Investigating Shakespeare's Hidden Catholicism

Clare Asquith on the Bard’s Faith and Coded Works

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LONDON, DEC. 21, 2005 ( As the wife of a British diplomat posted in Moscow during the Cold War, Clare Asquith witnessed firsthand how double-entendres in Soviet theater communicated secret meanings to audiences.

Her experience in Moscow opened her eyes to underlying messages in the plays and poems of William Shakespeare, who Asquith believes was a covert Roman Catholic in the days of Protestant Elizabethan England.

Asquith, author of «Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare» (PublicAffairs), shared with ZENIT her evidence of the Bard’s Catholicism and the possible meaning behind his famous words.

Q: What are the main reasons you believe Shakespeare was a Catholic? Why do you think this is noteworthy?

Asquith: One reason, often overlooked, is that it was statistically more likely that Shakespeare was a Catholic than otherwise.

Until recently it was widely assumed that Catholicism was a dwindling sect in Shakespeare’s day. But the recent «revisionist» history of the period stresses the fact that in spite of persecution, most of the country was either overtly or secretly Catholic up to 1600.

And among the intelligentsia who opposed the Cecils — Elizabeth’s powerful advisers — covert Catholicism was respectable, indeed fashionable, in the 1590s.

Outwardly «Protestant» Elizabethan figures such as Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Penelope Rich and the Queen’s witty godson, John Harrington, all expressed private sympathy with the undercover priests who were bringing a revived form of Counter-Reformation Catholicism to England. The attitudes and themes of Shakespeare’s work suggest that one of his primary aims was to address the concerns of sophisticated, disaffected courtiers like these.

Secondly, recent biographers have explored the full, often startling extent of Shakespeare’s Catholic background, a fact discreetly sidelined for centuries by a predominantly Protestant academic establishment in England.

Finally, in an age when anti-papist jibes were a sure way to get your work past the censor, Shakespeare makes emphatic use of the idiom of the old religion, treating it with insight, delicacy and respect. «He died a papist,» remembered one Anglican divine, who had no reason to invent such an unpalatable biographical detail.

Shakespeare’s Catholicism and its necessary concealment should not be surprising: More surprising is the fact that it has been ignored for so long.

Q: What is the main evidence for your claim? How has your theory fared among prominent Shakespeare scholars?

Asquith: My claim is that there was only one way to get the forbidden concerns of covert Catholics onto the stage or into print, and that was by using a commonly understood subversive language. This occurred in Soviet Eastern Europe, a parallel I explore in my book.

Shakespeare’s period was the golden age of double meanings, an era when the many-layered symbolism of medieval art met the allegorical wealth of the Renaissance. Examined in the light of the recently revised history, the highly ornamental literature of late 16th-century England reveals a mass of hidden allusions to the proscribed subjects of contemporary religion and politics.

To take a single example, the immense popularity of Thomas Kyd’s play, «The Spanish Tragedy,» has always puzzled scholars. It is only now that we can begin to detect in this shocking tragedy a moving and powerful dramatization of the central concern of English Catholics: How should the virtuous man react to intolerable injury when all recourse to justice is denied?

But it seems that scholars are not yet ready to align the literature of the day with the revised history of 16th-century England. So far, the theory that all this was going on in the work of any Elizabethan writer, let alone the works of Shakespeare, interests many English academics, but has been dismissed by leading Shakespeare scholars such as Stanley Wells and Ann Barton.

Q: What sort of methods did Shakespeare use to communicate Catholic ideas in his plays? Why did he need to speak in coded language?

Asquith: I contend that Shakespeare began to write when this form of coded communication was well established, and that it was an art form he perfected. Like his contemporaries — and not unlike modern political cartoonists — the technique involved the personification of abstractions as living people, and the re-application of myths and legends to contemporary events.

This was commonplace in Renaissance and medieval iconography. But Shakespeare’s universal layer is so brilliant that it conceals his «shadow play» from all but the cognoscenti.

