[Editor's Note: Read Clare Asquith's article on the story behind Shadowplay, .]
In recent decades the "personal is political" lit crit crowd has read William Shakespeare as everything from Transgressive and Queer to an apologist for Colonialism; from Puritan to Atheist, from regicide to monarchist, from philo-Semite to anti-Semite to Semite. Everyone, it seems, has joined in the "Shakespeare-and-us" game. But in spite of mounting evidence that Shakespeare was actually Catholic, or at least raised that way in a time when owning a rosary could land a subject of Queen Elizabeth in the Tower, few scholars have argued for a layer of dissident Catholic subtext in Shakespeare's staggering wealth of meaning. Until now.
We recently spoke with Clare Asquith, author of the controversial new book Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, about her ground-breaking work, and the reaction to it here and in England.
GODSPY: Why do you think it has taken so long for Shakespeare's Catholic roots to be noticed?
Asquith: I was brought up a Catholic in England, and yet I was taught the "Protestant version," if you like, of English history. I had no idea there was any other. And it's extraordinary, really, how long the "Protestant myth"—the "Great Myth" Edwin Jones called it—has survived. I think there are all sorts of political reasons why England has hung onto this myth of her past. It's bound up with the Empire, for instance. And even now there is an anti-Catholic prejudice, often unconscious, in England. It is residue from the past, and people, I think, aren't aware of how strong a grip it has in England. That is partly why people haven't looked at Shakespeare in a Catholic context.
In America it's rather different. If you look at American scholarship, it's far more prepared to see Shakespeare in a wider context—not simply as a signed-up Protestant who used the Geneva Bible, but as someone who was speaking as a Counter-Reformation Catholic as well. , a very good scholar you have over there, was there before me. He looked at some of the plays without any of the English prejudice and found a covert political subtext. I would attribute most of the possibility that there was a strong Catholic subtext to a close reading of the revisionist history of that era, beginning with Eamon Duffy's
Shakespeare and his contemporaries are deliberately using terms and markers which only people familiar with Catholicism would pick up, to dodge the Protestant censor.
But the evidence for Shakespeare's Catholicism been around for some time, hasn't it?
The biographical details have been around for some time. Patrick Collinson, who is a Protestant historian, has been saying for some time that it's likely that Shakespeare's background was Catholic. Modern scholars say of course he was probably brought up Catholic, but he was too "grown up" to still be a Catholic by the time he was an adult. So his background is undeniably Catholic—you can't get away from it. But it's difficult to see it in his work.
It was a bit new to me, as much as I've read of Shakespeare biography. When did you first take note of it?
I'm not sure that it's very clear on the surface of his work that Shakespeare had a Catholic allegiance, but if you're a serious scholar of the religion of the period, like Peter Milward, you do detect the undertones. But it's cleverly concealed, and I think it's only if you assume deliberate concealment, and you assume that Catholicism could not be explicitly talked about, that you begin to look in the right places for it.
Do you think part of the problem might be the unwillingness to believe that the Elizabethan and Stuart periods were so prosecutorial towards Catholics? Here in America we're usually taught that when the Protestants took over there was a great deal more tolerance, unlike those nasty Catholics. To have people admitting that Elizabethan England was perhaps the first modern "police state" is surprising—it seems to have taken a very long time.
Yes, it has, hasn't it? The very short reign of Bloody Mary—six or seven years?—has completely eclipsed in its legendary cruelty the repression under Elizabeth, which was, of course, far more sophisticated. People can't seem to get away from this profound folk-memory of what happened under Mary, which was appalling. But it overshadowed the far greater repression under Elizabeth—far greater and far less visible. [Elizabeth's Secretary of State] William Cecil knew that you made a martyr of somebody by putting them on the scaffold.
Does your book's treatment of England's religious history have implications for British self-identity?
One of the first people to read my book was a British journalist who immediately said: "This is about England's identity." He was really excited by it. And I think, read correctly, this is the way it should be seen. That's because now you have more than just the revisionist scholarship, which is based on the literature published abroad during that time, which was saying the things that could not be said in England. Now you also have the revisionist history corroborated by the [English] writers of the day in covert, subversive form, and by the great writer of the day, Shakespeare, in particular.
We now see an England which had a very different attitude to religious change from the image we've come to accept. This must produce a change in the way we look at our past, and the way we look at ourselves, in England. Of course, England is now looking for a new identity, now that the Union is breaking up—Scotland has its own Parliament. And there's the whole question of are we or aren't we going to be reintegrated into Europe? We are looking at our identity again. And if this idea—the idea that this book sketches out—is taken up by stronger voices, it could be a tool, a way of looking at who we are, and what we've become.
Your book was received with enthusiasm in the States, and subsequently released in the U.K. Are you seeing a difference in its reception at home?
