ON A COLD EVENING THIS APRIL, Image poetry editor Shane McCrae asked Rowan Williams a provocative question that reverberated in the vaulted space of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle. Williams’s poetry, McCrae observed, is characterized by a unique tension. On the one hand, it exhibits the distinctly Romantic attention to experience, particularly experience of the natural world. This Romantic sensibility usually privileges the experiencing “I,” putting the self at the center of the poem, even if it is an ode to natural beauty. But, McCrae observed, Williams’s poetry generally refuses to center the self, setting him at odds with both Romanticism and the confessional poetry so familiar today. “Why this seemingly paradoxical combination?” McCrae asked. How can art delve into experience without privileging the self?
I was fascinated by Williams’s response, in which he recognized “my wariness about the Romantic and my embrace of it.” The wariness stems from the risk of the “intruding ego,” as he put it: “I don’t much like using the first-person singular more than I have to in a poem, because I don’t want to shut too many doors.” The “I” of a poem can feel exclusive rather than inviting. But, Williams continued, the “truth of the Romantic sensibility” can’t be avoided: “that I am someone who is spoken to.” Experience is always the experience of some self, but in our experience of the world, we find ourselves addressed. As an artist, Williams works to evoke our place in the cosmos; we are not at its center, and yet the world gives itself to us. In some ways, our being is gifted: we are constituted by this address. We are called into being by the word of an Other.
One of the reasons Image bestowed the 2022 Levertov Award on Rowan Williams was that his body of work lives at the intersection of the human and the divine: his theology is humanist, and his humanism recognizes what Henri de Lubac called “the natural desire for the supernatural.” It is precisely this incarnational intersection, I would argue, that attunes Williams to the creative tension at the heart of being human: that this “I,” a tiny piece of creation, has infinite hunger and, mirabile dictu, is addressed by the infinite. The microcosmic richness of human identity is a reflection of the God who not only made us but sees us, knows us, and speaks to us. Our being addressed by the divine is an infinite well for human possibility.
At the conclusion of his collected Gifford Lectures, The Edge of Words, Williams highlights this: “It is worth remembering that it is not only God’s existence that is at issue in our culture, but the existence and survival of a certain kind of humanity.” At stake in our language, not least the language of fiction and poetry, is “an anthropology as well as a theology, a picture of the human.” And we will only be primed to recognize and value the human insofar as we remain attuned, or at least open, to the sacred. Or maybe we could put it this way: art is most sacred when it sees other humans in all their richness and complexity, all their hunger and confusion. We’re not looking for a God’s-eye view. We’re hoping for a Christlike vision that sees the humanity of the neighbor, even the enemy.
Such an endeavor is at the heart of Williams’s play, Shakeshafte, a work of historical drama taking place between the winter of 1580 and the summer of 1581. The narrative imagines an encounter between a young Will Shakeshafte, who doesn’t yet realize he will become William Shakespeare, and an Edward Hastings, whom we realize is Edmund Campion, the Jesuit soon-to-be martyr in Elizabeth’s England. They are thrown together at Hoghton Tower, a Catholic household in Lancashire.
Given the proscription of Roman Catholic worship at the time, everyone in Hoghton Tower has to tell the truth slant. Living under threat of prosecution (or worse), the household is a conspiracy of whispers. Everyone has to learn to be someone else, to play roles, to say without saying. The ethos is apophatic; what is unsaid says much.
Which is just to say: this is a household given to drama. Hence Williams imagines this environment as an incubator for the dramatist who will later emerge. The play becomes a layered work of ars poetica, performing what it portrays: the fictions that tell us the truth, the imagined worlds that are mirrors in which we see our own with new insight.
Without being anachronistic, Williams creates a historical drama that plays out a familiar twenty-first-century dynamic: faith is fraught. Even if we still believe, something has changed in our experience of belief. The play takes us back to the beginnings of that shift in the sixteenth century, but the play is urgent because that world is still with us.
What has changed is that nothing is given. After the upheaval of the Reformation, even steadfast commitment to the “ancient” faith feels like selecting from a modern menu of options. As the young Will admits to a friend, “Everywhere you go you have to make choices now that people didn’t use to have.”