Unlike other writers, who often relied on deniable parallels, he used a rigorously accurate set of coded «markers» to indicate the contours of the hidden plot. These markers allow him an extraordinary degree of sophistication, and mean that he was able to dramatize the forgotten history of the times in unusually nuanced detail, while dodging hostile censorship.

Q: Do you think Shakespeare was involved in any of the Catholic resistance movements?

Asquith: One of the unexpected elements to emerge from the hidden level is the close parallel between the concealed themes of the plays and the gradually evolving advice to English Catholics from leaders in exile like Robert Persons and William Allen.

Shakespeare’s early comedies take a resolutely lighthearted view of the sectarian struggle, portraying an optimistically happy outcome; the plays and poems of the mid-1590s reflect the increasing persecution, but recommend patience rather than rebellion, repeatedly staging the ideal Catholic scenario of a successful rescue attempt from abroad.

After the death of his first patron, the dissident Lord Strange, Shakespeare’s hidden plays reveal the influence of the opposition party of the Earl of Essex, a magnet for Catholic as well as Puritan dissenters. This involved a change of course; rebellion was now an option.

«Hamlet» is on one level a play addressed to the influential but timorous «don’t knows» of Elizabeth’s England: those who loathed the Cecils but shrank from outright rebellion.

The 1601 Essex rebellion was expertly defused, and Shakespeare’s remaining plays appeal for toleration directly to the monarch — or, in the case of King James I’s son, Henry, to the heir to the throne — or else address a dispirited Catholic resistance movement, divided and weakened by pressure from without and within.

Like the resistance leaders, he now stresses inner, spiritual solutions to the Catholic dilemma rather than direct political action. He remains committed to the end. The hidden level of the finale of «The Winter’s Tale» pays unmistakable homage to the Mass and to those who preserved it under persecution.

Q: Was the purpose of his plays to serve as Catholic propaganda, or was that simply a secondary element?

Asquith: Under an oppressive regime one of the most exhilarating and liberating experiences is to witness a skillfully ambiguous discussion of forbidden matters in public, under the nose of the unwitting authorities. Czechs, Poles and Russians often recall these dangerously double-edged dramas with nostalgia.

Such performances are not so much propaganda as a much-needed antidote to propaganda.

Q: How do your findings impact the way people should or should not read Shakespeare?

Asquith: There are patches of Shakespeare which are difficult to appreciate without an awareness of the hidden level. «The Rape of Lucrece,» «Venus and Adonis» and «Titus Andronicus» are three works that gain greatly from an understanding of their «shadowplay.»

More generally, the double-vision approach resurrected by my book should enrich the experience of watching any Shakespeare play or reading any Shakespeare poem. It is not necessary — but it is fascinating. Rightly understood, it should take us back
to the full experience Shakespeare originally intended for certain sympathetic audiences.

Q: Can you describe the possible connection that may have existed between Shakespeare and St. Edmund Campion? What influence, if any, might this encounter have had on the Bard?

Asquith: Biographers have traced the connection between Campion and the young Shakespeare. This may well have been close. The brother of one of Shakespeare’s teachers was a missionary who came to England with Campion and died with him.

Campion and Persons were known to have visited close neighbors of Shakespeare’s family. A spiritual document distributed by Campion was found hundreds of years later in the roof of the Shakespeare’s house, signed by Shakespeare’s father.

And there is a possibility Shakespeare traveled north with Campion to the Jesuit center at Hoghton Tower, where he studied while working as a «schoolmaster in the country.»

I came on only one allusion to Campion in Shakespeare’s work, and it is profoundly respectful, but wary of the angry extremism that may have been induced by his death. My book, «Shadowplay,» points to a carefully oblique series of references to the unmentionable Campion affair in the nurse’s famously rambling speech in «Romeo and Juliet.»

Like much else in the play, it gives a religious dimension to the theme of the heroic pursuit of love, truth and beauty in Elizabeth’s England, and associates such a course with death.

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