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Investigating Shakespeare's Hidden Catholicism

12/22/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

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Clare Asquith on the Bard's Faith and Coded Works

LONDON, DEC. 22, 2005 (Zenit) - As the wife of a British diplomat posted in Moscow during the Cold War, Clare Asquith witnessed firsthand how double-entendres in Soviet theater communicated secret meanings to audiences.

Her experience in Moscow opened her eyes to underlying messages in the plays and poems of William Shakespeare, who Asquith believes was a covert Roman Catholic in the days of Protestant Elizabethan England.

Asquith, author of "Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare", shared with us her evidence of the Bard's Catholicism and the possible meaning behind his famous words.

Q: What are the main reasons you believe Shakespeare was a Catholic? Why do you think this is noteworthy?

Asquith: One reason, often overlooked, is that it was statistically more likely that Shakespeare was a Catholic than otherwise.

Until recently it was widely assumed that Catholicism was a dwindling sect in Shakespeare's day. But the recent "revisionist" history of the period stresses the fact that in spite of persecution, most of the country was either overtly or secretly Catholic up to 1600.

And among the intelligentsia who opposed the Cecils -- Elizabeth's powerful advisers -- covert Catholicism was respectable, indeed fashionable, in the 1590s.

Outwardly "Protestant" Elizabethan figures such as Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Penelope Rich and the Queen's witty godson, John Harrington, all expressed private sympathy with the undercover priests who were bringing a revived form of Counter-Reformation Catholicism to England. The attitudes and themes of Shakespeare's work suggest that one of his primary aims was to address the concerns of sophisticated, disaffected courtiers like these.

Secondly, recent biographers have explored the full, often startling extent of Shakespeare's Catholic background, a fact discreetly sidelined for centuries by a predominantly Protestant academic establishment in England.

Finally, in an age when anti-papist jibes were a sure way to get your work past the censor, Shakespeare makes emphatic use of the idiom of the old religion, treating it with insight, delicacy and respect. "He died a papist," remembered one Anglican divine, who had no reason to invent such an unpalatable biographical detail.

Shakespeare's Catholicism and its necessary concealment should not be surprising: More surprising is the fact that it has been ignored for so long.

Q: What is the main evidence for your claim? How has your theory fared among prominent Shakespeare scholars?

Asquith: My claim is that there was only one way to get the forbidden concerns of covert Catholics onto the stage or into print, and that was by using a commonly understood subversive language. This occurred in Soviet Eastern Europe, a parallel I explore in my book.

Shakespeare's period was the golden age of double meanings, an era when the many-layered symbolism of medieval art met the allegorical wealth of the Renaissance. Examined in the light of the recently revised history, the highly ornamental literature of late 16th-century England reveals a mass of hidden allusions to the proscribed subjects of contemporary religion and politics.

To take a single example, the immense popularity of Thomas Kyd's play, "The Spanish Tragedy," has always puzzled scholars. It is only now that we can begin to detect in this shocking tragedy a moving and powerful dramatization of the central concern of English Catholics: How should the virtuous man react to intolerable injury when all recourse to justice is denied?

But it seems that scholars are not yet ready to align the literature of the day with the revised history of 16th-century England. So far, the theory that all this was going on in the work of any Elizabethan writer, let alone the works of Shakespeare, interests many English academics, but has been dismissed by leading Shakespeare scholars such as Stanley Wells and Ann Barton.

Q: What sort of methods did Shakespeare use to communicate Catholic ideas in his plays? Why did he need to speak in coded language?

Asquith: I contend that Shakespeare began to write when this form of coded communication was well established, and that it was an art form he perfected. Like his contemporaries -- and not unlike modern political cartoonists -- the technique involved the personification of abstractions as living people, and the re-application of myths and legends to contemporary events.

This was commonplace in Renaissance and medieval iconography. But Shakespeare's universal layer is so brilliant that it conceals his "shadow play" from all but the cognoscenti.

Unlike other writers, who often relied on deniable parallels, he used a rigorously accurate set of coded ...

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1 - 1 of 1 Comments

  1. Kim Core
    5 years ago

    it's a shame you didn't show hard facts like Mr WH is Walter Ralegh (in the middle is altar rale) and the hidden key (Sonnet LII) is in George Herbert's poem, Jordan etc Kim Core

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