Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare
by Clare Asquith. 2005, 348 pages, Public Affairs Books
This fascinating book stems from a premise that, whether you accept it or not, will color your appreciation of it: William Shakespeare was a Catholic, and encoded Catholic political protests against the Elizabethan and Jacobin regimes into his plays. Asquith certainly makes her case well, but there's one problem: She never actually proves that Shakespeare was Catholic. She finds some evidence of it, but by failing to adequately convince the reader of that one fact, she calls into question the entire book. That's a shame, because it's a very readable, extremely interesting book, one that explains a lot about Shakespeare's more difficult plays and why he retired at the peak of his powers.
Asquith looks at the plays in chronological order and how they might have been informed by the politics of the day. She begins by pointing out that Elizabeth's England, far from being the Golden Age many historians painted it as, was actually a police state, with the dominant Protestants suppressing any and all dissent, including the Catholic resistance. There is plenty of evidence for this - the Northern Rebellion in 1569 was a Catholic one, while Guy Fawkes in 1605 shows the continual dissatisfaction once James took over. The fact that Sir Francis Walsingham and William Cecil rose so high in the Elizabethan government as spymasters also shows that Elizabeth had plenty of enemies (real or imagined). According to Asquith, Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, and this gives his plays a new layer of meaning that makes them easier to understand. She makes this conclusion by very inconclusive means, by pointing out Catholic activity in the area of Stratford when he was young, among other things. It's all circumstantial, and therefore not as compelling as one would hope. Asquith is stronger when she examines the literary culture of late sixteenth-century England, as she makes connections between Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, and Ben Jonson - all more obvious Catholics than the Bard. She also gets into the coding of all Elizabethan literature - again, she's on firmer ground here. Then she examines the plays. She claims that Shakespeare used easily identifiable markers for Catholics and Protestants - "light" and "dark," "high" and "low," for instance, which don't necessarily mean good and bad, as she points out - and dozens of other codes to show that he was speaking out, the only way he knew how, against the draconian measures of the Crown.
Where she shines is explaining the most problematic plays, such as Titus Andronicus
, which has always been kind of a bizarre "horror movie" in the Shakespearean canon. Written in 1594, Titus
has often puzzled critics - "How could Shakespeare have written such a terrible play?" Asquith writes is the usual reaction. She points out, though, that the play was written in the aftermath of the death of Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, a Catholic hero. Even though his death is usually attributed to Jesuits (it's largely assumed he was poisoned), Asquith points out that the Cecil family benefited greatly from his death. Lord Strange was a great patron of the arts and was probably Shakespeare's early in his career. Asquith sees Titus Andronicus
as an angry reaction to Strange's death, and she goes about proving it. As an allegory, Titus Andronicus
is a history of Reformation England, with Titus standing in as the old Catholic order who loses control over his life when he foolishly gives up the throne (and power) to the wrong brother. According to Asquith, Shakespeare uses this allegory quite often - Lear is an example of the old Catholic order, for instance, as is Prospero, with the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand representing Shakespeare's hope that the old religion could be reconciled with the new - and uses characters to represent other stages of the transformation of England from a Catholic to a Protestant country. When viewed through the lens of Shakespeare's anger over the murder of Lord Strange, Titus Andronicus
makes more sense. At least it does to Asquith.
She also explains Shakespeare's later plays, the ones that came after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (a reaction to which she also sees in the plays Antony and Cleopatra
). Why, when Shakespeare was capable of writing great comedies and
tragedies (1599-1606 saw the completion of Twelfth Night
, Measure for Measure
, King Lear
, and Macbeth
- among others
) did he shift, in 1608, to writing "fairy-tales," as Asquith puts it (page 239). Her explanation is that after the Gunpowder Plot, James I began to move away from the brief mood of reconciliation with Catholics that accompanied his accession (if indeed he had ever been sympathetic to Catholics, he certainly wasn't after the conspirators tried to kill him), so Shakespeare and other writers stopped appealing to him. Instead, they turned their attention to the heir to the throne, Henry (1594-1612). As Henry was a 14-year-old, Shakespeare deliberately wrote "romances" that would appeal to the heir's sense of adventure while still subliminally influencing him to support the Catholic cause. Hence, in the years 1608-1612 (when the prince died of typhoid fever), Shakespeare wrote Pericles
, The Winter's Tale
, and The Tempest
. Asquith makes the point that these plays, although more simplistic (at least the first three) than his earlier plays, continue his propaganda campaign, just geared toward a different, younger audience.
