Thursday, November 10, 2005

Shadowplay, a Brief Book Review

Most people are aware of William Shakespeare. He was a British playwright and, as a matter of fact, was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth and her successor, King James. What most people do not know is that ol' Bill was a Recusant: a Catholic during a time when being Catholic was very dangerous. Both Elizabeth and James enforced laws against Catholics which included property confiscation, fines, jailing, and death--not to mention a variety of tortures along the way.

The political situation in England was messy when Shakespeare began his career. There were Reformers (the Puritans) who were not at all happy with Henry VIII's Anglican church (it was too Romish) and certainly not happy with the Catholics. Then there were the Anglicans, who were state-sanctioned, but not necessarily happy being Anglican--some were practicing Anglicans only because they would live longer (and more prosperously) by doing so. Finally, there were the Catholics, some enjoying Court-retainer status, but nonetheless very cautious. There were also "shades-of-grey" types--radical Reformers and radical Catholics (Guy Fawkes, for example.) Finally, there were the 10,000 or so ex-patriates: Catholics who had fled the country to avoid persecution.

All of them to one degree or the other were played off against one another and the monarch, largely by a fellow named Cecil, who was the #1 member of the royal council (cabinet, if you like.)

It was a political mess and the monarchs had to rule carefully.

Over the last 20+ years, more and more scholars have agreed that not only was Shakespeare a Catholic, but that some of his plays and poems were double-entendres; on one level, the play was about Othello, (e.g.)--but on another level, it was about the monarch (James in this case) and were often written to appeal to the monarch's sensibilities about the persecutions which were, frankly, damaging the fabric of the country.

Othello was King James; Iago was Cecil; Desdemona was the Catholic church (and/or a 'spiritual ideal', which to Shakespeare was reconciliation with Rome.) Othello was manipulated by Iago---you know the rest. Similarly, King Lear was written to show James that he was being manipulated (and robbed blind) by his "advisers." The King of Spain and his wife show up in a few places, along with various Jesuit undercover priests, and their gentry-patrons (all referred to using oblique but unmistakable terminology.

The history covered here is most interesting, particularly in light of the recent "Whig" controversies here in the US--and the revelations about the "code" used by Shakespeare (light/dark, ornate/plain) are truly remarkable when one considers that the plays stand very well by themselves without "decoding," and are equally compelling when read as 'coded' pro-Catholic pleadings.

The book, Shadowplay, by Claire Asquith, is heavily footnoted and solidly-researched, but enjoyable. It's worth its $26.95 (hardback) price. Go get it.


Fidei Defensor said...

I had heard this theory before, glad to see more evidence supports it than I imagined. Catholicsm has inspired so many English intellectials, Shakespeare, Moore, Chesterton, Newman, CS Lewis, etc. I am hard priced to name any from the Anglican camp.

Bernard Brandt said...

This theory, at least on an impartial reading of Shakespeare's plays, would appear to be plausible: the plays are redolent of Catholic sensibilities. If Shakespeare was under the patronage (official or unofficial) of the Queen, then there is precedent for Shakespeare being a recusant and yet not subject to the rather stringent laws against recusants: Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, and John Dowland were musicians who were recusants, but were also under the Queen's protection as Court musicians.

BarbariansAtBay said...

EWTN recently aired a September episode of The World Over where Raymond Arroyo conducted a fascinating interview of Asquith (Archived audio of the show is available here).