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Volume 44, Number 4 (Fall 2006)

Plucking Out the Heart of Shakespeare’s Mystery

Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare
by Claire Asquith.
Public Affairs (New York), xviii + 348 pp., $26.00, cloth, 2005.

R. V. Young

book cover imageWith the publication of Shadowplay, Clare Asquith joins the growing number of scholars who maintain not merely that Shakespeare was a Catholic, but that his Catholic Recusancy shaped his career as a poet and dramatist to such an extent that his works may be read as an encoded account of the tribulations and dissident activities of the English Recusant community during the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period. Asquith seeks to overturn Shakespeare’s image as “a writer so outstanding that the politics of his time are irrelevant, even distracting.” “Instead of diminishing Shakespeare’s work,” she maintains, “awareness of the shadowed language deepens it, adding a cutting edge of contemporary reference to the famously universal plays and giving them an often acutely poignant hidden context.” It is important to observe that two bold but distinct claims are being made here. One is historical or biographical: Shakespeare did not just grow up in a Catholic household and retain sympathy for the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church; rather he was a faithful, practicing Catholic whose beliefs are manifest in his works and crucial to their interpretation. The second claim implies a theory about the nature and function of literature: namely, the personal beliefs and immediate practical goals of a writer are determining factors in the meaning and value of his works.

The historical claim is, finally, a matter of fact, and, while I find it, in some ways, both attractive and persuasive, it does not seem to me that the available evidence justifies Asquith’s level of confidence, and it is unlikely sufficient evidence will ever exist to make the matter incontrovertible. To be sure, most scholars have for quite some time accepted the authenticity of the Catholic “Spiritual Last Will and Testament” of the poet’s father, John Shakespeare (even though the original document, first discovered late in the eighteenth century, has disappeared and exists only in a transcript), and it has come to seem far more plausible that his citations for Recusancy actually resulted from his religion rather than a fear of meeting creditors at the services of the Church of England. A series of Recusant schoolmasters at the grammar school in Stratford upon Avon, when Shakespeare was probably a student there, is also suggestive. Similarly, E. A. J. Honigman makes a plausible case that the William Shakeshafte who served as a teacher and actor in the household of the Catholic Recusant, Sir Alexander Hoghton of Lea in the Lancashire countryside during the “lost years” was the famous playwright. Finally, a new book in German by Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel reports the discovery of the entry in the Pilgrims’ Book of the English College in Rome, 16 April, 1585, of the name “Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordienses,” with subsequent similar entries in 1587 and 1589.

In addition to these tantalizing hints, there are two hostile assertions of Shakespeare’s Catholicism by seventeenth-century writers. In his History of Great Britain (1611), John Speed attacks the Jesuit, Fr. Robert Persons, under his pseudonym Nicholas Doleman because he “hath made Oldcastle a ruffian, a robber, and a rebel, and his authority, taken from the stage-players, is more befitting the pen of his slanderous report, than the credit of the judicious, being only grounded from this papist and his poet. . . .” The poet, of course, is William Shakespeare, whose Sir John Falstaff, in the first and second parts of Henry IV and in The Merry Wives of Windsor was originally called Sir John Oldcastle, a fourteenth-century proto-Protestant martyr. Late in the century Richard Davies, sometime Chaplain of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and afterwards Rector of Sapperton, wrote that Shakespeare “died a papist.”

This is fairly substantial but not decisive evidence, and Asquith adds to it little more than her arcane system of encoded meanings. She gives an account of all the plays, tying their mood and meaning to the vicissitudes of the government’s treatment of the Catholic Recusant community. In principle this procedure differs little from the old-fashioned psychological approach, which sought an explanation for the tone and theme of Shakespeare’s plays in his personal experience. After 1600, for instance, he was depressed and disillusioned for a number of years and wrote tragedies and “problem plays.” Asquith, however, presents the “problem” comedy Measure for Measure and the tragedy, Othello, written during this period not as markers of playwright’s lapse into cynicism and despair, but as political advice to the recently crowned James I to be more tolerant of Catholics. The meanings are all decipherable throughout the Shakespeare canon by resort to a set of encoded terms. “Fair” is always associated with Catholicism, “dark” with Protestantism, “high” (from high mass, high altar) with Catholicism, low with Protestantism. Thus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the conflict between the tall, fair-skinned Helena and the short, dark Hermia is an allegory of Protestant/Catholic tension. Hero, whom Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, describes as “low” and “brown” is likewise a figure for Protestantism. Cassio in Othello also manifests “Catholic attributes. Bianca [“white” in Italian], his mistress, shares her ‘fair’ name with the Catholic figure in The Taming of the Shrew.

