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February 20, 2006

"If Clare Asquith does not like to read reviews of her work which are long on ridicule, she should stop writing ridiculous books": David Womersley replies to Clare Asquith's response to his review of Shadowplay

Posted by David Womersley

In his review - The Da Vinci Code of Shakespeare Scholarship - of Clare Asquith's book Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - gives a strongly negative assessment of the work. Here Prof. Womersley replies to Clare Asquith's response (which can be read in the comment section beneath Prof. Womersley's initial review) to his review.

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 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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It is a bit rich Clare Asquith objecting to bad reviews of her book. After all - unless I am very much mistaken - Clare Asquith is Deputy Literary Editor of The Spectator.

Posted by: Jonathan at February 20, 2006 02:00 PM
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Did David Womersley perhaps get a bad review in The Spectator for one of his books?

Posted by: Jane at February 20, 2006 03:37 PM
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Jane - have had a look at The Spectator online, and searched their archive. It appears that none of David Womersley's books have been reviewed in The Spectator. From the review and this reply it appears to me that David Womersley is unaware of Clare Asquith's Spectator link.

I presume Clare Asquith got the idea that David Womersley has an anti-religious bias from the fact that he edited Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for Allen Lane/Penguin - and that therefore Clare Asquith assumed that Womersley shares Gibbons' prejudices. Interestingly Womersley also - from his published writing - seems to have written much on the response of religious orthodoxy to Gibbon.

Posted by: Jonathan at February 20, 2006 04:40 PM
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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 05:59 PM
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To clarify a point raised in some earlier comments, it has been pointed out to us that Clare Asquith, the author of Shadowplay is not the same person as Clare Asquith, the Deputy Literary Editor of The Spectator.
Social Affairs Unit

Posted by: Social Affairs Unit at February 23, 2006 06:17 PM
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In reply to David Womersley's comments on Clare Asquith's Shadowplay, I would just like to say that regardless of the books content and or authenticity, as a Professer of English Literature at Oxford University and dare I say a prestigous literay figure I find his review thoroughly dissapointing and a discredit to what must have been years studying the subject. However ridiculous Mr Wormsley believes the book to be I doubt it will match this review which appears to rely heavily on overly dramatic largely ridiculuing language and phrases of which really are not necessary for any mature person to argue their point ; however it appears Mr Wormsley has no other means of expressing himself other than the use of painful metaphors and bitter, cruel ever so unconstructive cristism. I believe Mr Wormsley must learn to use the device of including evidence in his argument to support his opinions when commenting on literature or indeed anything which he argues so intensely against. Mr Wormsley appears to be extremley confident of his own opinion and bitterly cruel and dismissive of the opposition in this review-without any clear show of evidence- which is a most dangerous thing. If Mr Wormsley took time to construct a good, thorough argument in which he had atleast considered, considering another point of view that was not his own then just maybe he would have done a litte better on critising somebody else's. I would also like to state it took a sixteen year old to point this out.

Posted by: Anonymous at June 8, 2006 08:45 AM
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I enter this debate as an amateur, not having read the revisionist authors of whom David Womersley complains but having read Shadowplay and having heard Clare Asquith speak at the Hay Festival.

I find the argument in this book persuasive, in spite of the fact that I do not believe Elvis to be still alive or the moon landings to have been staged in Southern California. The sixteenth century may not have been the only bloody period in our history, but it must have been pretty uncomfortable for anyone who didn't know which religion to support. You only have to hear the Byrd four-part mass to understand the agony of Catholics under Elizabeth. Why should Shakespeare have been exempt from a dilemma which affected so many of his fellow-countrymen? It seems to me that Clare Asquith has produced more than enough evidence to take the argument beyond mere speculation.

I do have a couple of reservations about the book. First what would actors and directors make of it? Last night I went to see the new production of Julius Caesar at Stratford (which has also been reviewed on this website by David Womersley) in order to test my reactions in the light of the book; I found it difficult to imagine myself as a Catholic member of the original audience picking up on all the hidden meanings described in Shadowplay. True, the conspirators sounded Puritan in their dislike of music etc, but I couldn't quite see Caesar as representing the Old Religion. Would it have been different if the director had been intending to interpret the play according to the Shadowplay hidden meaningsy?

The other reservation is that the way the book is written does invite the charge of petitio principii, as Womersley says. However that does not justify his total rejection of the argument, nor does it justify his rudeness.

This book has made me read Shakespeare with a completely new mind; it has introduced a fascinating new background to our appreciation of his writing.

