Arts & Books Books

Did Shakespeare hide subversive messages in his poems?

Simon Caldwell on a fruitful search for hidden meanings

Shakespeare and the Resistance
by Clare Asquith,
Public Affairs Books, 256pp, £21.99/$28

Not since picking up The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the seminal crime thriller by George V Higgins, some decades ago, can I recall having read a book in a single sitting. I certainly didn’t expect to do that with Shakespeare and the Resistance, but I simply could not stop turning the pages. The book is a scholarly work by Clare Asquith, the Countess of Oxford and Asquith, and expands the themes of her earlier book, Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, published in 2005.

Subtitled The Earl of Southampton, the Essex Rebellion and the Poems that Challenged Tudor Tyranny, her new book advances the same theories as her first work, principally that the Bard used allegory, analogy and other literary devices to subvert state censorship and to speak, and occasionally preach, to audiences about religious upheaval, the morality of rebellion and other controversial issues of the day. She therefore challenges the notion that Shakespeare was silent on religion and remodels him as a politically engaged writer who pleaded for toleration amid persecution, making him one of his era’s most eloquent advocates for religious freedom.

The skill of his verse, argues Asquith, lay in his ability to pitch his arguments in such a way that their meaning could always be denied should they arouse the suspicions of such figures as Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymaster, or Sir Edmund Tilney, the so-called Master of Revels.

A downside, which she acknowledges, is that, in the absence of clarity, their allegedly hidden meanings can be just as easily denied today by those who do not see them or who do not wish to acknowledge them. But that hasn’t put her off. While Shadowplay dealt largely with Shakespeare’s plays, her new work focuses on two narrative poems written in the early 1590s, The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis.

Although the poems are now seldom read or studied, during Shakespeare’s lifetime they were far more popular than any of his plays, with the poems reaching 10 editions compared with the three editions of Hamlet. Asquith asserts that they are unpopular today because they are impenetrable to modern audiences outside of their social, political and historical contexts. But when read in the correct context, she argues, they become accessible, edgy and thrilling. She proposes that the correct backdrop involves disaffection with a corrupt and bloody regime and the increasing willingness of disillusioned courtiers to bring it to a premature end by force of arms.

The Rape of Lucrece, notably, is dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, a stubborn Catholic and Shakespeare’s patron, who seven years later was imprisoned in the Tower of London indefinitely for his role in the rebellion of the Earl of Essex. In this book, Asquith explains what she thinks the poem means and why Shakespeare wrote it. To her, Lucrece is an allegory of the persecuted Church and rebellion is the remedy for her violation.

It all sounds very tendentious, yet Asquith is conscious of the universal appeal of Shakespeare and is careful not to explicitly claim him as a Catholic.

Instead, she sets Shakespeare more broadly among the group of influential young people, both Catholic and Protestant, who seek religious toleration, casting him as a fellow traveller of Southampton, Essex and the poet and courtier Sir Philip Sidney among others.

For what it is worth, my opinion is that she is generally on the money, partly because other scholars besides her have stumbled upon similar hidden meanings in Shakespeare’s works, sometimes to their great astonishment. They include, for instance, Professor TW Baldwin who, in the 1930s, was shocked to conclude that there were concealed references to the martyrdom of Blessed William Hartley in The Comedy of Errors.

They also include Richard Simpson, the 19th-century biographer of St Edmund Campion, who was convinced that the riddle that mentions the “old hermit of Prague” in Act IV of Twelfth Night was a barely hidden allusion to the Elizabethan Jesuit martyr. Indeed, it would be possible to argue that the riddle refers to the “long and secret conferences” in Prague between the saint and Sidney that took place in the 1570s. These resulted in Sidney professing himself convinced by Campion and becoming a champion of religious toleration, to his ultimate exclusion and ruin. Like Hamlet, Sidney died from a wound – after he handed his sword (and symbolically his cause) to the Earl of Essex.

If Simpson is right, why would Shakespeare bother to include a reference to Campion in a play he knew would be performed before the Queen? Each of us must make up our own minds about such theories, and I hope that Asquith continues to advance them. Even if you find yourself unpersuaded by her arguments, you may still benefit from a riveting read.