Sunday, August 28, 2005

Shadowplay Discussion

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.


Blogger Darwin said...

Any idea how (if at all) Asquith's work differs from the various scholarship and/or opinionating on the topic earlier? I recall reading a number of places that Shakespeare was at the least Catholic in background and symphaties (whatever his actual practice may have been) and I recall 5-7 years ago hearing all sorts of theories about "coded" meanings of his plays from Prof. Russel at Steubenville (now, I believe, at Ave Maria).

Does Asquith have something new going on here, or is this just a more mainstream publication of theories previous floating more around the fringes of academia?

August 29, 2005 11:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Profs. John Finnis (Oxford/Notre Dame) and Patrick Martin (LSU) published an article in the (London) Times Literary Supplement a couple years ago. It is an interpretation of Shakespeare's enigmatic "The Phoenix and the Turtle."

Finnis and Martin think they've solved the puzzle and their solution puts Shakespeare smack dab in the middle of influential recusants (and other Catholics who, because of their positions, were not required to renounce).

It is interesting work and I think they're working on a book. I don't know how Asquith's book syncs up with theirs.

August 29, 2005 12:22 PM  
Blogger Father McCarthy said...

I had an English prof (Dr. Thomas Howard) who argued that Shakespeare was a strong Catholic, despite the strong protestantism of the Elizabethian era.

August 29, 2005 12:29 PM  
Blogger gabriel said...

My understanding is that previous works, such as those by Fr. Peter Milward have canvassed Shakespeare's likely Catholicism and Catholic sensibilities reflected in his plays, but I believe Asquith is the first to suggest that Shakespeare employed a broad range of allusions and themes that were meant to be understood by his fellow Catholics.

August 29, 2005 12:31 PM  
Anonymous Plato's Stepchild said...

I will go into more detail later. My main objection is not that Shakespeare isn't a a recusant Catholic -- he most likely is -- but that she claims for herself originality which is not her due, and she denigrates the Bard's corpus by reducing it to Catholic ciphership.

A brief glance at the works of Milward (Hidden Catholicism), Miola (Senecan influences) or Bloom and Alvis (Political Philosophy) will show what a blinkered view this is.

And don't get me started on the wonderful work that Sister Miriam Joseph did on his rhetorial tropes and schemes.

August 29, 2005 2:00 PM  
Anonymous Plato's Stepchild said...


I have never studied under Henry Russell but I believe you are referring to "typology". Again, my objection to her work is that she claims original insight which is not hers and what she does uncover is pretty pedestrian compared to what others have done.

But, of course, the MSM is the place to go if you wish to make a great deal of sound and fury signifying nothing.

And, no, I'm not a Shakespeare scholar. I do, however, find it hard to believe that Hans Urs Von Balthasar and Eric Voegelin (who reread all of Shakespeare's works each year) generate no heat and light in this discussion, whilst The Medici Code is now front and centre.

Pardon my rant, but when I see MSM hoopla like this it always calls to mind Milton's blind mouths. (The MSM that is, not the innocent parties on blogs commenting).

August 29, 2005 2:05 PM  
Blogger Darwin said...

Plato's Stepchild,

I had Russel for a semester in the Honors program at Steubenville, and I can't say I was impressed with his Shakespearian analysis (the main section I recall at this remove was his insistence that the warden's monologue in Macbeth was in fact a discussion of the persecution of the Jesuits, because it referred to an "equivicator"). However, I'm not in a position to throw serious stones as I haven't taken the time to study his thinking further.

Certainly, contrasting Shakespeare's treatment of Catholics with his contemporaries, you can see he's far more sympathetic. But I certainly agree with you to be leery of "codes".

August 29, 2005 3:12 PM  
Anonymous DoctorSubtilis said...

Great title to the post. I just started re-reading "Brideshead Revisted" again and saw the link to this blog at Open Book; quite a coincidence.

