Papist Plots

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


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).

Shakespeare was famously private about his life and habits -- as were many Catholics anxious to conceal their recusancy and attendance at illegal masses. But does that suggest he was Catholic? Asquith points out that most Elizabethans were, up until the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The line was a murky Neverland -- some "Catholics" hid priests, risking their lives; others complied publicly, merely remaining "Catholic" at heart. Catholic playwrights took huge chances, dropping hints and references in their scripts. Asquith isn't the first to fish in these waters, of course. Scholars have been poring over Shakespeare's plays for decades, trying to find clues about his attitude towards his times.

But Asquith is no nitpicking professor. She's not afraid to wing it. By taking unscholarly chances, she may have unlocked a door. We may have been looking at the plays with a microscope, hunting for political comment in the odd line or two, when what we really needed was a wide-angle lens.

For example, in "King Lear," two sisters, motivated by material gain, falsely promise that they will give all their love to their father. Their honest sister is exiled for saying she must divide her love for her father with the obedience she will owe her husband. Significantly, religious dissidents at that time were refusing to pledge fealty to King James over their faith and the pope. Similarly, when Elizabethan audiences watched Laertes protest the brief obsequies given his sister Ophelia, they knew that Catholics were furtively burying their loved ones with the old rites, while publicly holding fake burials with the "maimed rites." Violent quarrels sometimes erupted in churches, and zealous Protestants exhumed bodies in the night.

That said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and some of Asquith's "markers" are farfetched. It's possible, as she suggests, that Shakespeare's tall, fair heroines represent the Catholic ideals, and the short, swarthy ones represent Protestant principles. But it's even more likely that Shakespeare really did have a dark mistress who influenced his poems and plays. And likely, too, that he was acknowledging contemporary fashions and pandering to a fair, redheaded (and notoriously vain) queen. Such sweeping conjectures detract from the merits of Shadowplay .

Asquith claims that Shakespeare did not retire quietly to Stratford in 1610 -- he was silenced. She links his sudden disappearance with the shockwaves created by the assassination of Henry IV of France. That king was a champion of tolerance who was murdered by a mad friar. Within a few years, all the major playwrights of the time had quit the theater, with the noteworthy exception of Ben Jonson, who publicly renounced Catholicism in 1610. They drifted back in the 1620s, but by that time, Shakespeare was dead -- and England was irrevocably Protestant.

Asquith smashes the familiar icon of Shakespeare as a determined conformist who brilliantly skated the political thin ice that cracked under his less skillful countrymen. Her Shakespeare is darker and more complex -- a tormented dissident who died in defeat. Asquith is far from alone in her conjectures. The portrait that is emerging shows that Shakespeare was a hero as magnificent as any he created. ยท

Cynthia Haven writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, and the Times Literary Supplement of London. "Peter Dale in Conversation with Cynthia Haven" was published this spring in London.

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