Clare Asquith lays bare the hidden Catholic symbolism in Shakespeare’s plays in this astonishing and invaluable book, says Robert Gray Shadow Play: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare by Clare Asquith, Public Affairs £18.99 This is one of the most astonishing and original books ever written about Shakespeare. For it is Clare Asquith’s contention that his plays are penetrated with coded allusions to the plight of English Catholics under Elizabeth I and James I, and with messages of instruction, encouragement and warning to those who were suffering under the persecution. The thesis is the more startling for being argued with profound scholarship, unfailing resource and steady, imperturbable brilliance.
Moreover Clare Asquith has built on solid foundations. The notion that Shakespeare was a Catholic, or at the very least had Catholic sympathies, was mooted in the 18th century, then sternly repressed by patriotic Victorians (Cardinal Newman excepted), before acquiring over the last 50 years almost the status of an orthodoxy.
At the same time, Catholic historians have destroyed the Protestant myth of Good Queen Bess’s golden days, presenting a counter-portrait of Elizabethan government as a Stalinist regime run by grasping men bent on eradicating the old faith in England. If no more than 320-odd Catholics were executed on purely religious grounds during Elizabeth’s reign, perhaps as many as 30,000 were forced into exile, while countless others died in prison or were ruined by recusancy fines.
Nevertheless, as Eamon Duffy showed in The Stripping of the Altars, the English people remained overwhelmingly Catholic in sentiment. For Clare Asquith, as doubtless for readers of The Catholic Herald, it is axiomatic that the Reformation was an unmitigated catastrophe; that under Elizabeth the national Church offered scant spiritual comfort; and that the Queen’s ministers – chiefly William and Robert Cecil – were vicious Machiavellian operators capable of any villainy in their determination to destroy the traditional sacramental religion.
Clare Asquith first became aware of the possibilities of theatre as a medium of resistance when she attended a dramatisation of Chekhov’s short stories in Moscow in 1983. Under the cover of an attack on capitalism the actors succeeded in concealing from the inevitable KGB presence – but not from the rest of the audience – their message that the real hope for Russia lay in the West. A mind outraged by the wrongs meted out to English Catholics in the 16th century was not slow to appreciate how Shakespeare might have employed the same technique.
Why, for example, should the early tragedy Titus Andronicus, a play set in ancient Rome, describe a Moor cradling a half-caste child beside a ruined monastery? And why, in this supposedly pre-Christian era, should the Moor express his confidence in a Roman commander in these words?
...for I know thou art religious.
And hast a thing within thee called conscience.
With twenty popish tricks and ceremonies, Which I have seen thee careful to observe...
The very improbability of the brutal surface plot of Titus Andronicus increases the possibility that it serves as a cover for Shakespeare’s deeper intent. Clare Asquith points out that Queen Elizabeth called Francis Walsingham her “Moor”, and that another unsavoury character in the play bears the name Saturnius, which the Queen applied to William Cecil. As for the halfcaste infant, the love child of the Moor and the wicked Queen Tamora, hardly less superfluous to the plot than the anachronistic monastery, might he not suggest the compromise national church that Elizabeth and her ministers had created?
Equally, Clare Asquith discerns in Titus’s daughter Lavinia, who suffers rape, the lopping off of her arms, and the excision of her tongue “a clear personification of England’s despoiled soul”. Titus’s vow to revenge her, however, leads to a general bloodbath, as if warning that any attempt on the part of Catholics to right their wrongs by the sword would only worsen their plight.
Turning to another early play, consider the psychological anomaly at the end of The Taming of the Shrew when the termagant Katharine suddenly emerges as a meek and submissive wife. But what if Katharine in fact represents the new Protestant religion, and the rumbustious Petruchio (“Peter”) is interpreted as the embodiment of pre-Reformation Catholicism? “Here she stands,” Petruchio announces at their wedding, in reference, Clare Asquith believes, to Luther’s celebrated declaration “Here I stand” at the Diet of Worms. And Petruchio’s senseless order that Katharine should call the sun the moon appears senseless no longer when it is recalled that the calculation of time in Protestant England was “out of joint” with Pope Gregory XIII’s calendar, adopted by the rest of Europe in 1582.
Such sketchy instances do no justice to the cumulative effect of Clare Asquith’s arguments as, with clarity and precision, she relates each play to the contemporary religious background. She discovers Shakespeare’s reaction to the persecutions of the 1590s (Romeo and Juliet, Richard II; Richard III); lays bare his increasingly desperate appeals to the Queen for toleration (Love’s Labour Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night); explores his quest for a viable Catholic identity in England (Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Hamlet); and discerns his disillusionment at the failure of Essex’s rebellion (Troilus and Cressida).
