Scholars have long noted a religious quality in Shakespeare’s drama, in which human histories are magnified through symbolic rites of passage, sacramental language and ritual. We witness life, death and resurrection in his plays.
Over the past decade, scholarly attention has focused on Shakespeare’s own Catholicism. He came from a Catholic family, persecuted for its faith. Meanwhile, revisionist historians have argued that Protestantism was, in large part, imposed upon a traumatized and resentful population, which remained loyal to the old faith in its heart.
William Shakespeare was born into a troubled world of slippery turns. In an era of authoritarianism and persecution, it was politic to keep quiet. Traditionally, Shakespeare has been identified as the self-effacing dramatist celebrated by Keats for his negative capability: absenting his own subjective presence from his plays while bodying forth all his characters with empathy and integrity. He is the inveterate magpie who feeds from a rich field of sourcesthe Geneva Bible and Protestant Tudor historiography not the least among them.
Recent scholarship has identified more and more that is Catholic within the canon, but Clare Asquith goes further than any other Shakespearean scholar I can think of in laying claim to a veritable Roman cipher within his writing.
The British author, who has lectured on both sides of the Atlantic, argues compellingly that Shakespeare adopts a covert code used by dissident Catholic writers to discuss the tormented condition of their country. By tracing a chronological line through the Complete Works, she demonstrates that he supplemented this code with his own emblematic and allegorical allusions so as to better encourage or admonish his co-religionists according to topical exigencies. All his plots and characters, however complex, would have equally complex shadow identities, Asquith argues. Shakespeare, in effect, told parables that only those with the ears of faith were intended to hear.
In the early Titus Andronicus, Titus’s beautiful daughter Lavinia, raped, made dumb and maimed by evil power-wielders, is the horrific primary image of the play. Asquith contends that the ghastly spectacle could not have failed to evoke the iconoclasts’ brutal mutilation of Madonnas and other saints’ effigies throughout the land.
She argues that in the same play Shakespeare warned against a violent Catholic riposte. Titus’s infamous serving up of the rapists in a pie, which was then eaten by the rapists’ mother, is a hellish parody of the Eucharist: a pre-Christian ritual based on vengeance, which marks Titus’s moral degeneracy.
Another iconic moment occurs toward the end of Shakespeare’s career when Hermione’s frozen statue comes to life in The Winter’s Tale, following the erstwhile jealous tyrant Leontes’s saint-like contrition. (All of Shakespeare’s late romances project hope and resurrection after suffering and remorse.) The statue had been kept inviolate in a private chapel by Paulina, a brave woman of the court. For it to move, It is required you do awake your faith.
In a thrilling example of Asquith’s literary-historical detective work, Paulina is identified as an extraordinary tribute to Magdalen Brown, Viscountess Montague, doyenne of recusancy and great-aunt and grandmother of Shakespeare’s two most important Catholic patrons. Her confessor, Richard Smith, likened her to the noble St. Paula, helpmate to St. Jerome.
Another coup is the linking of an obscure deer song in As You Like It with Sir William Stanley, an exiled English Catholic hero who had defected to Spain in the Low Countries and who was reviled in England for his defection. A group of brothers in adversity in Arden (a.k.a. the Ardennes, a center for Catholic exiles) parade the head of a stag to be worn as a branch of victory by the exiled Duke Senior, who is hailed as a Roman conqueror. The stag’s antlers are not a shameful crest, they assert, not a thing to laugh to scorn. Asquith identifies the ritualized song as an emblematic moment of tribute to Stanley, whose family crest was the head of a stag.
An earlier comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, explores the fault lines of religious division afflicting England through the imagery of fairy and erotic contention. Here Shakespeare uses what Asquith calls his familiar code markers of high and fair, low and dark to denote Catholicism and Protestantism respectively. Hence the mad mix-up of lovers alternatively wooing the fair painted Maypole (Catholic) Helena and the (Protestant) Hermiavariously described as a tawny Tartar, a bead, an acorndenotes the confusing change of religious allegiances. As Puck wryly notes: One man holding troth,/ A million fail, confounding oath on oath.
One exquisite observation from Dream associates the five red spots in the center of cowslips (in those freckles live their savours) with the five wounds of Christ, an object of intense devotion in England and, after a Catholic rebellion in 1569, a banner of resistance to the imposition of the new order.
Asquith subjects each of the plays and the longer poems to cogent, topical analysis. The Nurse’s speech in Romeo and Juliet is a memorial to St. Edmund Campion; a hankie soaked in blood in Julius Caesar evokes the martyrs; storms are metaphors for the upheaval of the Reformation. Edgar’s plight in King Lear recalls that of dispossessed Catholics and Jesuit missionaries. The final act of The Merchant of Venice (on such a night as this) evokes the recollective mystery of the Easter Vigil’s Exultet. Macbeth conveys Shakespeare’s horror at the Gunpowder Plot while offering a cosmic comfort derived from the medieval mystery plays’ harrowing of Hell. Asquith’s identification of Hamlet with Sir Philip Sidney is provocative and of Richard III with the Machiavellian, hunchbacked Robert Cecil most plausible.
Although the author is occasionally a little too formulaic, a little too emphatic, her exhaustive research, her flashes of brilliant detail and her vivid style make for fascinating reading. Also, she also remains true to a vision of Shakespeare as a profoundly tolerant humanist, rooting this in his deep Christian faith, which also molded his great imagination.