Literary Criticism

Papist Plots

Reviewed by Cynthia L. Haven
Sunday, August 14, 2005

SHADOWPLAY

The Hidden Beliefs

and Coded Politics

of William Shakespeare

By Clare Asquith

PublicAffairs, 348 pp. $26.95

Few masterpieces contain as many chestnuts as Hamlet. Take this one: "The play's the thing/ Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King." With these words, Prince Hamlet welcomes a theatrical troupe whose performance will unmask adultery and regicide in the Danish court.

Aphorisms wither faster than cut flowers, but sometimes old saws reveal new truths. Long before these lines became shopworn, they hinted at Shakespeare's modus operandi: In Shadowplay , Clare Asquith argues that the bard was using the theater of his day just as Hamlet did -- to send dangerous, skillfully encoded messages to his audience and his monarch. Hence, she writes, "it took not only intellectual brilliance but exceptional courage and constancy" to create and perform the greatest plays ever written.

Asquith is surfing an intriguing new wave of research: Shakespeare, it goes, was a closet Catholic at a time when the Church was banned. And far from presiding over the Golden Age, Queen Elizabeth I was running a police state, marked by raids, seizures, imprisonment and grisly executions, where informants snitched on private citizens. The court of her successor, James I, was worse.

Shakespeare's plays, Asquith suggests, encouraged patience and perseverance among the beleaguered Catholics and urged England's rulers to curtail the frequent crackdowns and persecutions.

What we do know: Shakespeare's Stratford was a center of religious resistance to the "new religion"; his father left a written testament of his enduring Catholic faith; Shakespeare's daughter, Susannah, was a "recusant," charged with refusing to attend Protestant services. The Ardens, Shakespeare's mother's family, were staunch Catholics whose chieftain, Edward Arden, was executed for his beliefs in 1583 by the usual method (he was dragged on a hurdle behind horses, then hanged, cut down alive, disemboweled and castrated before his heart was cut out).


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