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LENOX, Mass. — Some things seem to loom largest in their absence. So it is with the life of William Shakespeare. The surviving documentary evidence is limited, and frustratingly mundane — court records, a will, some church documents. The body of known facts seems maddeningly insufficient, given the subject’s outsized place in our cultural history. There’s even a complete gap covering one seven-year period, which contains no less an auspicious event than Shakespeare’s departure from his country home — where his wife and children remained — to try his luck in the London theater. (Spoiler: it worked out pretty well.)
This historical ambiguity leaves room for revisionists who are determined to show that this person could not be the author of the works attributed to him. Their theories, essentially classist in nature, form an attempt to explain the inexplicable. It’s true, the existence of Shakespeare’s canon does not really make any sense — and it would be no less a miracle if it sprang from the mind of a nobleman with access to the finest schools, rather than the provincial son of a glover. Genius is uncanny. That’s how it works.
Into this biographical mystery steps “Shakespeare’s Will,” a 2005 one-act by Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen. This one-hander is delivered in the voice of Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway, who has just returned home from her husband’s funeral. Anne recounts the story of their life together as a form of procrastination; that titular will sits on a desk, unread, until the play’s final minutes.
Any story about Shakespeare’s private life must necessarily go beyond what is known for certain. But even in this admittedly imaginative account, we learn about the man chiefly through his absence.
The nicely realized production now up at Shakespeare & Company (now through August 24) features a likable Kristin Wold, who thrives under the deft direction of Daniela Varon. Though it feels longer than its 90 minutes, weighed down by four original songs that do little to advance the story (the suitably rustic music is by Alexander Sovronsky), the creative team has taken great pains to add vigor to a script that must sit rather sluggishly on the page.
Wold flits around the stage with confidence, displaying a steely gravitas within her diminutive frame. As written here, Anne is a bold and sexually adventurous sort, and Wold adds just the right amount of salt and swagger. But while one conceit of this staging is that Anne progressively unburdens herself, piece by piece, of her restrictive, period-appropriate clothing, this is not matched by an accompanying sense of getting closer to her innermost self. Instead, she seems entirely frank from the outset, leaving little emotional arc to traverse.
Patrick Brennan’s impressionist, cleverly functional set suggests the interior of the Shakespeare family home. The few bits of furniture are all painted blue, and assorted ephemera are suspended by wire above the playing space — a cradle, a doll, pieces of written correspondence. A bed doubles as riding carriage, then briefly as mounting space for a painted backdrop.
Oh, about that bed. It hovers, almost literally, above the whole proceedings. Shakespeare made exactly one bequest to his wife in that will--“my second best bed with the furniture.” (This “furniture,” the director explains, refers only to linens and sundry items related to the bed.) Ouch.
Like an ambiguous detail embedded in one of Shakespeare’s plays, this bed reference has given rise to competing explanatory theories. Perhaps it’s not the dismissive kiss-off it appears on its face, some posit. In the households of the day, the best bed would have been reserved for guests and preserved as an heirloom; maybe the Bard’s curt bequest was actually a sentimental gesture, ensuring that Anne received the couple’s marital bed in addition to the portion of the estate she’d have inherited by right.
Yeah, no. In the same document, Shakespeare also takes care to spell out exact sums of money for his theatre friends--to buy themselves rings with.
But who knows? As with the rest of his personal life, Shakespeare’s marriage can now be observed only as a void that takes its shape from what lies around it. “Shakespeare’s Will” fills in the gaps from the perspective of someone whose own voice, sadly, was never recorded. Sympathetic though this interpretation may be, its puzzling subject remains insoluble.
Jeremy D. Goodwin is a full-time independent journalist based in the Berkshires. He is a regular contributor to The Boston Globe and New England Public Radio. You can follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin, or see more of his work here.
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