From Publishers Weekly
The wife of a British diplomat who was posted to Moscow during the Cold War, Asquith first started to suspect that Shakespeare's plays possessed an unexamined political and religious subtext while watching a seemingly innocuous performance in a Soviet theater and realizing that it was embedded with secret meanings and double entendres. In a tome both literary and dense, though thankfully not prohibitively so, Asquith shines an extraordinary light on the symbolism and possible intentions of Shakespeare's work. The Catholic playwright, Asquith contends, wrote to outsmart the "Queen's men," who caught up to him only after he had written dozens of plays reflecting the mournful frustration of Catholics oppressed by Elizabethan Protestantism. Asquith uses Shakesepeare's plays as prisms through which to observe the tremendous upheaval of the times. A second look at Julius Caesar reveals the Roman conspirators to be Protestant instigators, and Troilus and Cressida is, according to the author, a commentary on the state of Catholic opposition to the Reformation. Described as "an upstart Crow" by Robert Greene-playwright for the rival theater company Queen's Men, which Asquith characterizes as a Protestant propaganda machine-Shakespeare found protection in the patronage of Lady Magdalen Montague, a Catholic, and even worked her into a number of his plays, including A Winter's Tale, Romeo and Juliet and Comedy of Errors. Though occasionally didactic, Asquith's multifaceted examination reveals as much about the history of 17th-century England as it does about the playwright and his plays, and should intrigue admirers of both.
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*Starred Review* In David Riggs' excellent World of Christopher Marlowe (2005), we learn that late Elizabethan London was extremely dangerous, especially for the brightest and best who weren't aristocrats or wealthy gentry. In her revelatory survey of the Shakespearean corpus, Asquith imparts that all of Great Britain was as or more perilous long before and after Marlowe's short life (1564-93). During the throes of the Reformation, three primary factions vied for England's soul: Catholics, Church of England supporters, and radicals inspired by John Calvin, who became known as Puritans. Asquith contends that Shakespeare was a recusant Catholic who, supported by and writing for the pleasure of influential political players, eventually including King James I, advocated tolerance, for Puritans as well as Catholics, in his work. She descries a system of words and images that carry messages about the three-way struggle in Shakespeare's plays and poems. Consisting of such things as the opposition of light and dark, terms possessing special meanings for certain people, and recurring plot predicaments and character relationships, this system wasn't Shakespeare's invention and was broadly known because it suited late-medieval, allegorical habits of thought. Moreover, applying the meanings of the system to the texts clears up many obscurities and illuminates entire plays (Titus Andronicus, Cymbeline) and characters (Shylock, Mercutio) that modern audiences don't quite get, without vitiating Shakespeare's universality. Demanding reading at times, but altogether magnificent. Ray Olson
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"It is rare when a work of such painstaking scholarship is so dramatic, important and exciting to read. Lucidly and persuasively, Clare Asquith takes us through the complexities of religious politics in Elizabethan England, and reveals the anguished debates hidden in Shakespeare's plays. Shadowplay solves many of the puzzles that have perplexed scholars over the years, dramatically enhances our understanding of the dramas of our greatest playwright and, in my view, will lead to a seismic shift in our understanding of our past." Piers Paul Read "Clare Asquith is an inspired and compelling code-breaker - her fascinating study takes us into the concealed heart of the English identity and shows that the Catholic Shakespeare
was an exemplary and committed writer, not simply the famously protean bard who resists all attempts to pin down his beliefs. Shadowplay is a remarkable and exciting work of scholarship which shows us the deep structures of Shakespeare's imagination." Tom Paulin, G. M. Young Lecturer in English at Hertford College, Oxford, editor of The Faber Book of Political Verse (1986) and The Faber Book of Vernacular Poetry (1990) "... even if only half of Clare Asquith's argument turns out to be correct, she's written the most visceral, challenging, compelling book on Shakespeare's place in history we've had for over 20 years." Dr John Guy, Winner of the Whitbread Biography Award, 2004 'This book shows us the enticing possibilities of what is certainly needed, a reading of the works which, with real inwardness, takes seriously their rootedness in the poet's increasingly discernible intent: to speak for (and to) a network of men and women living double lives within the English establishment, and to deploy the freshly available resources of English and European poetic and dramatic form in memorializing those lives by making them transcend their time and their predicament.' John Finnis, Professor of Law and Legal Philosophy, University College Oxford "The politics of language is back in fashion, and in this book we have a daring excursus into the field of oppositional discourse in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Here we are introduced to the workings of a dissident religion that very much dares, even if in code, to speak its name. Scholars will have to think again about how far Shakespeare's faith and his view of the Reformation, inflected contemporaries' understanding