In oppressive societies with heavy censorship and large numbers of secret policemen, artists learn to communicate in coded messages, messages vague enough to escape the notice of the police, but specific enough to appeal to the oppressed audience and to express what is happening in their lives, to say what cannot openly be said.

One such sociely was Tudor England and one such artist was William Shakespeare. England did not, as the official Whig histories have it, easily convert to Protestantism; rather it was a long and brutal struggle, one that involved an extensive spy network, torture, rebellion, war, censorship, and unending court intrigue. (See Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, Second Edition) In this process, England forged all the tools of repression that have come to be associated with the modern nation-state. These tools were perfected by Queen Elizabeth's able, if unscrupulous, advisors, especially William Cecil and later his son Robert. To describe them, one need only to imagine what American would look like if it had been ruled for 45 years by Dick Cheney.

William Shakespeare was part of these struggles. Now, any text must be understood in the context of the times which produced it, and if the understanding of those times is lost, so will be lost a complete understanding of the text. Likewise, a full understanding of Shakespeare can only come from an understanding of his time and his role of the political struggles of that time. Indeed, many of the images in his plays and poems seem unitelligable to us, and many scenes seem out of place and jarring to the structure of the play they are in. But these scenes and images spoke to their original audiences. And not only did the intended audience understand, but so did the Cecils, so did Walsinham (head of the Secret Police), and so did Elizabeth herself. Commenting on Richard II, a play about a deposed king, she said, "Know ye not that I am Richard?"

But if these understood it, how are we to understand, how are we to recapture the lost times and true history of this period and of this, the greatest of English authors? Comes now Clare Asquith with her book, Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs And Coded Politics of William Shakespeare. Mrs. Asquith follows the twists and turns of Shakespeare's place in the Catholic resistence by comparing his work to the "recusant" literature of the time and the political events that surrounded the composition of each play. We learn, for example, how the early Comedy of Errors reflects his analysis of the effects of the "unjust divorce"; how Titus Andronicus expresses his rage at the persecution of Catholics; how The Merchant of Venice is a direct appeal to the Queen for reconcilliation, and so forth.

Anyone interested in history (a history uniquely connected with our own) or with literature in general or Shakespeare in particular, or how oppressed people's manage to find a voice even in repressive regimes, ought to read this book.


distributist123 Thursday, August 2, 2007 at 2:34:00 PM CDT  

I'm a Shakespeare fan and always have been. I've also heard of Stripping of the Alters although I have not yet read it. To my knowledge, no one has ever been able to proove that Shakespeare was a card carrying Catholic although he certainly was sympathetic to the plight of Catholics in England. His father John Shakespeare chose to pay a fine rather than attend the new Elizabethan Eucharist. To my mind, it is not necessary to prove that he was a card carrying Cattholic although he ceartainly had Roman inclinations. Bill

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