Of course all the characters in Midsummer, are pagan Greeks, and those in Much Ado, Othello, and Taming, with their Italian settings, are Catholic, but this literal identification is irrelevant in Asquith’s elaborate and ingenious system of encoded allegory. The gap between the surface and the hidden meaning, however—even when the gap does not turn into sheer contradiction—renders her interpretive scheme problematic. What is more, the arbitrariness of method may be observed by comparing her version of Shakespeare’s secret code with the results of Richard Wilson’s Secret Shakespeare, published just a year earlier in 2004. Wilson likewise seeks to explain the Catholic meaning of Shakespeare’s plays in terms of an arcane Catholic code, but he comes up with a very different portrayal of the playwright’s religious and political commitments. Consider, for example, their divergent treatments of King Lear as an encoded treatment of the Catholic political situation at the time of the disastrous Gunpowder Plot. “On the allegorical level,” Asquith argues, “the message is clear: the destructive force of the Reformation has extinguished integrity and truth in England.” On a more detailed level, “the story of Edgar mirrors in every detail the story of the Counter-Reformation Jesuit underground mission to England.” According to Professor Wilson, to the contrary, King Lear is “significant, not only as a reflection of Shakespeare’s religious doubt but also as an image of his alienation from the Catholic patrons of his youth.” Especially in the later altered folio text, “its reticence [is] a critique of martyrdom and its despair a resistance to the resistance in which its author had been raised. Politic Shakespeare reduced King Lear, it might be said, to complete his separation from the Jesuits. . . .” But in Asquith’s eyes, “Shakespeare presents the English Jesuits not as the arch-enemy but as the country’s one reliable guide to the truth.”

As a comparison of Asquith’s version of the “Shakespeare Code” with Wilson’s suggests, interpreters who rely on an esoteric key to ferret out the hidden meanings of a text are likely to discover what they were looking for in the first place. Asquith begins her study by revealing that her interest in Shakespeare’s hidden Catholic code began when she witnessed a performance of Chekhov stories in 1983 in the Soviet Union. Soon she realized that the dramatization involved topical references critical of the Communist State; they were clear to her but too subtle and elusive for the KGB agents present to object. Now it would appear that Asquith has missed the point of her own anecdote: Chekhov’s stories were available to mount a covert critique of the horrors of the Soviet tyranny only because they were not tied inextricably to the political and social events of Czarist Russia in the nineteenth century. Shakespeare was almost certainly reared a Catholic and may well have retained close ties to the Recusant community throughout his career. It is not unlikely that “he died a papist.” It is his immersion in the Catholic vision, however, that is significant for readers and theatre audiences, because this was vital to the formation of Western Civilization. Even if Asquith’s secret Shakespeare code—or someone else’s—should prove to be true in each detail, the literary significance would be minimal. His dramatization of the human condition is what makes Shakespeare such an indispensable factor in our moral and cultural reality, not the advice—if any—that he may have offered to the King or to the Catholic Recusant community in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot.

R. V. Young is a professor of English at North Carolina State University and co-founder and co-editor of the John Donne Journal. He is the author of Doctrine and Devotion in 17th-Century Poetry, A Student’s Guide to Literature, and At War with the Word, as well as numerous essays and reviews in academic journals and magazines such as First Things, Touchstone, and The Weekly Standard.

Posted: March 18, 2007

A “conservative character [is] suspicious of doctrinaire alteration, respectful toward history, preferring variety over uniformity, acknowledging a moral order composed of human persons, not of mere political and economic atoms subservient to the state.”

Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, 1954

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