Yes. I was looking through the reviews recently, and it's a very interesting difference. Canada and the United States almost universally accepted the argument of the book. The reaction was slower and more considered, and I had the impression that every reviewer really had read and digested the argument. I have been impressed by the in-depth knowledge of Shakespeare, and the love of Shakespeare, in America. However, I don't think any self-respecting reviewer is going to go all the way and say, "This is totally correct"—you really have to be a good scholar, I think, to have the courage to say it's totally wrong or it's totally right, because it's so new. But on the whole, it was a really good reception.
It's extraordinary how long the 'Protestant Myth' has survived.
By contrast, in England, as I expected, it touches a nerve. The difference is that the reviews came out almost at once—in fact, jumped the gun for pre-publication. There was really a bit of publicity. It was in the news section of the papers, not the literature section. It was counted as news! And the literary reviews are definitely more negative. There's one really good one in The Spectator . But the leading Catholic publication, The Tablet, is slightly against it.
The Catholic Herald was overwhelmingly in favor of it. But The Tablet has never gone for the theory that Shakespeare might have been a Catholic. I think there is an element in English Catholicism that doesn't want to rake up the embers of the Reformation divide; that wants to be integrated. It rightly wants to be ecumenical. And The Tablet is certainly a very liberal-ecumenical branch of English Catholicism.
You're a descendent of Catholic converts from the time of Newman and the Oxford movement. What difference has being Catholic made for you, as an Englishwoman?
I think that was crucial to writing the book, obviously. A criticism that has been made of me is that, 'Of course, you're Catholic; you're yet another person reading your theory in. If you were Jewish you would read that in; if you were Muslim, you would see something Muslim. The communists have done the same." It's quite a strong argument. But my counter-argument, which I believe in absolutely, is that... well, imagine the Holocaust having been "covered up," as one recent popular novelist has imagined it. Then the only person likely to pick up the traces would be Jewish, because they would know the culture.
That is my experience of "unearthing" the hidden language of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. They're deliberately using terms and markers which only people familiar with Catholicism would pick up, to dodge the Protestant censor. The Protestants would not have understood what hic et ubique meant—that little bit of Latin that Hamlet lets drop [after he's seen the Ghost of his father]. He's raving, and it doesn't mean much. But Catholics would know exactly what prayer it came from. And with a little bit of research, I suppose I may be the last generation of Catholics who do remember the Latin.
As many times as I'd seen Merchant of Venice, or read the play, I can remember thinking that there was something so familiar about the scene between Jessica and Lorenzo, and the refrain, "In such a night..." But it didn't hit me until I read your book, and I thought, well of course: it's from the Easter Vigil. It sounded so familiar, but it never occurred to me to place it in that context.
Well, exactly. Stephen Greenblatt says that Shakespeare's simply picking up a half-remembered echo of the old religion and using it as a kind of resonant ornament to deepen the romantic language, as does, rightly, in his film of —he adds in all of Shakespeare's religious imagery, as a kind of "décor". It deepens the love interest, and gives it an extra dimension.
But the idea that this might also be something in its own right, is to us a very odd idea. Of course, to people at the time who were accustomed to allegorical double-vision in literature, where everything had its shadow, its alternative, its twin-meaning—they would have instantly thought, "What does this lead us to? What is it signaling?"
Your book is appearing at a critical time for European Christianity in general and Anglicanism in particular. In this challenging context, do you see any signs of Cardinal Newman's longed—for "Second Spring" for English Catholicism?
I hate to say, I can't see signs of it. I do hope for a great rebirth of spirituality, and I think the media is the key... The one sign of a possible "second spring" here was a made at the Benedictine monastery at Worth Abbey in Sussex, a very brave program. The monks allowed four or five totally ordinary guys to come in and simply live the life with them. None of them was remotely interested in Catholic Christianity. The cameras followed this journey, and it had the most enormous national effect in England. People stopped to watch it; and these men all had a different reaction to the life they found themselves thrown into, living as a monk. But one of them, on camera, underwent a spectacular moment of conversion. It was completely unpremeditated, and it made a profound effect on a lot of people. If there is a rebirth I think it will be through television; we'll have to use the media. I would love to see that happen. I think this very materialistic age will create a great thirst for spirituality, and I think Catholicism will provide it.
The very short reign of Bloody Mary has completely eclipsed in its legendary cruelty the repression under Elizabeth, which was, of course, far more sophisticated.
From a distance, Anglicanism looks to be sort of self-destructing. It's becoming so divided.
Yes. In Shakespeare's day, when the germ of Anglicanism—not Anglicanism itself, but Protestantism, a proto-Anglicanism—kicked off in England, the one huge negative aspect of it was that it was an Establishment church. It was a state church. The dis-establishment of the Anglican Church, I think, can only be a good thing, and that's just around the corner. That will let it float free and become perhaps a smaller, but perhaps more spiritual form of Christianity.
