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 bĂȘte 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.

Among other defects of her argument, Claire Asquith fails to acknowledge a distinction between two crucially different orders of interpretation. Allegory, which she thrusts into the dominant role, was indeed a familiar literary form in Shakespeare's time, the mode of a contemporary masterpiece, Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), in which the figures and events are merely emblematic--"Gloriana" is Elizabeth I. But, so far as her book reveals, Asquith has no privileged access to the "coded" allegories she alone discovers in Shakespeare's plays and poems; and, accordingly, relies for the most part upon mere assertion. She makes the boldest claims for encryption regarding early plays that are commonly thought of as Shakespeare's apprentice work--for instance, the crude and bloody Titus Andronicus, which she reads as a masterpiece of veiled commentary. As for the later masterpieces, Hamlet, she asserts, is yet another elaborate shadow play or allegory in which the Prince of Denmark is modeled on Sir Philip Sidney, whom she identifies as a secret Catholic.

Of course, one problem with allegorical interpretation is that more than one may play at the same game. Since Hamlet explicitly mentions Wittenberg (with its Luther associations), and alludes in a macabre passage about Polonius's corpse to the Diet of Worms, where Luther was tried for heresy, why isn't it more plausible to read the play as a Reformationist allegory, to picture Hamlet's detention at Elsinore as thwarting England's natural affinity for Reform theology? And by the way, the play within the play that Hamlet casually calls The Mousetrap is actually The Murder of Gonzago, a fact the author seems to have forgotten. In any event, in less than Spenserian hands, allegory can be an inferior and tedious literary form, certainly unworthy of Shakespeare's genius.

Asquith's reading of the sonnets is equally unpersuasive. Where the poet-narrator of Sonnet 111 famously apologizes for a "public" identity that stains his reputation as the dye stains the dyer's hand, she is sure that he is confessing shame for dissembling his Catholic creed. Everyone else believes that the allusion is to the disreputability of the theatrical profession, which in that age was legally classified with vagabondage, and is the subject of related and neighboring allusions in other sonnets.

There is a second category of exposition, topical "echoes" and evocations. In Macbeth, for instance, it has generally been agreed that after finding a keen patron in James I (who permitted Shakespeare's company to be called the King's Men) Shakespeare tipped his pen to the king's notorious interest in witchcraft and, by the way, supplied him with royal descent from Banquo. In this and other plausible guesses, Asquith pays a fleeting visit to consensus interpretation.

The most serious embarrassment to her keystone theory, however, is not critical but bibliographical. In the First Folio of 1623, its two editors, Shakespeare's professional intimates, included the late play Henry VIII while excluding others as uncanonical on grounds of adulterated authorship. If Shakespeare had been a zealous detractor of the English Reformation, using his plays as instruments of coded propaganda, none would have been likelier to know it than the editors of the Folio, and surely none less likely to make a mockery of their colleague's memory by including a play that treats the Protestant reformers--even Archbishop Cranmer--sympathetically. Asquith is aware of the difficulty, but brushes it aside impatiently, on grounds that Henry VIII was probably written by another hand and, in any case, was simply too popular and profitable to leave out!

Shadowplay, brightly written as much of it is, may appeal to rationalist readers of a conspiracist kidney who think that things are never what they seem to be, and that the world is so orderly that the most intricate designs invariably work out. Indeed, Asquith's book is marked by that technique of rigorous deduction from dubious premises that is the hallmark of conspiracist thinking. Those who want a sane and seasoned antidote to the conjectures of the new historicism would do well to turn to a small masterpiece, Frank Kermode's recent The Age of Shakespeare. There, the master, not the apprentice, is fully in charge.

As for the poet himself, he remains, for most of us, veiled in biographical mystery, not least with regard to his personal convictions. Surely the most striking aspect of his unrivaled plays and poems is his insight into an all-but-bewildering variety of personalities and characters, minds, attitudes, emotions, and sensibilities--small-c catholicity in the truest sense. As for his own, there are suggestive hints, fleeting glimpses, and nearly inaudible voices, as if heard dimly from a distance. The rest--so far, anyway--is silence.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a former columnist and editor in Washington, taught journalism and the humanities at Washington and Lee University.

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