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The Shakespeare Code

Category Articles
Date September 15, 2005

Clare Asquith has written a book, Shadowplay: the Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (384 pp, Public Affairs, £18.99). Her thesis is not simply that Shakespeare was a secret practicing Roman Catholic, but that he was trained at Oxford and perhaps at an English seminary abroad and that he devoted his career to embedding coded Catholic messages in his plays.

In the Daily Telegraph Saturday September 10, 2005 James Shapiro responded to the book thus: “To delude the censors, she argues, Shakespeare cast these messages addressed explicitly to his monarchs and to fellow recusants – within universal dramatic themes. But to the careful reader, one trained in decoding the language of recusancy (Asquith provides a glossary of terms for the uninitiated), his intentions are unmistakable. For 400 years, her argument goes, most readers, directors, editors and scholars have misread Shakespeare. The code now broken, we can see him for the devoted Catholic apologist that he was.

“I’m in deep sympathy with Asquith’s desire to put religion at the centre of 16th-century culture. And nobody who reads this book can fail to be impressed by the verve with which she writes, bringing a lost world to life. It pains me, then, to say that her case is specious. Asquith’s argument collapses because it ignores how Elizabethan drama worked. For one thing, Shakespeare didn’t control how his plays circulated – his playing company did. It would stagger belief that the members of this company, the Chamberlain’s Men – friends who acted in his plays for many years – could have been in the dark about coded messages, or that Shakespeare would have put their livelihood at risk (let alone his own) by having them mouth words that would have landed them in trouble. On the rare occasion that Shakespeare resorted to allegory, as in his enigmatic lyric “The Phoenix and Turtle”, he chose the appropriate literary form: poetry.

“Shakespeare wrote his plays for paying customers at the Globe, not for royal patrons. He didn’t even have a say over which of his plays were to be performed at court (that was the job of Master of the Revels, who also vetted plays for any hint of unwelcome politics). Many of Shakespeare’s plays weren’t even published in his lifetime, so their timely warnings would have been lost on anybody not in walking distance of the playhouse. And rabidly anti-theatrical Puritans – let alone shrewd privy councillors who attended plays at court – were not as stupid as Asquith implies and would not have missed anything resembling coded recusant messages.

“Asquith’s argument also depends upon a Shakespeare who wrote alone. But we know that, early and late in his career, he co-authored plays. Shadowplay’s low point surely has to be the desperate assertion that late collaborations with John Fletcher in Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen were nothing of the kind: she fantasises that Fletcher must have got hold of drafts of Shakespeare’s unfinished plays seized in raids on Catholic households and then transformed them, without Shakespeare’s knowledge, into Protestant propaganda.

“The problem with challenging a book like this is that you can’t win: Asquith can assert that, say, Shakespeare describes Hermia as short and Helena tall in A Midsummer Night’s Dream not because of the difference in height of the company’s boy players but for polemical ends, for “the terms ‘high’ and ‘fair’… always indicate Catholicism, and ‘low’ and ‘dark’… always suggest Protestantism”. To question that conclusion only reveals one’s ignorance of the code.

“There is a way of testing Asquith’s theory of how recusants read Shakespeare. She seems to be unaware that a marked-up copy of an early Shakespeare folio survives, carefully vetted by a censor, in the seminary established for English Catholics in Valladolid, Spain. Where Asquith quotes approvingly a line from As You Like It (“his kissing is as full of sanctity as the touch of holy bread”) as a positive allusion to the Mass, it is crossed out in the Valladolid folio. Where Asquith lauds Measure for Measure as an allegory of a longed-for reunion “of Stuart England with the universal Catholic Church”, the play so offended the Catholic censor that he ripped it out.

“Yet Asquith would be pleased to know that lines from Macbeth were read in much the way that she predicts at Valladolid, where the passage is carefully marked: “Some holy angel/Fly to the court of England and unfold/ His message ere he come, that a swift blessing/May soon return to this our suffering country/Under a hand accursed!” For Jacobean English recusants abroad, just as for all admirers of Shakespeare, the plays speak almost uncannily to their immediate situation and feelings. Shakespeare’s great gift was that he accomplished this without resorting to code.”

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