An Act of WIll

Performed at The Roman Eagle Lodge, Edinburgh, Scotland, on August 12th, 2000

Summary four stars out of five

Fascinating one-man show, presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a fact-filled but essentially conjecturing in-person recounting of his life by the newly retired Shakespeare. Delicious secrets include a romance with another Anne, an extramarital affair with a woman named Jane, the staging of Marlowe's murder, and most importantly, the fronting by Shakespeare as author of Marlowe's continuing literary efforts. A provocative conspiracy theory revealed by a superb performer whose Bard is second-rate stage actor and third-rate playwright.


Directed by Steven Canny

Michael McEvoy as Shakespeare.


Michael McEvoy as Shakespeare


Michael McEvoy brings his one-man show - a compelling portrait of a newly retired William Shakespeare - to a small space at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Staged within the confines of three black-curtained walls, the show runs 100 minutes without set change and with minimal lighting adjustment, but McEvoy's portrayal delights as he reveals Shakespeare's personal and professional "secrets."

Director Steven Canny begins the production with McEvoy seated center stage upon a wooden trunk of Shakespeare's belongings. McEvoy, writing with a purple quill, appears startled but pleased by the audience's presence, and he speaks directly to patrons, telling his story, providing insights, and finally, after much anxiety over the Star Chamber, confessing. McEvoy's amiable but rough-edged Shakespeare looks the part - aged and wearied, with long but thinning hair, a goatee, and modest country garb - and he calls for Anne, imitates Francis the drawer from the Henry IV plays, and pours himself liquor and offers drinking salutes to the audience.

McEvoy's Bard has suddenly retired from a career as actor, poet and playwright - "such a life!" - and has returned to Stratford-upon-Avon a wealthy man. He considers his retirement "not a turning point, but an epilogue," for reasons he makes clear with ensuing anecdotes. McEvoy engages instantly with his relaxed demeanor and eyes full of humor, and he speaks naturally in a lilting rhythm and a country accent.

McEvoy recounts Shakespeare's boyhood, including romps with friends, journeys to theatre to see James Burbage perform, and his father John's continual "quest for food." His dalliance with Anne Hathaway - and subsequent loss of "virginity, youth, and freedom" - unfortunately follows his love for and engagement to Anne Whatley. The shotgun wedding to the impregnated Ms. Hathaway and a lifetime of marriage "to the wrong Anne" is the first in a slew of revelations and supposed secrets. Shakespeare's twenties, according to McEvoy, were passed in marital duty - "suddenly I was an adult with responsibilities" - and a lack of happiness: the twins are conceived the night of watching Edward Alleyn portray the Danish prince, Hamlet, but for him, the births of Hamnet and Judith represent just "two more mouths to feed." Shakespeare's flight from Sir Thomas Lucy for poaching deer in Arden forest at age twenty-nine seems more an escape than an exile.

McEvoy presents Shakespeare's early London years with fondness, peppering the account with detailed realities. He tells of Robert Greene's inflammatory pamphlets inciting the torture of Thomas Kyd and the heresy accusations against Christopher Marlowe, then the passing of John Shakespeare: "methinks I see my father." McEvoy speaks with wonder of Ben Jonson's imprisonment for sedition in writing The Isle of Dogs and his killing of a fellow company-member in a rapier duel but avoiding execution - albeit not the branding of his thumb - due to "benefit of clergy." McEvoy also describes the original Theatre - dismantled in the dead of night before New Year's Day and slid timber by timber across the frozen Thames to be re-built as the Globe - and all the facts and historical details mount and lend credence to the play's pivotal - and conjectural - "secret."

Christopher Marlowe's death in a tavern - by a knife through the eye - as he awaits trial and probable torture for blasphemy, homosexuality, and forgery, receives relevance of mythological proportion: was it murder, a terrible accident, or the beginning of a vast conspiracy? McEvoy contends, in his earnest monologue, that Marlowe's death was fabricated by literary friends who substituted the corpse of a murdered criminal, then spirited Marlowe to exile in Italy. The friends bring the unlearned "upstart crow" Shakespeare into their conspiracy to act as the "front" for the poetry and drama Marlowe continues to compose anonymously.

McEvoy's Shakespeare struggles with the deception - "like blind Gloucester on a precipice" - but succumbs out of friendship, as well as appetite for money and desire for fame, although the collusion requires "an act of will." He accepts 1,000 pounds payment, and Marlowe's Venus and Adonis is published as Shakespeare's own within weeks of Marlowe's supposed murder.

During the production's latter half, Canny and McEvoy present Shakespeare as a third-rate writer and second-rate actor graced with opportunity: "my ass's ears were hidden by the crown of Marlowe." He recounts the difficulties of explaining the sudden "completion" of plays as well as the abundance of classical references and motifs. He relied on his acting skills - bluffing his way through line changes and pretending to be "the offended poet" - when asked questions regarding "his" texts or when facing Ben Jonson's increasing suspicions.

