“Shakespeare, His Wife and The Dog” is a thoughtful meditation on love and marriage

By Christina Campodonico

For a playwright as renowned as William Shakespeare, we know surprisingly little about him. He was born in April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, but his actual birthdate is a bit fuzzy. By 1592, he was an established playwright and actor in London, but the circumstances of his move there remain unknown. And there is even a seven-year period in his life known as “the Lost Years,” when any trace of the dramatist completely disappears from the historical record.

But where scholars have found blanks, actor and playwright Philip Whitchurch has uncovered creative opportunities to write about the legendary thespian — namely his latest dramatic work “Shakespeare, His Wife and The Dog,” now playing through Sunday at the intimate Edye performance space at The Broad Stage.

“So little’s been actually written about Shakespeare in a dramatic form … and I thought because there’s so few known facts, I could have artistic license to do whatever I wanted,” says Whitchurch over the phone between rehearsals.

Like The Bard himself, Whitchurch is doing double duty as playwright and actor. He plays good ole Will opposite actress Sally Edwards (Whitchurch’s real-life wife), who plays Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway in the approximately one-hour tête-à-tête between the couple, set on a sleepless night in their Stratford-upon-Avon home during their later years.

Well before marrying 26 years ago, Whitchurch and Edwards had run in similar theatrical circles within the U.K. — including stints with the Royal Shakespeare Company — but this is their first time working together.

Whitchurch thought that doing “Shakespeare, His Wife and The Dog” was not only a great “vehicle” for their first foray into performing together, but also an opportunity to rewrite the script on Shakespeare and Hathaway’s marriage.

“In the past, if you’d read academic books on Shakespeare, Anne doesn’t get great press really. She was apparently an older woman. She was eight years older than Shakespeare. … And people said, because he got married at 18 and she was 26, that obviously it wasn’t a happy marriage, because he escaped to London,” explains Whitchurch. “And I thought, well maybe he had to go and he’s spent his life coming back to Stratford. He came back at the end of 34 years [of marriage], having had three children with this woman. There must have been something going on.”

The bond between Hathaway and Shakespeare could be attributed to any number of reasons lost to time, but Edwards has some of her own theories, perhaps — as cast in the play — that Anne was Shakespeare’s muse, the inspiration for Katherine in “The Taming of the Shrew” or the proverbial “Dark Lady.”

“If Shakespeare had done that,” says Edwards, “you can see character traits that would have come from [her.] She must have been very articulate in her way. She must have been for him to have stayed interested in her and come back to her at the end. She had to have been in some way his equal. And he must have been interested in her take on things. Or why did he come back?”

Whitchurch has another theory. Could Anne have been infirm in the later days of their marriage?

“What started to interest me about Anne was why did Shakespeare leave her in the will the ‘second best bed?’” says Whitchurch, referring to the Bard’s final bequeathal to his wife upon his death. “People used to say that was a really cruel thing to do. A slight to their marriage. And I thought, well maybe that’s easy to say, but actually there’s all kinds of reasons. … Maybe he couldn’t possibly leave all his worldly goods to his wife. Even if he loved her desperately, it was safer to leave it all to his daughters. So that was the choice I made — rightly or wrongly — that was the dramatic choice I made.”

It’s probably impossible to know the true nature of Anne Hathaway and Shakespeare’s relationship. “Shakespeare, His Wife and The Dog” not only offers some dramatic possibilities, but also a thoughtful meditation on marriage and the meaning of love and affection in long-term relationships.

“This is not just for Shakespeare geeks,” writes Edinburgh Review. “It is at once funny and serious, an exploration of history and fame, but also a poignant portrait of a relationship that is warm, human and extremely satisfying.”

In the end, Whitchurch hopes to not only offer one possible reading of a historic marriage, but also show a more raw and human representation of the man, the myth, the legend that is William Shakespeare.

“Most people think that he’s some extraordinary, God-like, iconic creature, and I wanted to write about somebody who was just an ordinary person who [also] just happened to be a brilliant playwright,” says Whitchurch. “He’s a mixture of all different people. He’s spoiled and irascible, but he’s loving as well. There’s a mixture of comedy and tragedy in him.”

As for the dog alluded to in the title, it’s probably best that you watch the play to find out.

“Shakespeare, His Wife and The Dog” continues at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and at 4 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 25 to 28) at The Edye at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $45 to $50. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit the broadstage.org.