Dedication playwright Nick Dear
Dedication playwright Nick Dear
© Nobby Clark

The Earl of Southampton was a gay, cross-dressing, 20-year old aristocrat with whom Shakespeare may or may not have had an affair. He was the dedicatee of the poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. He was the only dedicatee of any of Shakespeare's work - the only time he said "this is dedicated to you". We know there was an association of some kind but exactly what is a matter of speculation.

Any playwright has a fascination with Shakespeare. I didn't like the thing that - particularly if you're making a film - you have to take a line on what happened and stick to it. I had an idea which quite excited me that I suggested to Sam Hodges [director at Nuffield Theatre], that we might try and do multiple realities. I wanted to suggest all kinds of projections and speculations based on the main attempts to explain Shakespeare's last years. I thought there was a lot of potential.

It's a structurally unusual and technically difficult play. It doesn't operate in the world where there is only one reality, but a world with multiple, layered realities. I think we've got a show that will make sense to people and also suggest many differing ways of looking at Shakespeare in terms of his biography. It's about saying to the audience: "What do you think?" I think the test of a play working well is that people go home and have a think about it. I'd love people to go home arguing about it or sit in the bar afterwards and say "you got that wrong".

Tom Rhys Harries (Earl of Southampton) and Tom McKay (William Shakespeare) in Nick Dear's Dedication
Tom Rhys Harries (Earl of Southampton) and Tom McKay (William Shakespeare) in Nick Dear's Dedication
© Luke MacGregor

I did three months of very fast research. I already knew a considerable amount about Shakespeare – all my early plays were done by the RSC in Stratford. Much more is known about the Earl of Southampton than is known about Shakespeare. It's entirely possible that they never met at all, and it's equally possible they were lovers.

It's completely normal in the Shakespeare fellowship to speculate. Academics have made careers on speculating for hundreds of years. There's been a lot of academic criticism of James Shapiro's recent book 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear saying "this is entirely speculation". But it doesn't stop people buying and enjoying it. In a situation where the facts at our disposal are very few, it's the only way to go.


Dedication runs at the Nuffield Theatre until 8 October.