Leonie Caldecott meets a writer whose best-selling book has helped to rescue Shakespeare from centuries of propaganda
LeRast weekend marked the official launch of the oyal Shakespeare Company's ambitious project to stage all of Shakespeare's works in honour of his 442nd birthday. In the first of a year-long series of Broadside debates to accompany this progmunme, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dr Rowan Williams, spoke about the religious dimension of Shakespeare's work, dealing with the deepest, darkest aspects of human experience. "To approach this level with respect and compassion is very important," he said. "Any sense that the language of faith shrinks the world is fatal to a living religion."
This statement has some resonance for Clare Asquith, the author of Shadowplay, a study of religious concerns in Shakespeare. In February next year she will participate in a Broadside debate at Stratford, looking at the issue of Shakespeare and censorship with Suleiman Al Bassan, whose production of Richard In (recast as a type of Saddam Hussein) figures in the collected works cycle. Asquith herself unpacks a fascinating dissident subtext from Shakespeare's plays, one which addresses the suppression of religious freedom in 16th-century England.
The premise behind Shadowplay provides a radical challenge to the usual secular interpretation of Shakespeare. It draws on the work of historians such as Eamon Dully and Christopher Haigh, who have in recent years uncovered the extent of the national trauma that the Reformation unleashed in this country. Asquith was launched on her examination of this hidden or "coded" aspect of Shakespeare, not only by reading The Stripping of the Altars, but also by the experience of living in the former Soviet Union as the wife of a British diplomat.
"We had two tours of duty, one in Moscow during the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, and one in Kiev in the 1990s. as Communism was coming to an end. In the first period, we were initiated by a very knowledgeable Sovietologist into the phenomenon of dissident theatre. Writers critical of the regime would pack a subtext into their plays which the authorities could not pinpoint, but which sympathisers could pick up on if they knew the references. When we went back in the 1990s people spoke much more freely to us about this, and how those coded means of communication had helped them to cope with living under the regime.
"I began to wonder whether this had occurred in other places, at other times. I was working on Shakespeare's sonnets at the time, trying to look at the autobiographical clues in, for example, Sonnet 33, which can be read as a meditation on the death of his son. I realised that when Shakespeare is awkward in his sonnets, he is asking you to look at another level. For instance, there are a number of poems which pun on the name of a figure thought to have been his first friend and patron, Lord Strange: 'I will acquaintance strangle, and look strange', for instance, fits in with a period in the mid 1590s when Strange, who had become Lord Derby, had cut off all connection with Catholic friends, as he was under suspicion of being a crypto-Catholic himself.
"It made me wonder about Shakespeare's own allegiance, so I started looking at the plays just to make sure. To my astonishment, I came across this dear theme throughout his plays: it isn't easy to see unless you are steeped in Catholic imagery, so wouldn't be picked up by someone who didn't have that back ground. Yet once. you had the historical crib concerning the events that impacted on English Catholics at that time, many of the obscurities in the plays fall into place. It became obvious to me that Shakespeare wanted people to follow these clues."
Asquith isolates four plays which she concludes were written, at least in part, to convince Elizabeth I to foster greater toleration of her Catholic subjects. One of these is The Merchant of Venice. Having always been fascinated by this particular play, I was struck by the horizons Asquith's analysis opens up, not least the references to the Easter Vigil in the somewhat mysterious, almost redundant, final act. "In such a night" (repeated eight times, as in the liturgy), Portia's "kneeling at holy crosses", the use of candlelight and music, the nuptial theme — it all falls into place if you understand that Shakespeare was at once flattering the queen (whose favourite self-image, connecting her with the moon, is used to define Portia) and simultaneously trying to persuade her, through the power of suggestion, to open her mind to the continuing pull of the faith which was the common inheritance of her people.
While both Antonia Fraser and Piers Paul Read have applauded the close textual work in Shadowplay, David Womersley, the Thomas Wharton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, has attacked its author for attributing Catholic views to Shakespeare. "Shadowplay is perhaps best regarded as a Da Vinci Code for that subset of the credulous whose obsessions are as much literary as religious," he wrote.
"I suppose I touched a nerve," says Asquith, mildly. "I am as suspicious as the next person of wild theories about Shakespeare. But when somebody sifts new evidence in order to illuminate puzzling aspects of a writer's work, that evidence deserves consideration. The historical context of Shakespeare's period has only recently been accepted by mainstream scholars. I am simply reading the work in that context."
Having obtained a first in English from Oxford in the early 1970s, Asquith married a diplomat (her husband is the great-grandson of Herbert Asquith), and has devoted the bulk of her time to her role as wife and mother of five children. She approached her material from the point of view of an educated lay person rather than a specialist. She acknowledges her debt to writers such as John Klause, Peter Millward and John Finnis, who highlight the forgotten importance to students of literature of the religious struggles of the 16th century. On the whole Shadowplay has elicited a far more favourable reaction among American scholars than British ones. "I don't think Americans have the same vested interests in maintaining either a Protestant or a secular view of history. The notion that your religion might inform your art is less shocking to them."
One of the most fascinating topics we discussed was, in fact, the question of what the Reformation had done to British culture as a whole.
"Obviously we missed out on the great humanistic movement of the Renaissance, from a spiritual and intellectual point of view. Robert Southwell's poetry represents a last flowering of English medieval culture combined with Robert Bellarmine's Counter-Reformation spirituality. Instead, the politicisation of the spiritual in post-Reformation England brought about a widespread disillusion with the official practice of religion. Money becomes a replacement: in the late 16th century you get poems lamenting the fact that money is the new goddess of the nation. London, of course, became a great commercial centre from then on. It is as though secularism sank in, right then, as the root of our national identity.
"The best minds of the time looked to the material rather than the spiritual world. Northumberland, liunsdon and Raleigh were all fascinated by science. If you compare Bacon's writings to, say, those of Montaigne, the archetypal detached and sceptical writer, you see that the Frenchman nonetheless wrote deeply spiritual essays. With Bacon, if it is not verifiable, he is not going to talk about it. And we view Shakespeare through that same lens. We have made him the patron saint of secularism. Which is how Bacon can be thought to have written Shakespeare's plays, because they are seen as coming from that same standpoint."
According to a birthday editorial in the Telegraph. Shakespeare continues to have an influence on every aspect of British culture. No other nation is so defined by a corpus of writing, with the arguable exception of the Jews and the Torah, another work which contrives to be at once universal and particular. Far from claiming that Shakespeare's vision is reducible to the particular interests of a narrow religious group, Clare Asquith has made a powerful case for the universality, the genuinely "catholic" nature of his concerns, rooted in, yet transcending, the anguishing upheavals of his time. To understand Shakespeare this way is, she maintains, to understand something crucial about the people we have become. As Prospero sums it up in the valedictory Tempest: "And my ending is despair, unless it be relieved by prayer."
Shadowplay is published by Public Affairs at £1899 and will be released in paperback this August priced 0.99. Clare Asquith is giving a series of seminars on "Shakespeare's Secret: The Catholic Imagination in Elizabethan England ", from July 27 to August 3 at Sr Benet's Hall, Won't.