Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics
of William Shakespeare

by Claire Asquith.
Public Affairs (New York), xviii + 348
pp., $26.00, cloth, 2005.

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
, 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
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
, 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.
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.