The "theory" addresses centuries-old questions regarding Shakespeare's plays, from his lack of classical learning to the suddenness of his retirement. McEvoy describes with pride how the Lord Chamberlain's Men managed to compose, rehearse, and perform a "cheeky" Twelfth Night at Whitehall at the behest of Queen Elizabeth in a matter of days. The play - with all its topical references to the winter holiday and Duke Orsino - had already been written by Christopher Marlowe, exiled in Italy and protected by powerful patrons, and Marlowe had been privy to the Duke's visit to Elizabeth's court.

McEvoy claims Marlowe's plays were delivered from Italy to Shakespeare in London, where the phony "Bard" - Kit's "thief and benefactor" - transcribed the text in his own hand, then ceremoniously burnt the original. McEvoy enumerates other details from Shakespeare's life: the death by fever of his 11-year-old son Hamnet before he could return home to Stratford; his brother Edmund's portrayal of Viola in Twelfth Night; the clown Will Kempe's defection and 100-mile dance in an Elizabethan publicity stunt; and Richard Burbage vainly saving his self-portrait from the 1614 Globe fire. McEvoy's Shakespeare blames the burning of the Globe for the irretrievable loss of such "Marlowe" plays as Cardenio and Love's Labour's Won, and he provides grisly details of the bubonic plague, with the City Council closing the playhouses once the weekly death toll reached forty citizens.

McEvoy's Shakespeare expresses unworthiness at accomplishing a Shakespeare family coat of arms, something his father strived for but never achieved, and the Bard has managed only through deceit. The coat of arms carries the motto "Not without Right," lampooned by Jonson in Every Man Out of His Humour as "Not without Mustard." McEvoy's Shakespeare solemnly remembers his father's Catholic pride - hiding a testimonial of his faith in the rafters of their home where no man can see it - and insistence that "God can read the truth." The suppression of the truth carries somber significance for McEvoy's Shakespeare, as do the motto from the Marlowe family coat of arms - "What Nourishes Me, Destroys Me" - and one of the final "Marlowe" plays, Henry VIII, being subtitled "All is True."

McEvoy's script, inspired by the 1994 Wraight book The Story That the Sonnets Tell, claims the conspirators published Marlowe's sonnets in 1609 under Shakespeare's name, but with many poems added and interspersed throughout in a careful sequence that reveal Marlowe as the true composer. Marlowe, it is suggested, provided clues to the conspiracy - "I have left my signature" - and with Kit's death, McEvoy's Shakespeare has no choice but to suddenly "retire" from playwriting.

Despite a lack of substantiation for the play's main conceit - the conspiracy theory - an abundance of historical detail and insight bolster McEvoy's marvelous portrayal. This is, after all, theatre, not scholarship. McEvoy breathes life into history, as facts and theories become stories, detailed with flesh and bone as well as imagination. And McEvoy's Shakespeare always entertains, sometimes with self-deprecating humor, as when he recounts how he composed the stilted verse for his gravestone: "cursed be he that moves my bones." He defends the clumsy poem with a wry, "where's Marlowe when you need him?"

McEvoy's final story involves "the merry widow" Jane from Oxford, with whom Shakespeare enjoys a protracted sexual affair, with him frequently adjusting his route home to visit her. He meets Jane after the death of Queen Elizabeth I in the spring of 1603, and he trusts her, confessing to her his involvement in the Marlowe conspiracy. When he discovers she is not a widow, but a wife and mother, he nevertheless continues the affair and befriends her husband. When she becomes pregnant with Shakespeare's child, they maintain the secret, name the child William, and Jane's husband asks Shakespeare to be the child's godparent. McEvoy's Shakespeare sardonically observes being godfather to his bastard son, then merrily announces his intention to will to Jane his "best bed."

Canny directs the play, subtitled The Secret Life of William Shakespeare, as a straightforward monologue, relying on the personable McEvoy to discourse directly to the audience. The only stage action involves McEvoy pausing to hang three framed pictures along the length of black curtain upstage: first a painting of Marlowe, then Burbage's portrait of Shakespeare, and finally the Shakespeare coat of arms.

This provocative and, at times, fascinating production concludes with Shakespeare becoming suddenly distrustful of the audience, suspecting them as representatives from the Star Chamber. McEvoy reverses himself, claiming his confession to be merely a jest, and he insists of his plays, "I wrote them." He then concludes with a questioning, "didn't I?" followed by a blackout.

Note: A version of this article was edited and published in Shakespeare Bulletin, Vol. 19, No. 1, Winter 2001.