Prairie talent shone at Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan in Saskatoon this summer in Shakespeare’s Will, written by Winnipegger and Governor General Literary Award winner Vern Thiessen, who recently joined the Manitoba Theatre for Young People as its School Director.
The one-woman show about Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway starred Saskatoon actress Lisa Bayliss, a Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan veteran, and was directed by Prince Albert’s Roxanne Dicke.
Thiessen uses the play, which was first published in 2005, to imagine the story of Hathaway’s life, as very little is known about her life beyond a few references here and there in legal documents.
Thiessen is one of a long line of writers and historians who have speculated about Hathaway’s personality and relationship to Shakespeare.
The play follows Hathaway, who was eight years Shakespeare’s senior, as she prepares to read her late husband’s will.
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Hathaway resists reading Shakespeare’s will, recalling the promise she shared with her husband. Before they married in a Catholic wedding, the couple made their own private vows to accommodate their individual desires. This left Anne alone in Stratford to raise their three children while Shakespeare moved to London to become a successful playwright.
When a plague hits England, Hathaway, who hears no word about Shakespeare’s health, takes her children to the sea to keep them as far away from the disease as possible. This decision will eventually impact what is left to Hathaway in her husband’s will.
Ultimately, Shakespeare’s Will is a play about the bonds of love and the responsibilities a couple has to one another as Hathaway looks over her life and reflects on her marriage with Shakespeare and the promise they made to each other.
The play is a celebration of a woman’s life that is unapologetic in the face of public scorn and tragedy.
Shakespeare’s Will was commissioned by the Free Will Players in 2002. It premiered in 2005 at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton.
Around the time the play was written, there was a lot of discussion happening around whether gay marriage should be made legal in Canada.
In 2003, Ontario and British Columbia became the first two provinces to legalize same-sex marriage. Eventually, Canada would pass the Civil Marriage Act in 2005, making it legal for same-sex couples to marry. Canada was the fourth country in the world to do so.
Because of this history coinciding with the play’s creation, scholar Anne Wilson interprets the play as being about non-traditional marriages and relationships, writing that “the play’s politics and key adaptive gestures coincide with transformations in Canada around orthodoxies associated with gender roles and families.”
Thiessen uses the play to explore the relationship between sexual freedom and patriarchal norms of male succession, Wilson notes in her essay “Waves and Wills: Vern Theissen’s Shakespeare’s Will,” which was published in the Winter 2007 issue of Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation.
The play has brought laughter and tears to many audiences, not only across Canada, but around the world, as Shakespeare’s Will has been produced in Wales, England, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
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