This isn’t just true for the gentry and intellectuals. Even domestic laborers in the Hoghton household feel the ground moving beneath them. Indeed, the characters downstairs in the servants’ hall give us the most insight. In one scene, Fulk, a footman, asks of Margery, a maid: “Do you not think the old days will come again, then? Mass in the parish and Sir Philip’s woman out of the parsonage and back with her sister, and the plays in Chester town and the monks back in the abbey?” Much as Margery hopes for the return of the old ways, she realizes that not even restoration can turn back the clock: “Once you know it could be different, it’s all changed.”
Williams, a disciple of Dostoyevsky, is taking us into the burden of choice that is at the heart of modernity. Later, near the end of the play, it is Margery again who recognizes that we will forever go on hearing a bell that can’t be unrung. To live in modernity is to be burdened with the consciousness that things could be otherwise. You can wear other masks, play other roles. Yes, sure, all the world is a stage; but to live in modernity is to realize that your neighbors are working with a completely different script. And you can’t help but wonder, some days, if you are working from the wrong one. She tentatively admits to her longtime coworker Roger: “You…you see something as was covered up before, and you think, it doesn’t have to be this, I don’t have to be this, I can dig inwards and find what I never met before and you can’t stop seeing it.”
This, Margery tells Roger, is something she learned from young Will. “Only, like, like Will used to say: when you know you’re choosing it, you know you don’t have to choose it and it’s another kind of play.”
Williams makes this the creative hinge of his own play. Shakespeare the dramatist emerges from the young man trying to make sense of this swirling reality around him and, even more, the cacophony of voices within. Thanks to Will’s unveiling, Margery can’t even look at old, familiar Roger with any confidence anymore. “I can look at you, Roger Livesey, and think, God, what’s in there, then, if you start digging? [Half laughing.] What’s going on behind that grey face? Maybe it’s all festivals and dances in there, only he never lets it out and perhaps he’s laughing inside at the rest of us. And when I see him, I think, Christ, I don’t know him, though I see him every day of my bloody life.”
This impenetrability of the person next to me, the profound mystery masked by the most familiar face, is precisely what elicits the artist in young Will. Art responds to such impenetrability by exploring it. A Shakespeare play makes us feel less alone, not because it solves the mystery but because it inhabits the complexity in a way that honors its depth. We inhabit the multiplicity of a Lear or a Hamlet—or a Margery or a Roger—and thus feel seen. We hear them say on stage the thoughts we rarely voice but that constantly chatter within.
In Shakeshafte, the tectonic shift in the political and religious context is mirrored in the complexity of human interiority. Part of the genius of Williams’s art is his ability to dwell with—and upon—both.
Williams imagines a young Will Shakeshafte who is intrigued by the Corpus Christi mystery plays because of their power to stage the many voices inside your head. His friend Fulk shares his father’s testimony of the experience:
How this was one day in the year when every soul in Chester had the same story to tell.… You look up there at the plays on the carts, he said, and what you see is you, you and your neighbors. ’Cause Adam and Eve, they’re you, and Noah and Our Lady and Herod and Maudlin and all, it’s you, and it’s you making a fool of yourself and you saying yes to God and you saying no to God and you trying to keep him away.
“Like you’ve got them all inside you,” Will replies, “inside your head and your guts.”
“Aye,” say Fulk, “that’s it, like they’re all inside and then, sudden like you see them all out there. Like a mirror. And you never knew.”
In a later scene with Hastings (Campion), you sense how this has all been percolating for Will, and that he’s on his way to being a playwright. He can’t stop hearing all these voices, he admits. “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 others say, bigger than the harmony you can imagine?” Art is going to be the way Will inhabits a complex world, grappling with it without trying to solve it. Art is dangerous because it makes the world safe for us to say we don’t know, we’re not sure.
At one point Will overstates his intentions, implying that he can wholly invent a world by sheer force of hubris. That would be the Romantic ego asserting itself. But then Will corrects himself: “It’s not that I want to make up the world out of my bowels. That was a foolish way of talking. I know I have to listen, and when I listen I have to surrender.”
Here, again, is what Williams called the truth of the Romantic sensibility. We contain multitudes, all addressed by the teeming cosmos and the Creator behind it all. The artist both listens and gives voice. The artist creates out of surrender. How could we imagine a way of holding together this churn of self and world without artists giving us ears to hear and mirrors to see ourselves?