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Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare Hardcover – May 10, 2005
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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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*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
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Top customer reviews
Clare Asquith poses the critical syllogism for a true analysis of William Shakespeare and the sixteenth century:
- It was an age of terror, of summary imprisonment, of torture and brutal executions, of land seizures an the impoverishment of entire families.
- It was also the era of the greatest creative genius the world has ever known: William Shakespeare.
- How, then, was it possible that such a remarkable man born into such violently volatile times should apparently make no comment about the state of England in his work?
Today, in the secularist world, "terror" is a word which government avoids, while terror is the state of the child in the womb.
The culture of death endures. Yet, we thank God for his gifts to us: Lady Asquith and the great bard's Shadowplay; the beatification of John Henry Newman; the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham!
God responds to the blood of martyrs! The spring of Faith blooms in England.
Faith comes to bloom in the hearts of readers of this magnificent book!
"Shadowplay" puts a spotlight on the overlooked fact that the Protestant Reformation was not a welcome or peaceful event in English history and unlike other European countries, the English monarchy, driven by Cecil and son, enforced this new religion with violence and persecution turning the country upside down. The average people in the pew were just trying to ride out the storm doing what they could to preserve their lives, faith and their culture until at last this strategy backfired on both the Catholics who remained silent to preserve their lives and living, and even Protestants who thought they'd be on the right side, but who also failed to agree with the Church of England on matters of doctrine.
Enter Shakespeare, whose father's statement of faith was found inside one of the walls of his home and who was raised a Catholic as was everyone else in England before Henry wanted to get rid of his first wife in favor of a younger second (third, fourth, fifth, etc) who might be able to give him the son he demanded. His world was a world of censorship and coersion, but he had a talent that helped him cleverly send messages not only to his fellow Catholics but even to the Queen herself and later King James and sons as well. His words encouraged his fellow Catholics to hold fast to the Faith and provided dramatic reasons for Queen Elizabeth to return to the "fair" Catholic religion or at least to allow all "fair" and "dark" Protestant people to worship freely as their conscience led them. Of especial interest is Sonnet 152 which when read through a political and religious lense means more than just a man railing against his unfaithful lover.
To see Shakespeare's plays through the lense of history is a fascinating journey, and one that would help people to grasp the urgency of the serious, life-or-death messages sent out into a confusing and dark time in European history. It is certainly not your average, boring, politically correct view of Shakespeare.