Shakespeare's dream, in the book, is that the two sisters, Catholicism and Protestantism, should link arms, and coexist. They are two different and valid spiritual impulses—one highlights the importance of the individual will; the other stresses the value of tradition and authority. And I think they may coexist far more happily in England after the dis-establishment of the Church. But I think Christianity's under such assault that Catholicism can't afford to jump on the grave of Anglicanism.
Do you think looking at Shakespeare's life through the lens of a repressed Catholic faith can clear up some of the longstanding and even notorious problems in Shakespeare biography?
I think that my book does give a new hypothesis about Shakespeare's education, which is that Catholics at that time couldn't go with integrity to Oxford because they had to take the oath; they had to sign on, they had to go to Protestant services, they had to be high-profile conformists. After all, Oxford and Cambridge were training grounds for the church, and the church at that point was the establishment church. Therefore there was this invisible host of [Catholic] "fellow travelers" at Oxford, which the queen was always fuming about, who broke all the rules, or sort of slipped under all the regulations, and found all kinds of ways of avoiding the statutes. One way was simply not to sign on, and to get your education without getting the degree. There's obviously no proof that Shakespeare did that. But certainly it looks to me as if he had a humanist education of the kind you got at Oxford, and I just think a boy from Stratford, who was a Catholic, could well have gone—would naturally have gone—to Oxford, and then, as a Catholic, to one of the colleges abroad to complete his education. No reason why he shouldn't have done that.
So that would help explain why he seems so much better educated than what is positively known about William Shakespeare of Stratford.
Yes, and indeed, in my opinion, more a man of the world... He just seems—Shakespeare—to be more cosmopolitan, more urbane, more sophisticated. He knows how people talk in court circles. All that, I have to admit, is hypotheses... unlike my reading of the plays, which I think of as much more certain. I feel we are on sure ground when Shakespeare is giving us his own opinions in this secondary language, in the plays.
One of my favorite parts of your book was the section in which you discuss your theory of why Shakespeare suddenly quit writing in 1610—that it was because of the hard line of censorship taken against the theatre when the strongly anti-papist became Archbishop of Canterbury. Shakespeare's sudden retirement has always been one of the big problems in Shakespeare biography. A lot of people have just said, oh well, he wanted the money, and when he got it, he quit writing and left. Frankly, as a writer myself, I just cannot believe that!
(Laughs.) No, particularly if you're at the height of your powers. I can see quitting if you went blind, or something like that. But you have evidence that he was still active as a businessman after that, and made deals and so on. And the very interesting fact that nobody has pointed to is that everybody else suddenly went quiet at that point, too, when you have the greatest hard-liner of them all, George Abbot, in the driving seat. I've tried this theory out on all sorts of people who know the period, and nobody has said, "No, this cannot be the case." On the whole, they've taken a step back and thought about it. It is very interesting. And the year Abbot fell, 1623, back they all come. There was a whole back-log of publications, including Shakespeare's First Folio.
Do you think that theory's been resisted because of the "Great Myth," which makes it difficult to accept that there was a period when the theatre was cleansed of anything that didn't toe the party line?
Absolutely. And it's associated very crudely with a later Puritanism, and Cromwell. But the fact is that it was part and parcel of the Reformation. Drama was nearly suppressed in the late 1580's. If the prelates had had their way, they would have shut down the theatre a hundred years before they did under Cromwell.
Fortunately, Elizabeth loved the theatre.
Oh, yes, loved it. She also knew that she had to entertain foreign diplomats, and her courtiers, who were largely Catholic, and keep them happy. So, although in the book I say it was her personal taste, on reflection it also was necessary for her.
Still, even scholars who accept Shakespeare's probable Catholicism seem to resist the notion that his religion had any effect on his art. Why such reluctance, do you think?
Isn't it interesting? It's almost as if when the prevailing ideology had been Protestant, he was seen as Protestant. Now that the prevailing ideology is a sort of enlightened skepticism, people like Greenblatt, Michael Wood, and Richard Wilson—I don't know about Harold Bloom—while they certainly accept the Catholic background, they all say at some point, 'of course, a mind as great as Shakespeare's could not be confined by a narrow ideology like Catholicism.
Now, if you look at modern-day Catholicism, a caricatured version, you might see their point. But if you look at Catholicism in the 1590's and early 1600's, it was the great cutting-edge, intellectual movement of the day. It had been revived by the humanism of the Renaissance, which infused counter-Reformation Catholicism. And it lay behind the great flowering of art at the time in Italy and France, and the forgotten School of Drama that runs right across Europe—the Jesuit School of Drama. Catholicism was an immensely satisfying world; it was really the finest, I think, form of Christianity that we've had. You had the richness of the Middle Ages meeting the Renaissance. And Shakespeare is the logical result of that. And it's written right through his work.
