Shakespeare, the secret rebel

ROBERT MASON LEE

Does all of Shakespeare's work contain hidden, dissident, pro-Catholic content?

William Shakespeare
(1564–1616)

Living in Moscow toward the end of the Cold War with her husband, Raymond, a British diplomat, Clare Asquith went one evening to the theatre. It was the winter of 1983, when political censors and dissident writers still played a game of cat and mouse. They were the only westerners in attendance. The theatre was shabby and cold, but the audience was tightly packed, under the watchful eyes of KGB agents at the door and the Asquiths' two "minders."

At first, the adaptation of Chekhov short stories struck Clare as dreary. Slowly, however, she realized it was anything but — though the drama was set in 19th-century czarist Russia, the actors were making subtle changes that spoke to the concerns of life under 20th-century Communism. At one point, Raymond was called onto the stage and pressed into a walk-on role as a banker. The performers did not merely link him with dengi (Russian for "money"), but with valuta ("foreign currency"). The audience roared in appreciation of the subtext — that Russia's only hope of salvation lay in openness to the West and foreign investors. His wife looked anxiously at the KGB agents, but it was obvious they didn't get the message and assumed the actors were mocking Western capitalism. For Clare, whose interests had always lain more in the superpower politics of the 16th-century Reformation, a penny finally dropped.

What happened that night more than 20 years ago set in motion a train of events culminating in the release of a book containing the most startling and original theory of Shakespeare since his works were first written. Clare Asquith's Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare is at once a historical thriller and an astonishing work of scholarship — a real-life Da Vinci Code for people who think.

Asquith's premise is that nearly all of Shakespeare's work contains a coded reference to the politics of his day. This code would have been understood by his intended audience — what Asquith calls the "educated but ordinary" people — but would not have been apparent to his Elizabethan censors. This was crucial, for in Shakespearean times the performance of dissident works led not to the gulag, but to the gallows.


What makes her audacious theory more remarkable is the fact it was written on a kitchen table in moments snatched from caring for her husband and five children.


His intention, she believes, was not merely to amuse his audience with subterfuge. Surrounded by a repressive police state and haunted by spies, Shakespeare was concerned that the true historical record of his age would be lost, censored out of existence by the Elizabethan court. "He was much more like a journalist than a scholar," she told Maclean's. According to Shadowplay, Shakespeare was also a recusant Catholic — he refused to attend Church of England services — with ties to similar-minded aristocrats.

"Even if only half of Clare Asquith's argument turns out to be correct," Cambridge historian and biographer John Guy has written, "she's written the most visceral, challenging, and compelling book on Shakespeare's place in history we've had for over twenty years." And if it all turns out to be correct, she will have single-handedly turned the mighty citadel of Shakespearean scholarship on its head.

Only in the past few decades have historians revised their assumptions about the period. Far from being a happy time of peaceful transition from Catholicism to Protestantism, the Tudor and Elizabethan reigns were in fact the most brutal and turbulent period in English history. Shakespeare required not only the wit to encode his plays and sonnets with historical references, but the confidence that his works would survive until the day their deeper meaning could be clearly understood by posterity.

Obviously, his works have survived. And Asquith believes that now, four centuries on, she has finally discovered the key to unlocking their hidden messages. If true — and she makes a convincing argument of her case — then it can only heighten appreciation of the Bard's manifold gifts. "Clearly," she says, "he is the cleverest man that ever writ."


Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare


According to author Clare Asquith, the words used by the subversive Shakespeare in his plays and poems disguised a hidden pro-Catholic message.

Sunburn:
The sun represented divinity, and so sunburn denotes closeness to God. Shakespeare described himself as 'tanned' in Sonnet 62.

Turtle dove:
A traditional image for the apostles, used to signify those who remained faithful in the face of persecution.

Nightingale:
The story of Philomela, who was turned into a nightingale, was an image of the desecrated church and its covert protests.

Red rose:
A term used by Catholics for their 'old, beautiful' religion.

Dark:
The new, Protestant religion, associated with black print and sober dress.

Five:
Devotion to the five wounds of Christ led to patterned emblems on the banners borne against the new regime. Shakespeare uses it in the form of flowers, birthmarks or heraldic blazons as a marker of Catholicism.

Order Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare here.

What makes her audacious theory more remarkable is the fact it was written on a kitchen table in moments snatched from caring for her husband and five children. In person, Asquith, 54, is engaging and down-to-earth, a determined and passionate woman, never more so than when discussing her favourite subject. She refrains from the use of her title, the Viscountess Asquith (her husband, the grandson of the British prime minister from 1908 to 1916, will one day assume the title of 3rd Earl of Oxford and Asquith), because "those things don't count for very much these days." Although she lives in the family seat — Manor of Mells, in Somerset near Glastonbury — her lifestyle is not grand. "I have so many children that I was literally reading and writing while ironing and cooking," she says. "I wouldn't have thought it possible, but it was."

Her family connections did provide an insight into the period, however, that caused her to question the prevailing theory of England's happy division from Rome. The ancestral home, Manor of Mells, was granted to the family (then called Horner) after Henry VIII seized Glastonbury Abbey and its manor houses in 1539 — the deed bearing his signature still hangs on a wall. The abbey once sat at the very centre of early Christian belief in England, connected by legend to King Arthur, the Holy Grail and Joseph of Arimathea.

