The Oxford Handbook to the Age of Shakespeare edited by R Malcolm Smuts, OUP, 848pp, £35
In the latter half of the 20th century, Shakespeare studies underwent a sea change. Gone was the close reading of text and in its stead, feminist, colonial and deconstructionist theories abounded. No one read Shakespeare for Shakespeare any more. They read the plays to tease out injustice, prejudice and their own ever-more tangential theories.
Thankfully, the late 1990s saw this trend reversed with the ascent of the “new historicism” spearheaded by Stephen Greenblatt. “Historicism has become the dominant approach to literary studies in the 21st century,” writes R Malcolm Smuts in the introduction to this huge and hugely informative book. Historicism maintains that, to grasp Shakespeare, one has to understand the Elizabethan/Jacobean culture he was a part of. This seems like common sense, though some versions of this theory have taken a more deterministic approach, claiming that social and political history are the only ways to understand a text.
Smuts and his fellow contributors wisely tread the middle path, recognising that knowing contemporary history will tell us a lot about Shakespeare but not everything. This new research leads Smuts to conclude: “The period of Shakespeare’s youth and young adulthood now appear as one characterised by much more serious anxieties and intellectual ferment than scholars once supposed.” No writer is an island, and Shakespeare would have been aware of, and receptive to, political, religious and ethical currents surrounding him.
Two chapters focus on specifically Catholic issues. The first of these, Glyn Parry’s “Catholicism and Tyranny in Shakespeare’s Warwickshire” is a
masterclass in historical exegesis, teasing out all the ravelled pieces of religious non-conformity and political despotism.
Parry focuses on the Arden-Somerville affair of 1583, where John Somerville, clearly mentally unbalanced, announced that he was travelling to London to shoot Queen Elizabeth. He was arrested, as were many other Catholics from his native Warwickshire, including Edward Arden, who may have been related to Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden. Parry skilfully untangles the complexities and duplicities of the case, showing it to be not so much motivated by religion as by money.
The failed plot was a gift to the Earl of Leicester and Lord Burghley, who used anti-Catholic propaganda to sequester several manor houses owned by Warwickshire recusants. Parry takes us through the unjust execution of Edward Arden, the disinheritance of his son, Robert, and the complex legal trail which survives to this day. These were people Shakespeare would have known: local families on the fringes of his hometown with connections to both his father and mother.
Although there is no evidence that Shakespeare was a Catholic, he could hardly have been unsympathetic to what was going on in his backyard. Parry concludes by asking that we see Shakespeare’s sympathies not through “the single lens of religion, but more broadly understood as a response to powerful men’s tyrannical abuse of the legal process”.
In the second chapter of particular interest to Catholics, Katy Gibbons writes about “English Catholicism and the Continent”, describing the push and pull of European influence on English recusants. As a frame to view this topic, she uses the common recurrence of banishment in Shakespeare’s plays to see what banishment might have meant at the time: “This chapter seeks to examine the lived experiences of English Catholics who left England during Elizabethan reign.”
It is a gripping piece of scholarship, taking us from Douay to Rome to Rheims and back to England. She notes how all exile in Shakespeare is secular, but that for religious exiles there was a strong and supportive continental Catholicism, especially in Spain. This foreign aid led Elizabeth to classify Catholic exiles as traitors, rather than heretics, and this would have severe consequences for many, including Edward Campion.
Gibbons also presents a fine analysis of Bolingbroke’s exile and power grab in Richard II, linking this figure with that of the Earl of Essex and his disastrous attempt at regime change. Typically, Shakespeare takes no sides, showing both Bolingbroke and Richard II as men not to be trusted.
There’s also an illuminating discussion of how exile liberated many English Catholics to voice political and religious protest against Elizabeth in print.
Other essays feature such fascinating subjects as homicide in Elizabethan England, village shaming rituals, and the role and perception of the Irish.
This book, then, serves a double purpose. For serious Shakespeare readers, it offers contexts through which our understanding of his work is sharpened and clarified. But it is also an informative and comprehensive history of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, readable even for those with little interest in the Bard.
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