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Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded…

Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (2005)

by Clare Asquith

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Subtitled “The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare”. “Secret language” theories are popular right now, and this would not be the strangest I’ve ever read (that would have to be a tie between the suggestion that Alice in Wonderland is actually the secret sex diary of Queen Victoria and the proposal that the Gospels were actually written in Polynesian.) The basic premise in this book is that William Shakespeare was a crypto-Catholic, and that the plays, sonnets, and other poems contain all sorts of hidden references to Catholicism that would have been understood and appreciated by contemporaries. To elaborate, author Clare Asquith proposes the following:

* Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Church was entirely from above; the bulk of the English populace remained at least internally Catholic. This caused a “spiritual crisis” among the English people, who longed to return to their familiar religious rituals.

* The Cecil family set up what was essentially a police state during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, with a highly efficient security apparatus designed to suppress Catholicism. Elizabeth and James were more or less figureheads in a government run by the Cecils.

* Shakespeare’s “coded” language was originally addressed to a small group of Catholic nobles. As time went on, the plays were addressed to Elizabeth, then to James, and finally to Prince Henry, the heir apparent, as pleas for more tolerance for Catholics. The language was deliberately obscure to evade censorship.

I confess I only have an amateur’s interest in both Shakespeare and English history. This book has rave jacket reviews from some respected sources - the Washington Post, Commonweal, The Spectator - and Ms. Asquith has done some pretty serious scholarship. I could be wrong, but I don’t find any of the arguments very convincing.

For point one, I don’t see a lot of evidence for the Dissolution being unpopular with the general populace. Asquith seems to play fairly loose with her terminology here, repeatedly referring to the Dissolution as “The Reformation” and to the English non-Catholics as “Lutherans” and/or “Puritans”. I’m not sure any of these usages are correct for the time under discussion. As for popular resistance, there were some uprisings against Elizabeth, but there had been various disturbances of one sort or another throughout previous English history. Most of them seem to be more political than religious. As for there being a “spiritual crisis” - a phrase used repeatedly in this book - everything else I’ve read seems to show the English people were no less happy with their spiritual life during late Tudor and early Stuart time than at other times in history.

For point two, I’ve never heard anybody seriously suggest that Elizabeth I was not in charge of her own government. Maybe I’m wrong; perhaps the Cecil’s highly efficient propaganda apparatus was able to make it look this way and nobody else has figured it out before. Asquith suggests that later historians destroyed, forged or stole documents that support her theory. Well, I suppose that’s possible, but it seems a little convenient.

For point three, Asquith describes a lot of the “code words” and concepts that Shakespeare supposedly uses. For example, characters that are “tall” and “fair” are supposed to represent Catholicism, while those that are short and dark are Protestant. Thus, Bianca in Taming of the Shrew, Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream represent Catholicism while Kate, Sylvia and Hermia are Protestant. (Note that “representing” Catholicism or Protestantism is not meant to imply that the character is Protestant or Catholic). Comments on time (“The time is out of joint”) are supposed to mean the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. Puns on “moor” or “more” are supposed to refer to the Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More, and puns on “right” are supposed to be about church “rites”. Like any good conspiracy theory, there are quotes here that make you want to headslap yourself and say “Of course! How could I not have seen that!” But, like any conspiracy theory, it’s almost all tautology; there’s such a volume of work by Shakespeare that once you assume coded messages, it’s pretty easy to find them.

I did find this an interesting read; I certainly want to learn more about Tudor politics. There are some spooky coincidences - for example, shortly before the first performance of Twelfth Night, which features Duke Orsino of Illyria, Don Orsini of Italy visited Elizabeth’s court. A clever appeal for Italian support to English Catholics, or just not enough character names to go around? I find it perfectly reasonable that there are topical references in Shakespeare - some of them depending on the appearance and actions of the players, which are now probably lost forever. When Shakespeare does include explicitly Catholic characters in the plays - Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, for example - they’re usually shown with some sympathy. However, I find it telling that none of Shakespeare’s contemporaries or near-contemporaries seem to have figured out all this “coded language” enough to comment on it - and this would include English Catholic exiles on the Continent, out of reach of the supposed Cecil police state, and various rival playwrights, who would presumably want Shakespeare out of the way. Overall, the lady doth protest too much, methinks. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 19, 2017 |
This book is another "keeper". What an eye opening experience to read about the complexities of the Bard's works and to gain insight into Elizabeth's reign and the Reformation. It inspired me to begin reading more about the Reformation and I will read more about Elizabeth. ( )
  dellena | Jul 19, 2007 |
Shakespeare's plays take on a deeper level of meaning when 'decoded' to reveal topical commentary on the tumultuous political/religious history of Elizabethan England. An enlightening and delightful eye-opener.

Read the Full Review here: http://www.epinions.com/content_284012154500 ( )
  jc_hall | Mar 7, 2007 |
This fascinating book has completely changed the way I read Shakespeare. I'm not a literature student or an historian, so I can't profess to have had a very deep understanding of Shakespeare to start with; but this intriguing new perspective adds a political dimension to the plays and sonnets that I was completely unaware of before. This is a very rewarding read; it really does leave you wanting to pick up your Complete Works and start from scratch! ( )
  DLSmithies | Oct 26, 2006 |
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"In sixteenth-century England many loyal subjects to the crown were asked to make a terrible choice: serve their monarch or their God. The schism between the Crown and the Catholic Church had widened from a theological dispute in the reign of Henry VIII to bitter political conflict under Elizabeth I. It was also the era of the greatest creative genius the world has ever known: William Shakespeare. How, then, was it possible that such a remarkable man born into such violently volatile times should apparently make no comment about the state of England in his work? He did. But it was hidden." "Clare Asquith traces the common code used covertly by dissident writers in the sixteenth century to discuss the tribulations of their time, and reveals that the acknowledged master of this forgotten art form was William Shakespeare. Constantly attacking and exposing a regime that he believed had seized illegal control of the country he loved, Shakespeare's work, seen from this new perspective, offers a revelatory insight into the politics and personalities of his era."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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