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December 05, 2005

The Da Vinci Code of Shakespeare Scholarship: Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare - Clare Asquith

Posted by David Womersley

Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare
by Clare Asquith
Pp. xviii + 348. New York: Public Affairs, 2005
Hardback, £18.99

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews Clare Asquith's Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare. Prof. Womersley argues that the book "is perhaps best regarded as a Da Vinci Code for that subset of the credulous whose obsessions are as much literary as religious".

There is a Monty Python sketch which consists of a mock television interview with a woman who has a theory, but who, in explication and defence of it, can say nothing beyond endless repetitions of the words:

This is my theory; and this is what it is.
That sketch came to mind frequently as I read this essay in the biographical and literary interpretation of Shakespeare.

The book's contentions are easily stated, and consist of a number of interlocking historiographical and literary components. In the first place, we are asked to believe that the Reformation was a top-down rather than bottom-up phenomenon which left until well into the seventeenth century a majority of the English population with a stronger affinity to the old religion than to the new.

Secondly, in the face of savage and thorough repression orchestrated by the Cecils, Catholic sympathisers developed a literary code, which allowed them to express and communicate their allegiance to the old religion without exposing themselves to danger.

Thirdly, that Shakespeare was one of those writers who shared this surreptitious sympathy, and that his plays therefore lend themselves to being interpreted in terms of this code. It will be convenient to consider each of these elements in turn.

As Clare Asquith herself acknowledges, the historiographical background of her work relies overwhelmingly on the work of a group of revisionist historians of the Reformation, particularly Eamon Duffy and Christopher Haigh. This historiography is powerful and often subtle writing, and I wonder therefore if it has been well-served by being translated into the cruder and more emphatic simplicities of Shadowplay. For instance, does it really evince mature historical judgement to maintain that the period of Shakespeare's life was (p. xxvii):

the country's most turbulent era.
More turbulent than the fifty years between 1640 and 1690? More perilous than 1789 to 1815, or 1939 to 1945? But the argument of Shadowplay depends on the existence of a permanent condition of crisis in the second half of the sixteenth century in England, and so nuance or careful comparison has to be sacrificed.

It is also strange to see the work of extremely sophisticated and scrupulous historians pressed into the service of a book which is often marked by an historical naivety more often encountered in undergraduate essays. For instance, one of the undergirding principles of the revisionist historiography of the Reformation is a very subtle and complicated understanding of historical causation: it was partly through their more elaborate awareness of the intricacy of historical change and causation that Haigh and Duffy were able convincingly to challenge the earlier historiography. But in Shadowplay we are regaled with simplicities such as (p. 26):

Elizabeth's personal fondness for poetry, drama and music was largely responsible for the flowering of all three art forms in England towards the end of the sixteenth century.
Or the attribution of the entirety of repressive Elizabethan policy to "the Cecil takeover" (pp. 31-32), or the invitation to imagine Shakespeare and James I sitting down to have a literary conversation. Shadowplay is cartoon history.

Against this historical background, Shadowplay invites us to accept that there existed in Elizabethan literature a code which allowed dissident meanings to be concealed within literary works which were outwardly conforming. It is certainly the case that much Elizabethan literature delights in esoteric or hidden meaning. It is also often the case that scholarly attempts to uncover and display hidden or esoteric meanings in literary works are beset by bathos. Even a scholar as intelligent and eloquent as Leo Strauss was not always able to banish from the mind of his reader the nagging thought that, as esoteric meanings go, the meanings which he had just indicated in, for instance, Plato, were not really esoteric enough. But there is nothing in Strauss's work to rival the banality of this (p. 32):
The master key to the hidden level is so simple that it is easy to miss. It takes the form of twin terms that identify the polar opposites in Elizabeth's England. They are not Shakespeare's only terms, and he uses them sparingly, but with pinpoint accuracy. They are the terms "high" and "fair", which always indicate Catholicism, and "low" and "dark", which always suggest Protestantism.
Matters don't improve when it comes to readings of individual plays. When the practice of reading is reduced to simply de-coding, literary commentary becomes nothing more than the identification of the required meaning in each play. It is uniquely dispiriting to see the works which comprise Shakespeare's literary career, and which show such (as one would have thought) unmistakable evidence of experiment and self-renewal, ground down to serve the unique purpose of this monocular argument. Finally, the argument of Shadowplay is repeatedly deficient technically, as it consists of a massive petitio principii (namely, the assumption of the very point which it is the purpose of the argument to establish).

