From Publishers Weekly
The wife of a British diplomat who was posted to Moscow during the Cold War, Asquith first started to suspect that Shakespeare's plays possessed an unexamined political and religious subtext while watching a seemingly innocuous performance in a Soviet theater and realizing that it was embedded with secret meanings and double entendres. In a tome both literary and dense, though thankfully not prohibitively so, Asquith shines an extraordinary light on the symbolism and possible intentions of Shakespeare's work. The Catholic playwright, Asquith contends, wrote to outsmart the "Queen's men," who caught up to him only after he had written dozens of plays reflecting the mournful frustration of Catholics oppressed by Elizabethan Protestantism. Asquith uses Shakesepeare's plays as prisms through which to observe the tremendous upheaval of the times. A second look at Julius Caesar reveals the Roman conspirators to be Protestant instigators, and Troilus and Cressida is, according to the author, a commentary on the state of Catholic opposition to the Reformation. Described as "an upstart Crow" by Robert Greene-playwright for the rival theater company Queen's Men, which Asquith characterizes as a Protestant propaganda machine-Shakespeare found protection in the patronage of Lady Magdalen Montague, a Catholic, and even worked her into a number of his plays, including A Winter's Tale, Romeo and Juliet and Comedy of Errors. Though occasionally didactic, Asquith's multifaceted examination reveals as much about the history of 17th-century England as it does about the playwright and his plays, and should intrigue admirers of both.
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*Starred Review* In David Riggs' excellent World of Christopher Marlowe
(2005), we learn that late Elizabethan London was extremely dangerous, especially for the brightest and best who weren't aristocrats or wealthy gentry. In her revelatory survey of the Shakespearean corpus, Asquith imparts that all of Great Britain was as or more perilous long before and after Marlowe's short life (1564-93). During the throes of the Reformation, three primary factions vied for England's soul: Catholics, Church of England supporters, and radicals inspired by John Calvin, who became known as Puritans. Asquith contends that Shakespeare was a recusant Catholic who, supported by and writing for the pleasure of influential political players, eventually including King James I, advocated tolerance, for Puritans as well as Catholics, in his work. She descries a system of words and images that carry messages about the three-way struggle in Shakespeare's plays and poems. Consisting of such things as the opposition of light and dark, terms possessing special meanings for certain people, and recurring plot predicaments and character relationships, this system wasn't Shakespeare's invention and was broadly known because it suited late-medieval, allegorical habits of thought. Moreover, applying the meanings of the system to the texts clears up many obscurities and illuminates entire plays (Titus Andronicus
) and characters (Shylock, Mercutio) that modern audiences don't quite get, without vitiating Shakespeare's universality. Demanding reading at times, but altogether magnificent. Ray OlsonCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved