Sunday, April 18, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Shadowplay by Clare Asquith

Shadowplay, The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare by Clare Asquith. Perseus Books (Cambridge, MA, 2005) 348 pp. Reviewed by Martin Abramson: First Published in Book/Mark, Summer 2008

With permission of Book/Mark, a small press review.

While every study of his work takes into account the powerful conflict in Shakespeare’s life between the old Catholic religion outlawed by Henry VIII and the new state-sanctioned brand of Protestantism, only Shadowplay goes so far as to detect pro-Catholic codes secretly seeded everywhere in the plays and to demonstrate this conflict as the overriding theme of the works.
Ms. Asquith’s thesis is anything but baseless considering Shakespeare’s Catholic-leaning family , recusant Stratford neighbors and powerful Catholic friends and patrons including Lord Strange, Essex and Southampton. Moreover, her documentation is voluminous, minutely detailed and strategically supported throughout by historical record.
She argues that Shakespeare, a nominal Protestant, secretly sympathized with the persecuted Catholics, anguished over their exile, torture and martyrdom and sought to support their cause through the plays by employing psychological persuasion to cause Elizabeth, (and then James I) to heal the nation by allowing religious freedom to both groups.
Ms. Asquith finds key words, significant dates, portentous places, meaningful proper nouns, reverberant names shot through the plays like seeds in a pomegranate. Again and again she is able to link particular plays to specific historic actions. Moving chronologically from play to play, Ms. Asquith, without devaluing traditional interpretations, reinterprets each play according to a political code that underlies the surface action as layer masks beneath modern edited photos. It is the very essence of her thesis that Shakespeare composed on two equally important levels: one, the apparent surface: comedy and tragedy that was immortal in its own right--- successful on its own terms---charming the establishment with fantastic virtuosity; and, two, the under-layer, a network of hidden cues, references and allusions designed to be spotted and appreciated by Catholic sympathizers in every audience.
Asquith’s analysis of Hamlet, for example, is truly unique. She shows how closely Hamlet resembles Sir Phillip Sidney---a nominal Protestant with deep Catholic sympathies who was never able to speak out against the government. According to Ms. Asquith, Hamlet’s famous indecisiveness characterizes that of thousands of Englishmen who longed for the return of the Universal Church but would not take action. Some who, like Claudius, repented but would not surrender his ill-gotten gains, were enjoying lands and houses expropriated from the Catholic church.
I have considered citing other examples but finally rejected the idea. It would be like naming a few random stars as a perspective on the vastness of the night sky. The overwhelming power of Shadowplay is precisely in the cumulative impact of hundreds of instances that interlock as inevitably as the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. Isolated examples would be as meaningful as a few puzzle pieces that happen to fit together but show almost nothing of the picture. Suffice it to say that I have been totally convinced by Ms. Asquith’s thesis. In dozens of instances, her clues clarify lines that were otherwise obscure. Over and over I experienced that “aha” emotion at finally understanding why Shakespeare used those words in that speech.
I believe the Shadowplay is an authentic landmark in Shakespeare scholarship; however, I must note that the preponderance of critical opinion disagrees. So allow me an alternative point of view. The book has a fascination that would hold even if every reference were proven false. In short, if Shadowplay were shown to be a work of pure fiction, I would still enthusiastically recommend it to every Shakespeare scholar and literary detective who loves a great mystery.

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