Catholicism in the 1590's and early 1600's was the great cutting-edge, intellectual movement of the day... Shakespeare would naturally have been part of that.
My feeling is that English literature scholars are quite parochial when they look at that period. They look at England; they don't look abroad. I've never seen a scholar—apart from Thomas McCoog and Alison Shell—who related Shakespeare's plays to the plays that were all the rage in Europe, the , which have all been lost because no one thought they needed to be preserved. They're like film scripts—spectacular performances as well as marvelous scripts, by all accounts. They were funny, tragic... they used folk stories, classical stories, histories, the Bible. Exactly like Shakespeare. They were completely eclectic, although they were Jesuit-sponsored. And there were Jesuits—who in England are always thought of as doctrinaire, narrow-minded—embracing all the fruits of the Renaissance in their drama. And that's a completely un-researched field. McCoog wrote an article on this saying that it's extraordinary that no one seems to have gone into this School of Drama. And Shakespeare, to me, seems an offshoot of it.
I think we underestimate what Catholicism was at the time. We shrink it down; we shrink-wrap it into a kind of a small, sectarian box like the other forms of modern Christianity. But at the time it was the prevailing and exciting, cutting-edge, intellectual movement. And Shakespeare would naturally have been part of that, a great mind like that.
Harold Bloom has claimed that Shakespeare invented what it means to be human in the modern sense. Do you think that your theory speaks to that?
I'm always surprised that Bloom said that. I don't know why he thinks Chaucer didn't do the same thing, or go back further to classical literature—even Augustine. I think we knew what it was to be human before Shakespeare; but I know what he means. Shakespeare's human "types" were far better than anyone else's up to then. And Bloom talks about how in Shakespeare you're living on the inside more, that he invented the soliloquy, which is not quite the case.
I think that since the Middle Ages the allegorical figures in English literature had become increasingly humanized. And Shakespeare was at the end of a process of humanizing what were originally fairly crude or obvious allegorical figures. For example, somebody is Love and another person is Hatred, and a third person is Jealousy.
Isn't that what critics of your theory would argue, that Shakespeare was operating wholly on a "realistic" level in his characterizations, that he'd "gotten beyond" the inferior medieval allegorical types?
The common wisdom is that both Chaucer and Shakespeare wrote realistic literature, and if they did, then writing allegory must be somehow a second-rate thing. The great geniuses write about Real People. (While Chaucer's other work was allegorical, the Canterbury Tales don't appear to be allegorical; they were sort of proto-Shakespeare.) Well, I think Shakespeare was doing both at the same time. And as for Chaucer, Dolores Cullen wrote a little-known book, Chaucer's Host, which effortlessly opened up a "second level," as she calls it; the double-vision of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. I found in that book an echo of what I was doing.
So an allegorical or topical reading in no way takes away from the universality of Shakespeare's work. It just adds yet another layer to the onion.
Exactly—it adds another layer. It's profoundly religious. Cullen uses the phrase, at some point in the book, "steeped in the chalice of the Middle Ages," which is rather a romantic but evocative way of describing what she sees Chaucer doing. You get a glimpse—I think Petrarch was doing the same—of this language for the cognoscenti running through the centuries; a very sophisticated form of allegory which is carried by an extremely realistic and sophisticated surface story—which is what Petrarch, Chaucer, and Shakespeare did.
A British journalist immediately said: 'This is about England's identity.' He was really excited by it.
Last question—why does it matter, ultimately, if Shakespeare was Catholic or Protestant, religious or agnostic or even atheist?
I have to say that it doesn't, with somebody like Shakespeare, as far as his art is concerned. The greatest, the most valuable and eternal part of his work, obviously, is the universal part that will always survive. But that doesn't mean the topical aspects should therefore be ignored. After all, you don't ignore Rembrandt's life simply because his pictures are so great; but rather the reverse. When you have a great artist, there's an enormous amount of scholarship about details—we're fascinated by everything to do with him. Why should Shakespeare be the exception to this? Why should there be a sanitized area around the work?
The hidden, Catholic, level matters, literally, like a mountain—because it's there. It's a part of this work by the greatest of writers. And therefore we should give him his due. If he was writing with the intention that what he was covertly saying should be preserved down the generations, it is to do him an extraordinary disservice not to look at it.
And to go back to what you were saying in the beginning, when we look at the identity of England, that's what he was discussing. There is a message there for us. And, indeed for America; which is, what do you do with spirituality? How does it relate to politics? It's a question people have never thought was there in Shakespeare, and yet it's a question we're asking ourselves today. Now, he, Shakespeare—a profoundly wise man—has an inspiration or an answer for us.