John McCleary

PS

Clare Asquith doesn't have to rely on the revisionist historians: a similar argument is made about Hamlet by Harley Granville Barker in a 1944 talk of which the British Library has a recording

Posted by: John McCleary at June 8, 2006 10:57 PM
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It is not my occupation to look at the motive of the professor. I have read "Shadowplay" and looked at the texts of the sonnets, plays, and poetry and the facts are Shakespeare was more than likely Catholic; of course I do not know, but concluding that he was religious and an orthodox Catholic is far better than denying his religious views--even when a person might not have them it is better to be intellectually honest.
It is far more ridiculous denying that Shakespeare believed in the sacraments and the salvation of the risen Christ. Than saying he was an outright atheist when his plays and sonnets reflect an eternal, rapturous knowledge of life. His writing points the spectators groundlings and noblity to look at the creation this points to the heavens; people are equal in the realm above.
Shadowplay", points to the language that has confused scholars as to purpose and intent. The purpose and inspiration Shakespeare's writing is now intellectually brought to people. Mrs. Asquith also points to the fact that Shakespeare's religious views were of tolerance and acceptance which makes Shakespeare even more a man ahead of his time as the Church in history did not practice this until much later on.
I thoroughly liked the book Mrs. Asquith. People who know me will tell you that I am very skeptical of presumptions about Shakespeare; your book and research is not a crazy "Jim Jones" project.

Posted by: Ronald Hunsucker USA at July 9, 2007 07:27 PM
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There is not, and never will be, any hard evidence linking Shakespeare to Catholicism or any other religion. But we do have to consider the name he and his wife chose for their first child: Susannah. There has been much speculation as to why he chose this particular name; specifically, scholars have cited Susannah from the book of Daniel. However, they have not written about a particular nuance of the name Susannah. The name Susannah means "lily," which is an emblem of the Virgin Mary. The shoshan lily is well known, and in modern Hebrew, shoshan also means rose, which also is an emblem of the Virgin Mary. The lily and the rose are two of the most prominent images in Shakespeare. So what is the connection of the Virgin Mary and the lily with the Book of Daniel? Read Daniel, and you will discover a story of how Daniel rescued the chastity and reputation of a woman named Susannah. BUT, before Daniel did this, he was visited by the angel Gabriel. Okay, now we're getting somewhere. For those of you who know your Bible well, you will remember that the angel Gabriel of the Old Testament made his way into the New Testament, visiting the young Virgin Mary and telling her (and asking her) that she would bear the son of God. The angel also visited Mary's cousin, Elizabeth, who had been barren for quite some time. Gabriel told her and her husband they would bear a child, and so they did: John the Baptist. The angel Gabriel, in nearly every Annunciation picture, is typically painted or drawn holding a lily. So, if Shakespeare named his first daughter Susannah, clearly he was imagining her as a message from God, through the association of the name with the angel Gabriel. Perhaps, in a world in which Catholics were being executed, he felt it was too dangerous to name her Mary. Perhaps he equated the name Susannah and its association with the lily with the Virgin Mary.

Posted by: Andrea Campana at August 15, 2007 04:29 AM
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A very late comment here, in case anyone continues to follow this business.

I read SHADOWPLAY several years ago and enjoyed it as offering another alternative filter by which to experience Shakespeare. The works are famously reflective and receptive to any tinge applied to them; even an odd and colored light can reveal unexpected depths and corners without tainting the works' overriding integrity. I did not feel required to take Asquith's propositions literally. However, at times I found them metaphorically compelling.

A recent rereading, though, has struck me differently, coming after a closer reading of other period texts and considering the historical context of the times. I lean closer to the notion that at times Shakespeare was playing a double or triple game. That is not to say that an embedding of themes, plotting and language associated with Catholic issues of the times proves Shakespeare's personal views. He wrote for a varied audience, secured associates across the social spectrum, and was - it seems - above all things a careful self-preserver.

That he appears to have tilted matters towards Catholic partisans at times conforms to his diversity. However, much of Asquith's commentary resonates with what we know of Shakespeare's family background and Stratford context. His inclusion and, perhaps, devotion to an England steeped in the old religious culture seems to suggest what he projected as the better and truer expression of his nation's being. It is connected with the soil, nature's beauty, the song of birds and the throb of history in the veins. Latter-day impositions of strident dogma under the threat of a gutting would hardly appeal to a son of the countryside, nor a playwright who obviously saw life and the times in toto.

All of which is to say that Professor Womersley's critiques appear as shallow and as a resolute misreading of Asquith's book. Her recounting of the historical milieu is mostly sound. Her positions are not hammered into the reader's sensibility in the manner of the execrable Joseph Pearce. And Womersley's mere dismissal seems more a caricature of the eminence responding with a pompous "uh-uh" and expecting his word to carry on its own merit rather than a responsible rebuttal.

Posted by: Keith at July 2, 2013 05:16 PM
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