August 29, 2005 3:56 PM  
Blogger gabriel said...

Plato's sc-

Thanks for the comments- perhaps you've had the opportunity to read Shadowplay already- I haven't. My sense from the coverage and the reviews on Amazon is that "Catholic ciphership" doesn't quite do it justice. Allusion and allegorical meanings are not ciphership, and again, I think Asquith is arguing that it would not have been a code to his Catholic contemporaries.

If indeed she is guilty of excluding other readings or coopting other scholarship, that would indeed be a black mark against her. Still, I haven't yet seen evidence of that.

I find the idea that the MSM is all over this rather difficult to take- the only MSM outlets I've seen cover the book are the Guardian (just yesterday), the Washington Post and (I'm Canadian) Maclean's. Hardly 'hoopla'.

August 29, 2005 4:41 PM  
Anonymous Plato's Stepchild said...


I've been reading about Shakespeare's Hidden Catholicism for quite some time -- she is certainly not the first to suggest it.

As well, since she asserts various hidden meanings in Shakespeare, I am asserting, but cannot prove, that the MSM coverage is orchestrated a priori to generate publicity for her.

A dip into any one of the authors that I have mentioned on my bloggin -- whether Alvis, Miola or Bloom would reveal literary analysis that merits serious attention. It is also open to dispute and challenge and certainly Milward's work is not immune to criticism.

People who are reading this work are not reading other author's analysis -- which is disturbingly similar to the DaVinci Code phenomenon.

Certainly you do not have to be a Voegelinian wannabe (such as yours truly) to see the Gnostic impulse lurking behind the page.

I haven't yet mentioned W.H. Auden's Lectures on Shakespeare. So, my apologies if I appear to sense that someone is digging up the Bard to suspend him from the Tyburne gallows, paint a few allusions on his corpus and then bury him again. I think this sullies those who were martyred at Tyburne.

I don't believe this book is aimed at increasing Shakespeare scholarship or boosting donations at the Tyburne convent, which is why I question both its cause and its effect.

August 29, 2005 5:34 PM  
Anonymous Plato's Stepchild said...


I've just noticed that the Gabriel that I've been arguing with is the purveyor of this blog. I fear that I am becoming the Earl of Shaftesbury.

August 29, 2005 5:38 PM  
Blogger gabriel said...


It's never a good idea to suspect you're turning into Lord Ashley-Cooper- a traitor, a murderer and a pretty vile anti-Catholic. Rest assured, you're not even close. (Or perhaps you're thinking of the 10th Earl? If so, I'm slightly disappointed we can't keep this conversation in the 17th century.)

Back to the subject at hand, while it would be admirable if everyone read a broad spectrum of Shakespearean criticism, I hardly think that Asquith is to blame for our failings.

August 29, 2005 6:48 PM  
Anonymous Plato's Stepchild said...


You are correct. John Guy is to blame, as a quick perusal of his hack and slash corpus reveals.

August 29, 2005 7:13 PM  
Anonymous Plato's Stepchild said...

I hope that more people will continue to cast a sceptical eye at the main character in this strange tale of overreach, Mr. John Guy.

August 30, 2005 2:58 PM  
Blogger gabriel said...

OK, I'll bite- what's the significance of John Guy? As far as I can tell, he supplied a dj quote- he isn't thanked in the acknowledgements, nor is he in the bibliography. I'm don't think a flattering dj blurb a villain makes, irrespective of the value of his scholarly work.

August 30, 2005 11:11 PM  
Anonymous Plato's Stepchild said...


Oh come now. You have to go to my blog to find out. A shameless self promoter like myself can't let everyone else have all the web traffic now can I?

August 31, 2005 4:32 AM  
Anonymous Plato's Stepchild said...

Mighty quiet around these parts. I wonder if everyone is playing in the shadows?

September 09, 2005 10:28 AM  
Blogger tandybrinick41696712 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

September 22, 2005 1:03 AM  

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