In Measure for Measure, Othello and King Lear Clare Asquith uncovers Shakespeare’s pleas that James I, under whom Catholic hopes for toleration were so brutally disappointed, should throw off the influence of Robert Cecil; Macbeth, she believes, reflects his horror at the Gunpowder Plot, while Antony and Cleopatra is seen as a desperate glamorisation of an apparently lost cause. Finally, in her commentary on the last romances, she disinters Shakespeare’s hope that James I’s son, Prince Henry, might at last reconcile Catholicism with the English state.
Clare Asquith shows how Shakespeare continually uses markers to alert his audience to the religious allegory. Adjectives such as “fair”, “high”, “tall” and “old” indicate Catholicism; “dark”, “short”, and “precise” are attached to Protestant figures. “Tempest” becomes a metaphor for the upheaval of the Reformation. The moon represents Queen Elizabeth; fens or bogs are associated with Protestant reform.
As Shakespeare matured, Clare Asquith holds, he became increasingly adept at weaving his coded agenda seamlessly into the plots of his plays. Yet, she argues, it was precisely because he was so passionately involved in the contemporary crisis that his writing gained such power. “His characters are real because they represent real people,” Clare Asquith believes; “his writings are numinous because they draw on the thought, language and imagery of Christian humanism.” So we discover that Shakespeare’s poem The Phoenix and the Turtle recalls the martyr Robert Southwell’s translations of the hymns of Aquinas. The porter’s speech in Macbeth, with its apparently slighting reference to the Jesuit Henry Garnet who “could not equivocate to heaven” after the Gunpowder Plot, becomes, in Clare Asquith’s interpretation, a promise of redemption garnered from the Harrowing of Hell in the mediaeval mystery cycles. And, in a passage in which Shakespeare’s radiance seems to spill over into Clare Asquith’s own writing, she identifies the sublime last act of The Merchant of Venice – “On such a night as this...” with the Easter liturgy of the Catholic Church: Hoc Nox Est.
The argument is all the more exciting because Clare Asquith eschews the caution of academe. She possesses both the imagination to form ideas, and the courage to deploy them. To turn devil’s advocate, however, those who approach Shakespeare’s plays with preconceived ideas invariably find the proof for which they are searching. Had the author been an Anglican, for instance, she could have pointed to the many references to the Geneva Bible and the Book of Common Prayer to be found in the plays.
Inevitably, then, sceptics will remain unconvinced. Reading Clare Asquith’s book it sometimes seems as if Shakespeare had miraculously obtained access to Catholic revisionist history of the late 20th century.
Return to the Elizabethan and Jacobean age, however, and it is by no means clear either what Shakespeare’s Catholic codes were aiming to achieve, or whether they would have been understood by his audience. We are asked to believe that Shakespeare expected the exquisites at court (never mind the groundlings) to unravel in the course of one or two performances meanings that have escaped the most laborious literary experts these last 400 years. The difficulty becomes more acute when we remember that, whereas today’s scholars reverently approach a literary giant, Shakespeare’s contemporaries attended his plays simply in the hope of a few hours’ entertainment.
The possibility remains that Shakespeare was writing in the spirit of Horatio at the end of Hamlet, anxious to explain “to the yet unknowing world / How these things came about”. He knew that history is written by the victors, and no doubt feared that the fate of Catholic England would be drowned deeper than did ever plummet sound – as indeed has been the case over the last 400 years. Or was his purpose simply to “cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff / Which weighs upon the heart”?
In the last analysis Clare Asquith’s argument, so generously conceived in faith, can only be fully received by faith. Even sceptics, though, will be left in no doubt but that a wealth of Catholic ideas was floating around in the vast lumber-room of Shakespeare’s mind. They will also discover a multitude of intriguing possibilities – that Jaques in As You Like It is a reflection of Ben Jonson; that the character of Hamlet derives from that of Sir Philip Sidney; that Paulina in The Winter’s Tale represents the redoubtable Catholic matriarch Lady Magdalen Montague.
At the end of the book we are presented with a portrait of Shakespeare banished to Stratford, while (Clare Asquith believes) John Fletcher put out Protestant propaganda under his name in Henry VIII. Ben Jonson, for his part, paints a melancholy portrait of his friend’s despair in his pastoral The Sad Shepherd.
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” By bringing Shakespeare’s evanescence into such sharp historical focus, Clare Asquith has produced a wonderfully stimulating read. And if her faith really has penetrated the poet’s reality, this is not merely one of the most astonishing, but also one of the most important books ever written about his plays.