In the wake of such a tide of wild hypothesis, strained reading, and reductive historicism, it is helpful to bear in mind a few simple facts. None of Shakespeare's contemporaries refer to his use of any code; indeed, the code which is crucial to the argument of Shadowplay is not referred to in any other writer, and is also hardly discoverable in any other works, notwithstanding the assertion that it furnished the secret language for (p. 32):
a brotherhood of dissident writers.
Some Elizabethan writers were suspected of harbouring Catholic sympathies (such as, for instance, John Stow), but Shakespeare is not one of them. Many Elizabethan writers fell foul of the authorities because of the heterodoxy of their work, but again Shakespeare is not one of them. Of course, nothing is more suspicious, and therefore more conclusive, than the complete absence of evidence.

There are people who will find the argument of this book persuasive, just as there are people who believe that Elvis Presley is still alive, that the moon landings were staged in a hangar in Southern California, and that the Royal Family are the ringleaders of an international conspiracy aimed at world domination. Shadowplay is perhaps best regarded as a Da Vinci Code for that subset of the credulous whose obsessions are as much literary as religious.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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Well done! I especially liked, "Of course, nothing is more suspicious, and therefore more conclusive, than the complete absence of evidence." Many people seem eager to accept conspiracy theories as a substitute for plain facts. Apparently, some cannot rid themselves of the fear that they are being lied to, and therefore manipulated, all the time. This paranoia may be the result of a feeling of impotence and irrelevance, that requires an explanation completely removed from any responsibility on their part.

Despite from the fact that one can make money writing books that appeal to this paranoia, the end result, in reference to William Shakespeare, is the attempt to rob a man of his own accomplishments.

Posted by: Ernest Helliwell at December 7, 2005 07:25 PM

Given David Womersley's extreme distaste for the argument of my book Shadowplay, I am surprised that he fails to land any punches in a review that is long on ridicule, short on fact.

He begins by querying my use of the revisionist history of Early Modern England as a backdrop to Shakespeare's work. He implies that it is intrinsically dodgy – something we are 'asked to believe'. In fact the picture of a top-down English Reformation is no longer seen as a partisan Catholic hypothesis. It is accepted by the Protestant historians MacCulloch and Collinson, on whom I relied as much as on Haigh and Duffy. Even Rowse noted that Catholics were in the majority in Elizabeth's reign, but as few of them held public office 'they did not matter'. (I do not, incidentally, claim there was a Catholic majority 'well into the seventeenth century').

Having suggested, on no evidence, that this historical background is somehow unsound, Womersley moves on to a second criticism – I have over-simplified the revisionist argument. His example is my claim that Elizabeth's patronage was 'largely responsible' for the flowering of poetry, drama and music towards the end of the century. This, however, is true. Had it not been for the Queen’s intervention, the London theatres would have been closed down permanently by the church and city authorities. Elizabeth was solely responsible for the extraordinarily tolerant treatment of England's greatest composer, the recusant William Byrd, and of his patrons, the Petre family. She also ensured that the Chapel Royal continued to be run by a succession of Catholic music masters. On all these matters she was under constant attack from her Privy Council and Archbishops of Canterbury. As MacCulloch points out, Elizabeth's tastes in religion were Lutheran. England's reformation, however, was driven by Calvinists, expelled from Europe for their extremist views. In matters of 'public art', Elizabeth's cultivated, moderate position was of pivotal importance.

