousands of people from the Welsh divisions in the army were killed in a single day, and that haunted him all his life.

    After the war, he became a Roman Catholic. He spent some time with the sculptor Eric Gill, and was briefly engaged to Gill’s daughter Petra, which is part of what the play looks at. As a visual artist and as a poet, he’s equally complex, equally demanding. He was a brilliant watercolorist. He did this astonishing lettering. He also writes these long poetic reflections. His first great work, In Parenthesis, is about his time in the trenches in the war, but it’s also about what lies behind that. The suffering and chaos of the trenches opens up a whole history of violence and conflict, but also of sacrifice and redemption.

    The image of the crucified is woven into In Parenthesis, without ever quite coming to the surface, and his other long work, Anathemata, is really about the Mass. It’s about how the entire history of human culture converges on that moment, and into that comes his own family history, English and Welsh, the history of Britain and of Europe, the tale of Troy, the biblical history, and above all the last supper and the crucifixion. It is an almost impossibly dense work. So full of illusion, so full of image, but it’s the first of his works that I encountered when I was a teenager, and I was completely bowled over by it. He goes on as a visual artist, as well as a poet, but increasingly the psychological damage, both of the war and of the ending of his relationship with Petra Gill, almost immobilizes him. In his latter years, he wouldn’t go out, wouldn’t meet people. He became a desperately withdrawn and fearful man.

    You have this sense of a painfully vulnerable figure shrinking into the space of little boarding houses and nursing homes in north London. It’s a sad story. Yet everyone who knew him remembered him as the soul of gentleness and of courtesy and kindness. From his letters and his work, you don’t end up with an overriding sense of sadness. Certainly there’s a pathos, but also a richness, which is to my mind almost unique in twentieth-century British writing and also visual work. He is a complex figure.

    This play experiments with time. We watch scenes from Jones’s early life, and his later life, focusing on his interactions with two women. There are moments where the two timelines almost overlap, where we’re not sure where we are.

    The play is concerned with the long-term effect of trauma. It’s notable that in many of Jones’ letters in the last years of his life, he’s still going over the events of the Battle of Mametz Wood in 1916. He’s still working out the memory of that trauma. It struck me that one way of approaching a play about him would be to see how that kind of foundational wound in his life was what was reopened by the different traumas and the different tragedies that he experienced. I wanted to get that double exposure feeling, Jones of the 1950s and Jones of the 1920s, as it were, laid on top of one another.

    How do we speak about our traumas without just recycling them?

    It felt risky in some ways exploring this because Eric Gill’s reputation is a shadowed one. We know that Gill was sexually predatory and that he abused two of his daughters including Petra. Petra acknowledged this later in life but said she hadn’t been very damaged by it. She could see that it was a bad thing, but didn’t feel that it had wrecked her life. I wondered: Did David Jones know anything about this? Did he sense anything? Because you’d think that a horrific experience of abuse like that would somehow come through. That was the risky area, treading in all those areas which are most sensitive, most neurologic for our present-day culture.

    It was challenging to find a voice for Petra that would be honest and convincing. It was hard work. Petra was an exceptionally strong woman. She married, she had children. She emerges in later life as a rather formidable character. I wanted something of that formidable quality to come through in her. I also sense that she possessed a kind of irony, a kind of deflationary realism in the middle of all these hypercharged artistic egos around her. I like what I know of her. Her name, Petra (meaning rock), is not insignificant. There’s a really anchored quality in her.

    Petra is contrasted a bit with the other female figure, who’s based loosely on somebody Jones was very close to in the 1950s, a charming, delightful, slightly sketchy Welsh woman, an athlete, an actress, and a broadcaster. She was a very extroverted figure, which Jones was drawn to. Petra looks at her with a slightly worried smile and thinks, well, it would be nice if it were so simple.

    Do you think art is something that helps us retell our stories with things like trauma? Or do you think it’s something that can also keep us in the past? Or is that an unnecessary boundary to draw?

    You put your finger on what I think is an absolutely fundamental human dilemma. We need to tell our stories because if we can’t speak of what we’ve endured, then it festers and eats away. On the other hand, if we can only ever speak about the past, we remain trapped with it. That is exactly what art tries to negotiate. How do we speak about our traumas without just recycling them?

    I’ve written a bit about literary tragedy as a genre which explores the question: How do we speak about the past so that we’re not paralyzed? How do we tell the story of the most appalling and almost unspeakable suffering without that just filling the horizon for us? In a way, of course, that is what the sacramental life of the church seeks to do. It seeks to tell us our story as wrecked and sinful and destroyed and ravaged, and also as wreckers and destroyers and ravagers. It tells us that story, confronting us with the ultimate cost of those traumas in the death of Christ. It tells us all that suffering is real – and that it’s not the end. That happened and it’s not the last word. There’s a word spoken now into that history, which doesn’t wipe it out, doesn’t cancel the pain, but transfigures it.

    That brings us to the final play: Lazarus. It is in some ways the most enigmatic.

    I was approached by Josie Rourke, then at the Bush Theater in London, who was in charge of Sixty-Six Books, a project to produce a sequence of plays to celebrate the fourth centenary of the King James Bible. She’d asked a wide range of people to write short plays, half an hour each, on one of the books of the Bible. I was given the choice of which of the books of the Bible I’d like to write a play about. I chose Saint John’s Gospel, the text I personally go back to most often and most eagerly. I thought, if there was one story that I really wanted to explore, it was the raising of Lazarus from the dead. That’s what I settled on.

    What I tried to do was to have a rather arms-length dramatization of the story in the Gospel, but also interwoven with that of a modern inquirer who’s stumbled across something from the story and is trying to make sense of it. It begins with this modern person talking about going to a Church of England funeral. The priest begins with, “‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ says the Lord.” As people sometimes do in church, if they’re not very used to church, he thinks, what an earth does that mean?

    It’s really a play about words, about the word “resurrection” and what it means to say, I am the resurrection. It’s a meditation on how some words really transform and bring life; the cost of that and the weight of that. One of the images that runs through that little piece is hearing words, certain kinds of words, as if they were distant thundering, almost like empty boxes falling over in an attic, as that is what thunder sometimes sounds like. I wanted to weave that in and have that image there, that sort of distant massiveness of the Word of God.

    All these plays are about words and about our need to say things out loud. But they are also about the ways words fall short. And yet you seem to think that we should keep speaking and keep writing.

    As Samuel Beckett famously said, “Try again, fail again, fail better.” We need to restore some confidence and some gratitude for language. T. S. Eliot, in his Four Quartets, says that his task is to purify the dialect of the tribe; to work at words so that they do the best they can. The best that words can do is not to capture and dominate, but to produce new reflections, new perspectives, new connections, and therefore, ways of connecting ourselves with the world and with the world’s maker. We keep trying because we want to be connected. That’s the essence of language. “In the beginning was the Word,” says Saint John’s Gospel, and in that Word everything is made. All connections are established because God communicates and connects through the everlasting Word.

    Contributed By RowanWilliams Rowan Williams

    Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. A theologian and poet, he is master of Magdalen College in Cambridge and chancellor of the University of South Wales.

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    Contributed By JoyClarkson2 Joy Clarkson

    Joy Clarkson holds a PhD in theology from the Institute for Theology and the Arts at the University of Saint Andrews. She hosts Speaking with Joy, a popular podcast about art, theology, and culture, and writes books.

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