William Shakespeare’s final years were even more puzzling and obscure than the rest of his life. Why did he retire from the stage in 1612, when he was just 48, and leave London for Stratford? How did his wife, Anne, receive him when he returned home? And then there’s his last will and testament. Why did he leave most of his property to elder daughter Susanna? Why did younger daughter Judith receive so little? Why did Anne inherit, infamously, her husband’s “second best bed’’? And why is his signature on the will such a scrawl? All that and more is addressed in Robert Brustein’s new play “The Last Will,’’ which Suffolk University and Commonwealth Shakespeare Company are staging in a world-premiere production at the Modern Theatre.
CSC, best known for its summer productions of Shakespeare on Boston Common, is making its indoor debut with “The Last Will,’’ which is the final installment of Brustein’s Shakespeare trilogy, following “The English Channel’’ (the Bard’s affair with the Dark Lady of the sonnets) and “Mortal Terror’’ (King James I, “Macbeth,’’ and the Gunpowder Plot).
The set at the Modern, designed by Eric Levenson, is a three-level affair made of metal. CSC artistic director Steven Maler says it “feels like a deconstructed Globe Theatre.’’ And that’s appropriate for what Maler calls “a dream play, a memory play. It all could take place in three minutes inside Shakespeare’s head in the last moments of his life.’’
But the play is also, to a degree, historical. “You don’t alter the facts,’’ says Brustein, 85, who founded both the American Repertory Theater and Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, and is now a distinguished scholar in residence at Suffolk University. “You use the facts, and then you speculate on top of them, to a certain extent. I have speculated based on what Shakespeare says in his plays and what he says in his poems.’’
In his 2009 book, “The Tainted Muse,’’ Brustein adds, he made the case that “there are certain urgent issues that came up over and over in Shakespeare’s plays — for example, infidelity on the part of wives. And even if they proved not to be true, as in the case of ‘The Winter’s Tale,’ these issues were repeated so often, and with such fervency, that they came out of something real in Shakespeare’s life. Especially the sonnets with regard to the Dark Lady. So I found certain things like that throughout the plays and assumed that they happened in Shakespeare’s life and speculated about how.’’
In “The Last Will,’’ Brustein speculates that Will Shakespeare (Allyn Burrows), having returned home to Stratford and to Anne (Brooke Adams), emulates Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale’’ by entertaining doubts about the legitimacy of his twins, Hamnet, who died in 1596, and Judith (Stacy Fischer). Anne’s handkerchief, discovered in suspect circumstances, recalls Desdemona and the jealousy of her husband, Othello. The play also echoes, darkly, “King Lear,’’ as Will tries to decide which of his surviving offspring — Judith, who wants to marry a man he doesn’t approve of, or Susanna (Merritt Janson) — loves him most. He’s getting advice from one of his greatest actors, Richard Burbage (Jeremiah Kissel), who wants him to come back to London, and from his attorney, Francis Collins (Billy Meleady), who is executing the Bard’s last will.
But Will himself isn’t necessarily of sound mind. “In the sonnets he talks about having contracted syphilis from the Dark Lady,’’ says Brustein. “And I simply assumed that syphilis had run its course and become paresis by the end of his life, which is a deterioration of the brain, and that he was going mad and confusing himself with his own plays. And in fact that was the truth. He often confused himself with his own plays, because he wrote out of his life, as I believe.’’
So what was Shakespeare’s life like with Anne? “The notion that Shakespeare left his wife the second-best bed has always puzzled people and alerted them to something going on in that marriage,’’ Brustein explains. “Plus the fact that he was eight years younger than she was and that he married her because of an unwanted pregnancy.’’
In “The Last Will,’’ he says, “It’s a relationship that is mended as the play goes on. He gradually reaches a reconciliation with her, which is what he’s been after. But he then unfortunately falls victim to his disease. There’s a love story in there all right. It’s complicated, like most love stories.’’
That’s how Adams sees it. Unlike the rest of the cast, she has no experience of acting Shakespeare. “Absolutely none,’’ she says. “I got very nervous when I discovered I was going to have to actually say part of a Shakespeare sonnet. I just always thought it seemed incredibly daunting to have to do that. But this turns out to be just a play about people.
“I had done a reading of ‘The Last Will’ at the Vineyard Playhouse in Martha’s Vineyard, where I have a house,’’ says Adams, who is married to Tony Shalhoub, one of Brustein’s students at Yale and later an ART company member. “I usually do readings there for Bob, or for other people, and so Bob asked me to do it here.’’
Her character was also a new experience. “I knew nothing about Anne Hathaway,’’ she acknowledges, “but I’m not as embarrassed to say that as I would have been before I read all the books that I’ve now read, because there is very little to know about her.
“I just finished reading Germaine Greer’s ‘Shakespeare’s Wife,’ ’’ she continues. “It seemed as plausible as anything else. Greer is such a scholar and a research person that you get an incredible picture of the world they lived in. She points out that, with as little information as we have on Anne, why every Bardite scholar has decided to make her this villainous character, it smacks a little of misogyny. From what she puts together, and I think it makes a lot of sense, they probably had a pretty good relationship in the beginning, and she may have been much more understanding about his having to go off and work and was probably managing independently, selling malt and possibly doing some haberdasher kind of work.’’
Maler articulates a similar view of the relationship between Shakespeare and his wife. “Many people assume that it was a bad marriage and they were always unhappy and that he ran away to London and abandoned his family,’’ he says. “But there’s no real reason to assume that to be the case. And though it’s become part of the lore of Shakespeare biographers, I think we’ve found that there’s something very loving and warm and generous in the relationship. Certainly there are problems. In Bob’s imagining, the final stages of Will’s life were plagued by mental deterioration, his paranoia about Anne’s fidelity to him. And part of the journey of the play is his coming to terms with that and realizing that what he thought of her is not what she was, and that they reconnect with what initially brought them together.’’
So does Brustein think of “The Last Will’’ as the likeliest scenario of Shakespeare’s final years? “I see it as one of the scenarios,’’ he says. “No, I didn’t invent anything that couldn’t have happened. I think it all could have happened, and I dreamt a lot of it, so I assume it did happen!’’