Womersley's final swipe at the historical basis of the book is that it assumes:

a permanent condition of crisis in the second half of the sixteenth century.
There is nothing absurd about this. No modern historian would dispute that England was in a state of political crisis from the rebellion of 1569 to the peace with Spain in 1604.

As this is a book for the general reader, the historical background is described in relatively simple terms, but it has been scanned and approved by Michael Questier, Peter Milward, John Guy, Aidan Bellenger and John Finnis of University College, all of them in their different ways expert in the period. Finnis endorses the book's aim:

a reading of [Shakespeare’s] works which, with real inwardness, takes seriously their rootedness in the poet’s increasingly discernible intent: to speak for (and to) a network of men and women living double lives within the English establishment.
So much for the history. My book goes on to invite the reader to view the literature of the period through the prism of the repressed Catholic spirituality suggested by Finnis. It is an invitation Womersley rejects. Like all those who recoil at the thought of a Catholic subtext to Shakespeare's plays, he calls this approach 'reductionist', choosing to ignore my argument that the topical level was intended as a shadowy accompaniment to the universal level, not a replacement for it. Logically, my reading should be the opposite of reductionist, opening out a neglected level in the way Shakespeare originally orchestrated his work. But Womersley's sense of revulsion is understandable. Appreciation of multiple meanings came naturally in an age of counterpoint, allegory and political censorship – to later readers it seems artificial and forced. Moreover, if I am right, Shakespeare carefully targeted his political shadowplay at particular audiences and for all its extraordinary ingenuity and wit clearly considered it optional (A number of his opening titles suggest this: 'As you like it', 'What you will', 'vilia miretur vulgus'.). I am not surprised at Womersley's preference for the purely universal Shakespeare. I am surprised however, that the three 'simple facts' he uses to demolish my 'wild hypothesis' are all inaccurate.

None of Shakespeare's contemporaries refer to his use of any code.
Whistle-blowing on fellow-writers is of course unwise in police-states, but after Shakespeare's retirement Jonson did refer to his use of code. The introduction to Bartholomew Fair makes it clear to any 'state decipherer or politic pick-lock' in the audience that though Shakespeare (creator of tales, tempests, servant monsters) used coded identities in his plays (Jonson reminds them of a 'concealed statesman' connected with a 'seller of mousetraps', a well-known 'mirror of magistrates' connected with a 'justice', 'and so of the rest'), Jonson will not risk 'mix[ing] his head with other men's heels' by following his example in this particular play.

2) The code referred to in Shadowplay:

is not referred to in any other writer.
It would be foolish for those who used the code to expose it. But government writers did. In 1580 Anthony Munday highlighted the practice of 'giving old histories a new face'; a practice the Queen confirmed: 'I am Richard II, know ye not that?'. 'Treason and popery' was read into Jonson's Sejanus – correctly, going by the surviving text, which like Marlowe's Edward II is a clear attack on the rise of the Cecils and contains a scene of an altar being violently stripped. Spenser was exiled for concealing a statesman behind his wicked 'fox' in 'Mother Hubbard's Tale'. In his Defence of Poesie Sidney refers to the 'better hidden matters' that go under the 'banner of unresistable love', using the rape of Lucrece as an example, and warned his sister that Arcadia's safety lay in 'not walking abroad' – Katherine Duncan Jones highlights its political content, including coded references tothe trial of Campion.