of the controversies over the Church in England." Dr Michael Questier, Lecturer in Early Modern British and European history, Queen Mary College, University of London" "Clare Asquith's textual criticism is a marvel; eminently readable scholarship". Sir John Keegan, Daily Telegraph Defence Editor and author of The Face of Battle "This is a book of thrilling scholarship and great daring. Any venture into Shakespearean investigation requires panache, deep affection for "the man" and a delicate balance between nerve and learning. Clare Asquith has rendered all of these elegantly and has also, uniquely, kept pace with the great emotions in the works she scrutinizes." Frank Delaney "A literary detective story, which is quite riveting." Antonia Fraser "So mysteriously little is chronicled about Shakespeare that his life, nature and beliefs lie open to endless speculation. What Clare Asquith has done in Shadowplay is to infinitely widen our perception of who he was. She shows how, despite the rule of terror successfully imposed by the father and son, William and Robert Cecil, Shakespeare throughout his play converses with his contemporary audience in an entirely accessible code that has been lost until now by us. This book is a masterpiece of sustained scholarship that reads like a detective novel." Harriet Waugh "The book, set to cause controversy among experts, is full of such detailed analysis and reads, as historian Antonia Fraser has said, 'like a literary detective story.'" Vanessa Thorpe, The Observer "As incendiary religious theories go, it's right up there with The Da Vinci Code." The Independent "I did find reading Shadowplay was like reading a thriller." James Naughtie, Today Programme "Among the most remarkable books to come out about Shakespeare in years... If she is even partly right, her book represents a small earthquake in our understanding." Sam Leith in The Spectator "(N) obody can fail to be impressed by the verve with which (Clare Asquith) writes, bringing a lost world to life". James Shapiro in the Daily Telegraph "Asquith's learned new book is valuable for the new light it sheds on Shakespeare's life amid the dark religious dangers of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and for the new suggestions she makes about such mysteries as his abrupt retirement from writing." Anthony Holden in the Daily Mail "This is one of the most astonishing and original books ever written about Shakespeare... Clare Asquith has produced a wonderfully stimulating read.... (this is) one of the most important books ever written about his plays." The Catholic Herald "Shadowplay turns a period in English history on its head as well as our most important playwright's role in the time. Thanks to Asquith's ability to decode and clarify his dissident yet patriotic message, the author's simply explained, painstaking research leads the reader down mysterious alleys with the same ease as the best thriller writer. Shadowplay is a masterpiece of precise scholarship uncovering England's most brilliant playwright's politics, religious beliefs and dramatic fight for his country's freedoms. The "Merrie England" of Elizabeth I is no longer the liberated country presided over by an enlightened monarch as we have been taught, but a far darker place. As always, history is owned by its architects, Elizabeth's and her regime. Now hitherto unexplained mysteries about Shakespeare's life and beliefs are brilliantly laid out for us." Leonie Frieda in The Evening Standard "Clare Asquith's Shadowplay... is a fascinating literary detective story and has stirred up controversy as everything to do with Shakespeare - and the Gunpowder Plot - always does." Antonia Fraser - Books of the Year in the Sunday Telegraph "Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare by Clare Asquith looks at the complexities of religious politics in Elizabethan England, revealing the anguished debates hidden in Shakespeare's plays. Piers Paul Read - Books of the Year in The Times "Clare Asquith's Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (Public Affairs, GBP 18.99) is an audacious, compelling literary/historical investigation that challenges our assumptions about the plays, the playwright and English history itself. I am no expert on Shakespeare, but found her account of how the perilous day-to-day politics of Elizabethan England affected Shakespeare's dramas wholly convincing." Piers Paul Read - Books of the Year in The Spectator 'In Shadowplay (Public Affairs, GBP 18.99), Clare Asquith builds up a detailed argument for William Shakespeare having expressed his Catholic beliefs through a series of coded images. As the historian A.W. Kinglake wanted inscribed on churches: "Important if true. Intriguing in any case.'" Christopher Howse - Books of the Year in The Tablet "... passionately argued, compellingly readable... gracefully and persuasively (Claire Asquith) pulls together the findings of those who have labored before her in the academic vineyard." Los Angeles Times "Asquith smashes the familiar icon of Shakespeare as a determined conformist who brilliantly skated the political thin ice that cracked under his less skillful countrymen. Her Shakespeare is darker and more complex - a tormented dissident who died in defeat. Asquith is far from alone in her conjectures. The portrait that is emerging shows that Shakespeare was a hero as magnificent as any he created." Washington Post"
About the Author
Clare Asquith has lectured on Shakespeare in England and Canada. Her article on The Phoenix and the Turtle was published in 2001 by the Times Literary Supplement, and her essay on Love's Labour's Lost appeared this year in Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England. She lives in London.
