Al Bità's Reviews > Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare

Shadowplay by Clare Asquith
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's review
Apr 05, 2012

it was amazing
Read in April, 2012

Shakespeare has been with us for some 400 years, and his reputation as perhaps the greatest playwright globally is unmatched, so much so that the wit, intelligence, humanism and universality of his works has given them an aura of unmatched superhuman genius that continues to astonish us today. As result, the person who wrote these plays, about whom there is little historical information, has become glorified to the point of idolatry, so much so that we have theories spouting about that wish to raise the perception of his rather low-brow origins to levels of sophistication and intelligence that might only be attainable some someone of a higher class of society… a pointless exercise, as it turns out to be, since it merely pushes a kind of snobbery on the part of those thus theorising, which does nothing to illuminate the astonishing brilliance of his greatest plays.

Now along comes Clare Asquith with a remarkably erudite study of an aspect of the plays which, as far as I am aware, has never been taught before. It transforms Shakespeare from some kind of freak of nature who floated above the ordinary like some divine poetic luminary into someone who is part and parcel of his own times, in ways that are not only illuminating, but in fact revelatory of Shakespeare as someone intensely involved with the England of his times. Asquith's uncovering of Shakespeare's consistent use of coded words throughout his plays reveal him to be a supporter of the out-of-favour Catholics in England, who wanted a restoration of the glories of the Roman religion that had been so devastatingly removed and destroyed by the rising power of the Calvinist Protestants. Thus the plays can be interpreted as containing 'shadowplays' as a means to communicate with and provide succour to his Catholic supporters, while at the same time keeping any outright opposition at bay, and encouraging Queen Elizabeth to adopt a more lenient approach towards the Catholic cause. The great divide in England between the Catholics and the Protestants was exacerbated by the intensity of the power struggle between England and Rome, with intense spying and bloody reprisals for previous wrongs. Shakespeare would have to be very astute in his subtle preferences by balancing his affections neatly, if complexly, in his writings.

With the death of Elizabeth and the accession of James of Scotland, the later plays turn their attention first to influencing James, then, as his rule became more intolerant, especially after the dastardly Gunpowder Plot which shocked both Catholics and Protestants alike, directed towards the hoped-for heir apparent Harry as the possible provider of future relief for the besieged Catholics in England.

Asquith's revelations and her analyses of the plays and other works by Shakespeare not only root him firmly within his times, but also provides us with a vivid portrait of the politics of the times, not often presented in the study of his plays. They throw much light on the political realities of Elizabethan and Jacobean England within which Shakespeare was constrained to work. It is suggested that this fine balancing act, together with his undoubted poetic and literary qualities, both combined to provide the world with plays which see humanistic values espoused through opposing ideologies, and which in the end call for acceptance, tolerance and ultimately forgiveness. Thus, ironically, the individual historical settings of the plays as well as the actual socio-political realities are transcended, and the subsequent soaring universal values encapsulated in the great speeches and soliloquies so admired in Shakespeare's work, are set free.

In a way, this book can be compared to architecture — it reveals the scaffolding and support structures used to make miraculously high arched edifices and marvellous vaulting which, after the support work is removed, astonish us with their existence and mystify us with the magic of how they hold together. It is a must-read for anyone interested in Shakespeare.
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message 1: by Al (last edited Apr 10, 2012 01:39AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Al Bità I am looking forward to this ....instead of wasting her energy trying to prove Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare, she has set him firmly in his times and his plays naturally reflect that.
I MUST give you my Michael Wood book on Will...a biography which supports this author's view EXACTLY!!!!!!

WaynE ...not by Al who wrote the review

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