As for the specific high-low dark-fair terms used by Shakespeare and others to pinpoint hidden religious identities, these can be found openly used in Spenser's 'Shepherd's Calendar' and Herbert's poems on the British Church, and are later used more fully en clair by Dryden in his poem 'The Hind and Panther' during a brief window of religious toleration (the 'spotted' panther representing the Anglican compromise). Publishing at another moment of toleration, (1623 – the year of the First Folio) the Catholic playwright Massinger echoes the Midsummer Night's Dream argument between a high/fair/Catholic character and a low/dark/ Reformed character in the Duke of Milan, caricaturing the classic Reformation debating terms, proud authority versus rebellious self assertion. Shakespeare's consistently negative use of the common image for Elizabeth, the moon, is parodied in The Return from Parnassus. The anonymous Protestant play, The True Trojans (Dodsley’s 1744 Old Plays, volume III) is one of the clearest illustrations of the code in action and includes a parody of soppily subversive Catholic 'love' poetry. In 1631 Carew connected the 'juggling feat / Of two edged words' with the 'superstitious fools' of the old religion.

3) Shakespeare was:

not suspected of harbouring Catholic sympathies.
Actually there are two clear references by Protestant writers. Shakespeare scholars agree that Speed's 1611 attack on 'the papist and his poet' refers to Shakespeare and that it links him with the Jesuit Robert Parsons. The Gloucestershire clergyman, Richard Davies, noted in the mid-seventeenth century that Shakespeare 'died a papist'.

Womersley's objections to the book are not only wide of the mark: they do not explain the animus behind his review. The true reason for his dislike emerges in his final paragraph, which casually equates credulity with religion, and concludes that Shadowplay is written for:

that subset of the credulous whose obsessions are as much literary as religious.
He appears to have forgotten that it is a subset which would also have included most of Shakespeare's original audience.

Posted by: Clare Asquith at January 12, 2006 06:31 PM

I would be inclined to enter the fray in support of Clare Asquith, whose book is original and brilliant and has added a new dimension to my appreciation of Shakespeare. However it seems that she has already vindicated herself very effectively. 'Long on ridicule and short on fact' is a just comment on David Womersley's review, which does little more than summarise Asquith's argument and appeal to the reader's presumed instinctive assumption that such contentions are absurd. As Asquith points out in her last sentence, this betrays a deplorable lack of historical imagination.

It is important to get clear that this reading of Shakespeare is not intended to be a substitute for the traditional approach. But it does suggest that there was a further dimension of resonance, which Shakespeare and his audiences would have been fully aware of at the time. After all, is it not a lot harder to believe that the most eloquent writer of this very turbulent period - perhaps not more turbulent than that of the Civil Wars, we can grant Womersley that, but turbulent certainly - had no comment at all on contemporary events?

It is worth mentioning in this connection another book that came out last year, 'Shakespeare the Papist' by Peter Milward SJ. While this focuses more on the imagery of Shakespeare's plays, rather than on any specifically coded communication, it gives substantial backup to the thesis of Shakespeare's Catholic sympathies.

David Womersley needs to make a better case - if he has a case at all.

Posted by: John Waterfield at January 16, 2006 02:28 PM

Imputing inaccurate religious opinions to complete strangers is an odd sort of hobby, but it seems to be Clare Asquith's. She has done it at book-length to Shakespeare, and now she has done it again in a couple of pages to me. The difference in space she has allotted to her two victims shows that she does, at least, have a proper sense of scale. But I am afraid that she is as wide of the mark with me as she was with Shakespeare.

Just as, according to Asquith, the key to understanding Shakespeare's plays was the alleged smothered Catholicism of the playwright, so the key to understanding my dismissive review of Shadowplay is my alleged "animus" against religious belief, evident – so Asquith says – in a final paragraph:

which casually equates credulity with religion.
But let's look again at what I actually wrote:
There are people who will find the argument of this book persuasive, just as there are people who believe that Elvis Presley is still alive, that the moon landings were staged in a hangar in Southern California, and that the Royal Family are the ringleaders of an international conspiracy aimed at world domination. Shadowplay is perhaps best regarded as a Da Vinci Code for that subset of the credulous whose obsessions are as much literary as religious.
Does the review's final phrase -
that subset of the credulous whose obsessions are as much literary as religious
in fact equate credulity with religion? Clearly not: it says neither that all credulous people are religious, nor that all religious people are credulous, but instead makes the surely uncontentious point that there is an overlap (not an identity) between the credulous and the religious, and that such unfortunates are Shadowplay's true readership. To borrow a trope from Asquith herself: it is surprising to find someone who does not understand the meaning of the word "subset". To say that my final paragraph -
casually equates credulity with religion
is itself an example of exceptionally casual misreading, and betrays a feeble capacity for logic. It goes a long way towards explaining how Asquith could have written a book which is so conspicuously weak in argument and which relies on reductive (a word to which I am afraid I cleave when I think of Shadowplay) readings of Shakespeare's plays.