As part of his campaign to seize the wealth and power of the Catholic monasteries, Henry VIII had the abbey razed, its priceless fixtures destroyed, and its abbot, Richard Whiting, hanged, disembowelled, and boiled — in that order. "I didn't put this in the book, and I've never mentioned this publicly before," Asquith says. "But our ancestor, Thomas Horner, was on the jury which, I hate to say, convicted the Abbot of Glastonbury to death. He was rewarded with the Manor of Mells." Prompted by this knowledge and a strong Catholic faith, Asquith began to research the history of the common people of the time, known collectively as "John Nobody," who continued to resist the Protestant court in London but whose voice was officially silenced.

Elizabeth I, who restored Protestantism to England after a brief Catholic revival, has generally been portrayed as more moderate than Henry. Asquith's research revealed her to be equally ruthless, only much more subtle and efficient. She established a sophisticated network of spies and informers to stay abreast of the Catholic resistance, and doled out imprisonment and death to recusants. It was during this period when Will Shakespeare, raised in a Catholic home in Avon, moved to London and began to write for the stage.

Prior to Asquith, Shakespeare's works have been considered devoid of topical references, dealing instead with universal themes of love, power and ambition. But it struck Asquith as ridiculous to presume that someone of Shakespeare's intelligence and curiosity would ignore the momentous events around him — or that the audience would tolerate such disregard.


She began to look for clues in his works, alive to the Elizabethan love of wordplay, puns and double meanings (a love which lives on in England to this day, whether in the endemic crossword puzzles or double entendres of English comedy). Her excitement mounted as she read the texts with new eyes...


She began to look for clues in his works, alive to the Elizabethan love of wordplay, puns and double meanings (a love which lives on in England to this day, whether in the endemic crossword puzzles or double entendres of English comedy). Her excitement mounted as she read the texts with new eyes: "I was simply blown away," she says. "Once I got into the zone, I knew every day, as I would pull the thread that much farther, it would yield something new."

A simple example is a passage that many observers have long believed to contain a typographical error, the line of poetry in Sonnet 23 that goes: "More than that love which more hath more expressed." On the surface, it does not make sense — until Asquith realized it was a pun. "It should read, 'More than that love which More hath more expressed,' " she says — a reference to Sir Thomas More, the chancellor and Catholic saint beheaded by Henry VIII for refusing to take the oath of supremacy recognizing the monarch and not the pope as head of the Church in England.

Similarly, she says, all of Shakespeare's characters existed on at least two levels, the dramatic and the allegorical. In much the same way as Arthur Miller's creation Willy Loman is both a stage character and a symbol of the elusive American dream, so did Shakespearean audiences understand Lear, Cleopatra, Viola and Hamlet as allegorical of contemporary realities. "Shakespeare worked out a set of simple markers, basic call signs that would alert his audience to the entry point they needed to access the hidden story," Asquith asserts. "He kept his signals simple and consistent. The master key to the hidden level is so simple that it is easy to miss."

This is the opposition between "high" and "low," and "fair" and "dark," which recur in all of Shakespeare's works. "High" and "fair" always indicate Catholicism, while "low" and "dark" indicate Protestantism — a reference to the "low" church service that did not include Mass, and the black worn by Protestant puritans.

Asquith discovered an entire glossary of coded phrases. Whenever Shakespeare uses the word "tempest," for example, he is making a reference to the turbulence of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. "Love" has two meanings, human and spiritual. So, when he writes in Sonnet 116 that love "looks on tempests and is never shaken," the underlying message is one of faith to the Old Religion.

3rd Earl of Southampton

Elizabeth Vernon


The coded language was a vehicle that allowed him to comment on current events without risking the wrath of the authorities. Viewed through this prism, Romeo and Juliet becomes a commentary on the forbidden love between the 3rd Earl of Southampton and Elizabeth Vernon, one of the Queen's more impoverished ladies-in-waiting. King Lear becomes a symbol of James I, while his daughter Cordelia's refusal to make a public affirmation of unconditional love represents the refusal of Catholics to take the Oath of Supremacy.

Coriolanus has always been viewed as one of Shakespeare's most impenetrable plays (except perhaps by Cole Porter, who wrote in the lyrics to Brush Up Your Shakespeare: "If she says your behaviour is heinous / Kick her right in the Coriolanus"). Asquith says the play becomes understandable when seen as a measured commentary on the failed Catholic coup known as the Gunpowder Plot, uncovered two years before the play was written and still marked every Nov. 5 as Guy Fawkes Night.

Her theories have gained the endorsement of E.A.J. Honigmann, the esteemed dean of Shakespearean scholars, who at first found them too incredible to believe. He returned her manuscript with the comment, "No, sorry, I can't accept this." He later came to stay at the Manor of Mells, where Asquith pleaded her case with what she calls a "full, Technicolor, wide-screen lecture." At the end of which, Honigmann bowed his head and replied: "You have persuaded me to change my position."

While the opinions of such scholars matter to her, Asquith says it's far more important that her discoveries lead to a deeper appreciation of William Shakespeare's works by his wider audience. That the Bard's contribution to literature is unmatched is already accepted, but to imagine he somehow combined this with a historical account of his age is almost beyond belief. Not, however, for Asquith, who still recalls her Jesuit teachers insisting that each page of her school notebook be inscribed with the initials: AMDG — Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, or "To the Greater Glory of God." "He was engaged," she says of Shakespeare, "in a kind of divine work."

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Robert Mason Lee. "Will, the secret rebel." Maclean's (August 1, 2005).

This article is reprinted with permission from Maclean's magazine.

Copyright by Rogers Media Inc. May not be reprinted or republished without permission. To comment, email letters@macleans.ca

THE AUTHOR

Robert Mason Lee writes from London.

Copyright © 2005 Rogers Media Inc.


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