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Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare Hardcover – May 10, 2005

4.6 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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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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From Booklist

*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, Cymbeline) and characters (Shylock, Mercutio) that modern audiences don't quite get, without vitiating Shakespeare's universality. Demanding reading at times, but altogether magnificent. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs (May 10, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1586483161
  • ISBN-13: 978-1586483166
  • Product Dimensions: 9.7 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #404,763 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
John Guy, Fellow of History at Clare College, Cambridge, and winner of the Whitebread Prize, has written that if even half of the insights in this wonderful book are true, it is the most visceral, challenging, and compelling work on Shakespeare's place in history in twenty years. I agree with this perpective: Clare Asquith's insights are profound, and this book has the potentially to fundamentally change how we view Shakespeare and the plays, in a way that only adds to their majesty.

"Shadowplay" is a very strong work in an area that is only beginning to gain academic attention--namely, the heretofore hidden or suppressed history of a persecuted minority during one of the more fascinating and influential periods in English (and European) history. Historians and literary scholars have only recently focused on this topic, their early work is highly compelling, and it bears much future promise.

As the above suggests, I admire this book very much, and am hoping that it will gain greater attenion in the mainstream media and in academia. It's argument is original and compelling; it also beautifully and succinctly written, often quite moving in its insights, and an overall pleasure to read. Highly recommended to anyone that is interested in Shakespeare, the culture of the English Renaissance, and England under Elizabeth I and James I, it deserves the starred reviews it has received so far as well as the endorsements from well-regarded, thoughtful scholars (see above in summary of reviews to date provided by Amazon).

One comment on the previous review--even a superficial reading on Asquith's book makes it clear that the author knows.
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Format: Hardcover
This premise of this book is convincing 1) because of the absolute consistancy of the "code", once recognized, from play to play; 2) the chronological tenor of Shakespeare's themes is shown to accord with the changing contemporary political climate; 3) Shakespeare's poetry is now demonstrated to be a logical "commentary" on his career as playwright.

The one thing I do not want to be true (somewhat akin to hoping against hope that Anastasia "survived") is the pitiful snapshot of Shakespear's last years, "the dark night of the soul" of clinical depression easily diagnosed in the haunting allegorical portrait of his beloved mentor as observed by Ben Jonson in "Sad Shepherd". Alas. Shakespeare may have died after a drinking bout with friend Ben; but the true cause of death seems to have been a broken heart: the despairing Bard regarding the idealistic purpose of his career as playwright as frustrated and utterly futile. He seems now a Catholic martyr, no less than those hanged on Tyburn Tree.

An unxpected bonus of reading this book is 1) a new light on Ben Jonson's work and career 2) the realization that WRT the jingoistic play "Henry VIII" the answer to the ironic question "who wrote Shakespeare? --is the slimey master of pastiche, John Fletcher.

If you liked "Shadowplay" and are interested in the robust flavour of small-town sociology and anthropology of the generation before and the generation after the English Reformation, you will greatly enjoy reading "The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580" by Cambridge scholar Eamon Duffy, which is vastly more fascinating than its dry title would suggest. It is a masterly example of painstaking revisionist history at its best, and like "Shadowplay" brought tears to my eyes by the last page.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is an incredible accomplishment. Clare Asquith has revealed a history of the Protestant reformation in late 16th century England that must have some of the persecuted dead rejoicing from their graves. This is less a book than a revelation. It hardly seems possible that Shakespeares' plays could be even more brilliant and more penetrating then they are already reveared ro be. But that is exactly the case. Mrs. Asquith shows us that with allegory and uncanny symbolism Shakespeare chronicles the history of his country's persecution of Catholics. Written from the vantage point of his own family's persecuted Catholic roots, his plays were a guarded appeal to the Queen herself and the nobility of the day to heal the deep wound suffered when England's faithful became divided.
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Format: Hardcover
In 16th century England loyal subjects were asked to either serve their monarch or their God, creating a break between God and country which widened into a vast theological/political conflict under Elizabeth 1. Executions and terror arise - through it all one of the most famous figures of his times, William Shakespeare, seemingly made no comment about affairs - or did he? Clare Asquith, a Shakespeare scholar, traces the common code used covertly by writers of his times and reveals the master of the code himself - Shakespeare. His attacks and exposes of the crown are seen from a new perspective, examining his work and his code and its impact. A fascinating study.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is worth its price even just for its precis of 16th-century British history. In addition, there are useful summaries of most plays. The principal thesis is that Shakespeare's writings constituted a plea for religious toleration, a plea that could have cost him exile or even his head. All the brilliance for which he is famous was accomplished with this carefully encoded goal in mind. Occasional apparent missteps in his artistry gain explicability under this new light. It's like seeing the universe after repairing the Hubble Telescope. The notion that someone else must have written Shakespeare's works vanishes like a mirage. Clare Asquith presents a formidable case in elegant prose that is a joy to read in itself. This book all but obsoletes almost all that has ever been written on Shakespeare. Buy, read, enjoy!
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