I wrote about this a few days ago, but now that Amy's on the case I thought I'd try and bring everything together in one place-
Jeff Miller at posts on Shadowplay here, and links to this piece on how the recusant view of the Bard allows a meaningful interpretation of a hitherto little-understood poem of Shakespeare's.
Rich Leonardi links to a post he put up last month.
Plato's Stepchild objects to the whole theory and compares Asquith's book to the Da Vinci Code.
Commonweal carried an article by Clare Asquith a while back, and the NCRegister had a column on it as well. And here's a new article from the Guardian. The Weekly Standard panned the book a few weeks back.
Now, not having read the book, I haven't any strong opinions on the matter- but I truly don't understand those who are denying the possibility out of hand. The Whig/Protestant interpretation of History has been in decline for quite some time now, but it's only been a dozen years since Eamon Duffy's "The Stripping of the Altars" radically reoriented the view of the English Reformation; and it is thus unsurprising that this new interpretation of Shakespeare only be seen now. We are also seeing, even among those who have not signed on to Asquith's view, a more robust Catholic background attributed to Shakespeare. Stephen Greenblatt, for instance, contends that Shakespeare tutored for a Recusant Catholic family in Lancashire during his lost years
As for the substantive criticisms, the main one is merely that many of Asquith's interpretations do not prove what is desired. It appears, however, that what the critics are complaining about is not the evidence which she offers in order to prove her thesis, but the interpretations which she offers having already established it. As for the view that Shakespeare writing in cipher is inherently implausible: what is being contended, so far as I can tell, is not that Shakespeare wrote a lot of coded messages into his works, but rather that he alluded to Catholic beliefs and recusant themes in a manner that would have been picked up by contemporary Catholics. It appears as a code to us because we have lost the cultural and linguistic context to understand the subtext Shakespeare offers.
Additionally, Edwin Yoder writes in the Weekly Standard:
"The most serious embarrassment to her keystone theory, however, is not critical but bibliographical. In the First Folio of 1623, its two editors, Shakespeare's professional intimates, included the late play Henry VIII while excluding others as uncanonical on grounds of adulterated authorship. If Shakespeare had been a zealous detractor of the English Reformation, using his plays as instruments of coded propaganda, none would have been likelier to know it than the editors of the Folio, and surely none less likely to make a mockery of their colleague's memory by including a play that treats the Protestant reformers--even Archbishop Cranmer--sympathetically."
I find it slightly odd that while the contested authorship of Henry VIII should count as proof against Shakespeare's Catholicism, Shakespeare's apparent coauthorship of Sir Thomas More is not even mentioned. Moreover, it is hardly clear that Henry VIII is as unabashedly Royalist and Protestant as Yoder claims: While I would hardly be able to endorse the approach adopted here, the Literary Encyclopedia seems to regard it as ambiguous:
"It is only relatively recently that critics and directors have begun to see a different play beneath these historical accumulations, a surprisingly sinuous political play shot through with theological and ideological nuance. Rather than a “thing made up of a great many patches”, as Pepys thought, or an unsubtle vehicle for theatrical pomp, Henry VIII is a complex study of political, theological and personal “truth” which juxtaposes the Henrician and the Jacobean in order obliquely to examine the development of the Reformation in England. It represents recent history as a series of arbitrary changes in allegiance and it assesses that history as a question of representational – that is, contested – truth."
Henry VIII is, of course, Shakespeare's last play, if indeed it is his. My own suspicion is that Fletcher completed and sanatized an unfinished work Shakespeare had abandoned, perhaps simply because he realized that he either had to seem to endorse the English Reformation, or be too clearly revealed as a recusant.
At the least, the evidence is too suggestive to rule out Clare Asquith's contentions without giving her a fair hearing.