From The Washington Post
Few masterpieces contain as many chestnuts as Hamlet. Take this one: "The play's the thing/ Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King." With these words, Prince Hamlet welcomes a theatrical troupe whose performance will unmask adultery and regicide in the Danish court. Aphorisms wither faster than cut flowers, but sometimes old saws reveal new truths. Long before these lines became shopworn, they hinted at Shakespeare's modus operandi: In Shadowplay, Clare Asquith argues that the bard was using the theater of his day just as Hamlet did -- to send dangerous, skillfully encoded messages to his audience and his monarch. Hence, she writes, "it took not only intellectual brilliance but exceptional courage and constancy" to create and perform the greatest plays ever written. Asquith is surfing an intriguing new wave of research: Shakespeare, it goes, was a closet Catholic at a time when the Church was banned. And far from presiding over the Golden Age, Queen Elizabeth I was running a police state, marked by raids, seizures, imprisonment and grisly executions, where informants snitched on private citizens. The court of her successor, James I, was worse. Shakespeare's plays, Asquith suggests, encouraged patience and perseverance among the beleaguered Catholics and urged England's rulers to curtail the frequent crackdowns and persecutions. What we do know: Shakespeare's Stratford was a center of religious resistance to the "new religion"; his father left a written testament of his enduring Catholic faith; Shakespeare's daughter, Susannah, was a "recusant," charged with refusing to attend Protestant services. The Ardens, Shakespeare's mother's family, were staunch Catholics whose chieftain, Edward Arden, was executed for his beliefs in 1583 by the usual method (he was dragged on a hurdle behind horses, then hanged, cut down alive, disemboweled and castrated before his heart was cut out). Shakespeare was famously private about his life and habits -- as were many Catholics anxious to conceal their recusancy and attendance at illegal masses. But does that suggest he was Catholic? Asquith points out that most Elizabethans were, up until the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The line was a murky Neverland -- some "Catholics" hid priests, risking their lives; others complied publicly, merely remaining "Catholic" at heart. Catholic playwrights took huge chances, dropping hints and references in their scripts. Asquith isn't the first to fish in these waters, of course. Scholars have been poring over Shakespeare's plays for decades, trying to find clues about his attitude towards his times. But Asquith is no nitpicking professor. She's not afraid to wing it. By taking unscholarly chances, she may have unlocked a door. We may have been looking at the plays with a microscope, hunting for political comment in the odd line or two, when what we really needed was a wide-angle lens.For example, in "King Lear," two sisters, motivated by material gain, falsely promise that they will give all their love to their father. Their honest sister is exiled for saying she must divide her love for her father with the obedience she will owe her husband. Significantly, religious dissidents at that time were refusing to pledge fealty to King James over their faith and the pope. Similarly, when Elizabethan audiences watched Laertes protest the brief obsequies given his sister Ophelia, they knew that Catholics were furtively burying their loved ones with the old rites, while publicly holding fake burials with the "maimed rites." Violent quarrels sometimes erupted in churches, and zealous Protestants exhumed bodies in the night. That said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and some of Asquith's "markers" are farfetched. It's possible, as she suggests, that Shakespeare's tall, fair heroines represent the Catholic ideals, and the short, swarthy ones represent Protestant principles. But it's even more likely that Shakespeare really did have a dark mistress who influenced his poems and plays. And likely, too, that he was acknowledging contemporary fashions and pandering to a fair, redheaded (and notoriously vain) queen. Such sweeping conjectures detract from the merits of Shadowplay. Asquith claims that Shakespeare did not retire quietly to Stratford in 1610 -- he was silenced. She links his sudden disappearance with the shockwaves created by the assassination of Henry IV of France. That king was a champion of tolerance who was murdered by a mad friar. Within a few years, all the major playwrights of the time had quit the theater, with the noteworthy exception of Ben Jonson, who publicly renounced Catholicism in 1610. They drifted back in the 1620s, but by that time, Shakespeare was dead -- and England was irrevocably Protestant. Asquith smashes the familiar icon of Shakespeare as a determined conformist who brilliantly skated the political thin ice that cracked under his less skillful countrymen. Her Shakespeare is darker and more complex -- a tormented dissident who died in defeat. Asquith is far from alone in her conjectures. The portrait that is emerging shows that Shakespeare was a hero as magnificent as any he created. Reviewed by Cynthia L. Haven
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