Readers of my review and of Asquith's reply will be able to judge for themselves how adequately she has dealt with the points I raise there. I have no wish to revisit the barren terrain of Shadowplay, where the toiling reader is rewarded with neither amusement nor profit. Moreover, should Asquith decide to reply to this rejoinder, she will have the satisfaction of the last word, since I now wash my hands of her book. But in closing, let me just glance at one further aspect of her reply. She characterises my review as "long on ridicule". It is a characterisation I would accept, and would add simply that, in her implication that it is inappropriate for a review of her book to be "long on ridicule", we hear the genuine note of authorial vanity. My review was long on ridicule because I believe Shadowplay to be a ridiculous book. If Asquith does not like to read reviews of her work which are "long on ridicule", the remedy lies in her own hands. She should stop writing ridiculous books.

David Womersley
Thomas Warton - Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford

Posted by: David Womersley at February 20, 2006 12:51 PM

More name-calling, I see, from Professor Womersley, unwilling, or perhaps unable to answer my rebuttal of the three killer "facts" with which he seeks to destroy the case made by Shadowplay (see my comment to Prof. Womersley's earlier review). I had hoped he might follow up his review with a more reasoned and substantiated explanation for his heartfelt dislike of the book, but he contents himself with an extended quibble about my interpretation of his parting shot. (I willingly concede that Professor Womersley linked rather than equated credulity with religion).

His withdrawal confirms my impression that, utterly counterintuitive though it may be to the present generation of Shakespeare scholars, the Shadowplay case still stands. The most effective charge against the book is to ask the obvious question: if the Shadowplay argument is correct, why has no-one pointed it out before? I am as suspicious as anyone else of lone voices and new theories, particularly in the field of Shakespeare studies, a notorious nutters' paradise. But there is one circumstance in which a lone voice may be worth listening to: this is when it highlights new evidence.

Shadowplay is unusual - though not unique - in aligning the works of Shakespeare with a historical context which has been buried for centuries, and has only recently been accepted by mainstream scholars. The book's shock value lies in the fact that this new context not only fits the works like a glove: it answers a number of the questions that have bothered Shakespeare scholars for centuries, including the anomalies which continue to give rise to a stream of alternative authorship theories.

I am grateful for Professor Womersley, however, for publicly engaging in a debate on the subject, something not many other academics have done. I hope it is not because they think I am deputy literary editor of The Spectator. I am not. So they can feel free.
Clare Asquith
Author of Shadowplay

Posted by: Clare Asquith at February 23, 2006 06:48 PM

What a disappointing spew of ridicule from an Oxford neocon-style academic. While Asquith's shotgun approach mixes the irrefutable with the speculative, the argument is powerful and stands unrefuted by Prof Womersley's review. The book raised three questions in my amateur's mind: was S's final retirement and demise a result of coercion or attack, was his epitaph a warning not to rewrite or misinterpret the meaning of his bones, his body of work,and is the relative paucity of evidence of his recusancy due to actual suppression of evidence or merely xenophobic animus against a fuller appreciation of a great and brave writer. Where are his like today?

Posted by: dav id mclean at March 1, 2006 02:52 AM

Could David McLean please explain what makes David Womersley a "neocon" or a "neocon-style academic". For all I know Womersley may be a neocon - or he may be a fanatical anti-neocon. But there is nothing - nothing - in this piece which could bring one to either of those two conclusions. If anything - if "neocon" in your sense means as it too often does in the UK, reactionary right-winger - the person taking the right-wing position is Clare Asquith, not David Womersley.

