The Magazine

The Shakespeare Plot

England's greatest poet was no Ian Fleming.

Jul 18, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 41 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare
by Claire Asquith
PublicAffairs, 384 pp., $26.95

WHILE ATTENDING AN EVENING OF Chekhovian drama in Moscow some years ago, Claire Asquith experienced a revelation. The actors, she realized, were transmitting coded comment over the heads of their political minders. She found it powerfully suggestive: If Chekhov, why not Shakespeare? If 20th-century Soviet oppression, why not the oppression of Roman Catholics in the reign of Elizabeth I and her Stuart successor?

The ultimate result is this curious and contentious book, whose central claim it is that the greatest English poet, a secret and militant Catholic, encrypted his poems and plays with the aim of transmitting forbidden truths about the English Reformation. There are fine pages and passages here, so it is too bad that Asquith's stylistic prowess is unsupported by notable skills or seasoning in historical and literary analysis. In fact, this performance calls to mind the tale of the sorcerer's apprentice, the amateur magus who deploys the master's powers but finds them uncontrollable. Which is to say that there are master sorcerers in the background, notably Stephen Greenblatt, doyen of the "new historicist" school of lit crit, whose recent biography, Will in the World, is a publishing sensation. The technique of the new historicism is to conjure from texts (and other places of concealment, including thin air) a conjectural reality; and for that ever-entertaining speculative enterprise, no life is more inviting than Shakespeare's, about which we know pitifully little.

We know almost nothing, just to begin with, of where the poet was, or what he was doing, in the so-called "lost years," between the documented baptism of his twins in 1585 and his being denounced as an "upstart crow" by a rival playwright in 1592, although it is plausibly presumed that, by the late 1580s, he was beginning to make a splash as an actor and dramatist.

In the absence of reliable fact, the fallback must be guesswork; and Asquith's guesswork is ambitious and ingenious. Indeed, she is manifestly of the thin-air school of conjecture, since she focuses this book upon an aspect of the poet's life and mind about which nothing is known, though much may be inferred. Readers of the sonnets have often wondered if the allusion to "bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang" is a threnody for the usurped religious houses, closed and looted by the Protestant reformers; but no one knows. Recent scholarship has been bemused, moreover, by the possibility that Shakespeare was a Catholic, as his father almost certainly was, at a time when open profession of Catholicism was growing dangerous. Greenblatt speculates that young Shakespeare, fresh from his Stratford grammar schooling, may have served as a tutor to certain Catholic families in Lancashire. But even there, the evidence is flimsy--a passing reference to one "Shakeshafte" in a Hoghton family document.

At any rate, it is a wholly speculative possibility in William Shakespeare's life and outlook--a zealous but undocumented Catholicism--that Asquith runs away with, in the manner of the sorcerer's apprentice, deploying polemical fireworks that are sometimes brilliant but for the most part fanciful. Where seasoned Shakespeare scholars have stepped lightly, Mrs. Asquith rushes forward with a heavy tread; and the results are sure to try the patience of any reader who dares to imagine that Shakespeare's works are about what they seem to be about.

The author treats the works, chronologically, as a series of intricate and dazzling allegories, caviar to the general reader, perhaps, but clear to listening and watching insiders. Thus, in the early comedy Two Gentlemen of Verona, Proteus is England; Julia, traditional English religion; Sylvia the new religion. Venus in the narrative poem "Venus and Adonis" is Queen Elizabeth, pursuing, with rape in mind, a virginal Adonis, emblem of the Catholic Church. Richard III, the evil hunchback, is the Queen's adjutant Robert Cecil (the author's bête noire). Romeo and Juliet is a "cautionary tale for the [Catholic] resistance," and The Merchant of Venice "a cat's cradle of cryptic meanings."

In Hamlet, the "leprous" encrustation caused by the poisoning of the late king stands for the whitewashing-over of religious painting. In Troilus and Cressida, Agamemnon is Philip II of Spain, Ulysses the Jesuit father Robert Persons, and the Trojan camp is the king's privy council. When the dutiful Cordelia declines to swear exclusive love to her father, the besotted King Lear, this stands for the refusal of dissident Catholics and Puritans to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Crown. And on and on--this is a mere sampling.