Finally, Asquith explains why, in 1610, Shakespeare left London and returned to Stratford, basically retiring. He was only 45 years old and seemed to be at the height of his powers, but he completed only one more play (The Tempest
) and simply appeared to give up on theater. She goes briefly over Henry VIII
and The Two Noble Kinsman
, his final two plays that were basically written by John Fletcher from amorphous Shakespeare plots, and shows how Henry VIII
, especially, is blatant Protestant propaganda that doesn't fit at all into the rest of Shakespeare's output. Her explanation is that the assassination of Henry IV of France in 1610 by a deranged friar confirmed James's fears that Catholics couldn't be trusted. The English king therefore started cracking down harder on Catholics, and many prominent ones were forced deeper into hiding. Asquith points out that many other playwrights dropped out of society at this time, and the one who didn't, Ben Jonson, publicly repudiated Catholicism. She also claims that when Shakespeare's first folio was published, in 1623, there was a loosening of the restrictions on Catholics and many who had fled in 1610 came back. It was, of course, too late for Shakespeare, who died in 1616.
The reason these hidden messages in Shakespeare's work have remained so for 400 years, Asquith argues, is because historians were unwilling to tarnish the reputation of religious tolerance that has become a hallmark of Elizabeth's reign. Even after years of scholarship on Elizabeth's secret police and the somewhat shocking lengths Walsingham and Cecil would go to root out supposed conspiracies against the queen, many historians still wanted to believe this was a fringe element and that the majority of the populace embraced Protestantism. This is a silly fairy tale in its own right, but it also forms the bedrock of English character in many respects, so it's plausible that Asquith is onto something. Her argument is that many more people were Catholics into the seventeenth century but that has never been acknowledged, and we need to examine the time period with fresh eyes and understand what the culture was saying about the monarchy.
On the one hand, this is a very interesting book. It's always been a bit vexing, to me at least, that Shakespeare never seemed to be all that political in his writings, especially given what we know about other playwrights (Marlowe and Kyd, especially), who were very political. So this book is a fascinating look at someone who, according to Asquith, was very good at being political and very good at hiding it enough so he wouldn't get in trouble with the authorities. However, it often feels like she's reaching. As I pointed out above, the evidence that Shakespeare was Catholic is very circumstantial, and the fact that he wrote a terrible play - Titus Andronicus
- might have had to do with an attempt to produce a "blockbuster" and appeal to the fascination with sex and violence that people of all times have. Christopher Marlowe, who died around the time Shakespeare began working on Titus, was more of a crowd-pleaser in those early days, as many of his plays fit into a Jerry Bruckheimer kind of mode - Tamburlaine
(for which he even wrote a sequel!) and The Massacre at Paris
, for instance. Maybe Shakespeare was just trying to "sell out" early in his career. Asquith's arguments, while compelling, often come across as determining a thesis and then looking for messages that fit the thesis while ignoring everything else. I'm no Shakespeare scholar, so I don't know if her thesis has made any inroads with them, but while it's a very interesting book, I'm not sure how reliable her conclusions are.
Still, if you've ever read and enjoyed Shakespeare, you might want to check this out. Asquith writes very well, and although she often beats us over the head with her interpretations (another
allegory for the history of England? really?), she keeps things moving and does a nice job looking at the context for Shakespeare's plays, something most people ignore. It's definitely a cool book to read.
Labels: History, Religion, Theater, What I've been reading, William Shakespeare