Posted by: Jonathan at March 1, 2006 01:13 PM

Looking for something quite different, I have only just encountered the discussion above, in which Clare Asquith claims that I have identified 'coded references to the trial of Edmund Campion' in Sidney's Arcadia. The word 'coded' is hers, and is extremely misleading. My suggestion was that Sidney's portayal of the monarch's adviser Philanax may have been influenced by the chronologically-proximate trial of Edmund Campion, and in particular the strategies of Edmund Anderson QC as prosecuting counsel. This was a tentative suggestion about a topical source for a powerful piece of writing. There is reason to think that, at various stages in his life, Sidney encountered and admired Edmund Campion. There is no reason- in my view- to believe that he included 'coded' references to him in the first- or, indeed, the second- version of his romance.

Posted by: Katherine Duncan-Jones at September 2, 2007 03:51 PM

Certainly, fear of Catholic Spain (the "evil empire" of the 16th Century) must have figured in persecution of English Catholics. Spain was on the down slide by the time S. wrote, and I would expect an examination of the historical record would reveal a gradual lessening of religious persecution (of Catholics at least) during the inter-Protestant schisms of the 17th Century. After all, how many Catholics can one burn at the stake before the populace grows weary of the sport?Thus, S. would have been writing with one foot in the past and one in the present, or perhaps in the dimly seen future. His mixed religious messages may well reflect his consternation. His characters run the gamut from pious to profane. Could perhaps he have been artistically been adding a touch of local color to The Merchant of Venice, set as it was in Catholic Italy? Stateside, "Merchant" has long been presented to students as a strong statement against anti-semitism. It is startling to discover at this late date that it is actually a paen to lost Catholicism. I wonder whether Da Vinci Codism will stand the test of time. As a Catholic myself, I have been taught to be credulous, so perhaps we Catholics are all guilty as charged to a greater or lesser extent. I neither endorse nor reject Asquith's thesis. A close inspection of the writings of others is required to determine whether there was really a submerged Catholic "code" running through Elizabethan England, a la the Roman Christians of the 2nd Century. More research is necessary, but hats off to Asquith for broaching the subject, Dean Wormsley's criticisms notwithstanding.

Dean Wormsley responds, "The correspondent is "too clever by half" to subvert my name with that of a character from the American cinema, specifically, "The House of Animals", a piece not worthy of the national lampoon it received on the lower side of the pond in 1979."

Nova9047 responds, "Rather than taking issue with one another can't we all get along, as Sir Rodney King spake to the Anglican constabulary?"

Posted by: nova9047 at April 9, 2011 04:08 AM

I am but an 'umble eejit but can someone explain to me:

1. If the code was so simple why didn't everyone understand it at the time (including anti-papists)?
2. How could you guarantee that any member/s of your audience wouldn't turn if they knew what you were saying?
3. Why would you choose to display your sympathies to a public audience where they may result in your being killed (at least if you did them in poetry maybe only those in the know would read them)?
4. Why is there no mention of the great "portrait of Mr WH" and the coded homosexuality in Shakespeare's work? (interestingly OW explicitly makes it clear that the only evidence he can rely on is within the text of the sonnets and so he cannot verify his theory)
5. Is Sonnet 130 a coded message from Shakespeare that despite him knowing that Catholicism is what he should aspire to, that he still loves the low dark protestantism that he is stuck with. I think we should know...

BTW I am a atheist Hindu but have noticed that there seems to be an industry of Catholic revisionist books (science was invented by the Catholic Church, child abuse was protestant, etc) which are avidly followed by erstwhile intelligent people to justify Catholicism and its church. Having said that, there are probably the same for all religions. Long-live the disinterested.

Posted by: thechandra at October 17, 2013 04:29 PM
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