Friday, August 05, 2005

Shakespearean Secret Messages

You'd think that, given the behemoth that is Shakespearean Studies, nothing new could any longer be said about the Bard or his works. (Just try a Google search on his name to get some idea of the insane amount of material that's out there.) But Clare Asquith, a British Viscountess, has just published a study entitled Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare that is shaking up the normally staid world of Bardology. Maclean's magazine reports:

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.

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.

Now, it's not exactly revolutionary to claim that there's more going on in Shakespeare's plays than the overt themes would indicate. But Asquith's assertions are a little stronger than that; she believes that there was a kind of coded language at work in his plays and poems that could instantly be understood by the initiated to refer to specific religious and political topics. The word "tempest," for example, referred to the upheaval of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation; the word "love" referred to both human and spiritual love. Of course, there is no shortage of so-called "critical" work on Shakespeare that is anything but - the history of spurious claims regarding the Bard (such as the recurring insistence that the plays were written by someone else like the Earl of Oxford or Queen Elizabeth herself) is as long as it is amusing. What's interesting about Asquith's work is that it's getting the attention and respect of some major Shakespeare scholars:

"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.

[...] Her theories have gained the endorsement of E.A.J. Honigmann, the esteemed dean of Shakespearean scholars, who at first found them too incredible to believe. He returned her manuscript with the comment, "No, sorry, I can't accept this." He later came to stay at the Manor of Mells, where Asquith pleaded her case with what she calls a "full, Technicolor, wide-screen lecture." At the end of which, Honigmann bowed his head and replied: "You have persuaded me to change my position."

That's enough to make me want to take a look, anyway. (Hat-tip to Bookslut for the link)