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Shakespeare, the secret rebel

  • ROBERT MASON LEE

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

Shakespeare91.jpg
William Shakespeare
(15641616)

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.

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