Deciphering the Bard

Shakespeare: The Biography
By Peter Ackroyd
560pp | Chatto and Windus | ISBN 1856197263 | £25

Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare
By Clare Asquith
368pp | Public Affairs | ISBN 1586483161 | £18. 99

A former archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, once remarked of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “She belongs to us all.” He was paying tribute to the universal appeal of a holiness that transcended religious divisions. Genius, like holiness, has a universal quality; when it is expressed in poetic drama to the very highest degree, it will affect all who encounter it and cross all barriers of time, race and culture. That is why Shakespeare matters; being the greatest poet of all time he is the touchstone, as the Yale professor Harold Bloom has pointed out, for what it means to be human. And so he, too, belongs to us all.

The complexity and richness of the plays and an enduring fascination for the personality of their elusive author have kept the wheels of the Shakespeare industry turning for the last 250 years. Recently two notable additions have been made to the library: a new biography and a new interpretation of the plays. Of the two, Ackroyd has most to offer the general reader. His book is compendious, intelligent, well-written and free from personal prejudices or the baneful influence of Freud. As he observes, “The biographer should resist the comfortable position of the armchair psychologist”. He does not attempt a close analysis of the plays – at almost 500 pages his book is quite long enough as it is – but he is superb in resurrecting the milieu in which they were created and performed: the actors, the troupes, the theatres, the censors, the costs and the audiences. As a biographer both of London and of Dickens -- whose novels personify it -- he obviously relishes bringing the Tudor city to life and re-creating the world that Shakespeare inhabited.

Ackroyd does not try to be original. He eschews extravagant theories as to the identity of “Mr W.H” and the Dark Lady and is dismissive of the “bi-sexual” theories that have arisen over the Sonnets. Why should they not be the prodigious tour de force of a man determined to excel in every form of poetry, he asks? What he does very effectively is to bring together all the evidence already uncovered and debated endlessly by other scholars, examine it, reject the cranky conjectures and construct a living human being, a practical man of affairs, a consummate professional of the theatre, furiously employed at his trade among his peers, the many other dramatists, poets and poetasters all serving the equally furious demand for dramatic entertainment in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

“Preternatural alertness”
He clearly loves his subject. With so many books already written on every aspect of Shakespeare’s life – or what little we know of it – one would think it impossible to say anything but rehearse the obvious. Ackroyd avoids this; he persuades us to look again at this extraordinary man of “preternatural alertness”. For him Shakespeare manifests “a continual subtle humorousness”; referring to the influence of John Lyly, Christopher Marlowe and others, he observes that he “was a great cormorant of other writers’ words”. In handling language he was “immensely susceptible” to its sound and rhythm, ceaselessly recalling every new word he heard and being verbally inventive when it suited him.

Shakespeare “absorbed everything”, always understood every shade in both sides of an argument; he could effortlessly “call upon many voices at will”. To those who argue that Shakespeare must have spent time at sea, worked as a lawyer, studied the classics at university, lived in Italy, hunted with falcons – or indeed, that a country boy could not have known so much, so the plays must have been written by someone more “educated” – Ackroyd responds by drawing attention to “his extraordinary capacity for entry into imagined worlds” and concludes, “you can never overestimate his powers of assimilation and empathy”. None of this is new, but it is good to have it related with such gusto and understanding.

Was the Bard one of the old believers?
For a biographer who does not tell us what his own beliefs are – thereby suggesting that he has none except, perhaps, a belief in the transformative power of great art – Ackroyd is fair and impartial on the vexed yet absorbing question of Shakespeare’s religious convictions. He draws a detailed picture of the poet’s extended family, friends, patrons and colleagues, noting that there were pervasive Catholic influences at work at every stage: his parents were devout recusants, he came under the influence of Catholic schoolmasters at the Stratford grammar school; his hidden youthful years were possibly spent in the household of recusant Lancashire gentry, where he might have written and performed in masques as part of the family’s entertainment; Lord Strange, an early patron, was a Catholic, as were many in his troupe of actors; so was the Earl of Southampton. Shakespeare, he comments, “had many associations with known papists”.

Ackroyd even goes so far as to make the enigmatic statement, “Shakespearean tragedy… has some deep affinity with the experience of Catholic worship and the sacrifice of the Mass”, yet he does not develop this. Again, he agrees that Pericles would have been “deeply congenial to the adherents of the old religion”. His final conclusion on this subject is that the poet was obviously the child of a recusant household, “attached to the old faith, but conforming to the observance of the new”.

The problem with this balanced, careful impartiality is that it might be unable to see the elephant in the sitting-room i.e. what is blindingly obvious. Shakespeare belongs to us all; yet if the overwhelming circumstantial evidence from his life suggests strong and enduring Catholic links and that he was more than likely a secret Catholic, then he will belong to followers of the “old faith” in a special way. Further, if a man of such sensitivity to his surroundings, to the hurly-burly of life all around him, and in particular to the dangerous political drama of the court and the nation in the post-Reformation years was indeed a covert papist, it is inconceivable that such tensions and concerns would not seep, consciously or unconsciously, into his plays.

The riddle of the real Shakespeare
It is here that Ackroyd, for all his research and understanding of his subject, shows his limitations. He casually observes that “it is characteristic of those who have foresworn their faith to cling to its vocabulary”. Surely, one might argue, the opposite is just as true: perhaps Shakespeare clung to a “Catholic” vocabulary in his writings because he passionately believed it? Again, the author thinks the heroines of The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, Miranda and Perdita, are “non-sensual” because they are chaste (he quotes Ted Hughes’ comment on “Shakespeare’s obsession with chastity”); he lacks the insight to see that chastity, romantic love and intelligent womanliness sit easily together – particularly if, as the Shakespeare critic Peter Milward has remarked, these gifted heroines reflect at some subliminal level the feminine attributes of the Blessed Virgin. Further, the author can provide no interpretation of the poem The Phoenix and the Turtle, simply describing it as “complex and riddling”. If, as is argued in Clare Asquith’s book, the poem can be deciphered by a coded Catholic reading – the short, poignant marriage of Roger and (St) Anne Line, both Catholic martyrs -- its meaning is translucent.

From Ackroyd’s portrait of a universal genius, limitlessly creative in language and characterisation, with a temperament that is tender and energetic, cautious and self-questioning, susceptible to extremes of mirth and melancholy, we move to the latter work. Clare Asquith’s concern is not with the protean, public playwright but with the private, particular poet: the reserved and secret “real” Shakespeare. To summarise her passionately argued thesis: Shakespeare was not simply a Catholic sympathiser, making prudential choices in difficult times, but an ardent, committed defender of the old faith who, in a long series of coded references and allegories in his dramas, “set himself the task of encoding and perpetuating the true story of England” and the tragic collapse and overthrow of Catholicism.

Such a thesis is not new. Hugh Ross Williamson came to broad but similar conclusions in The Day Shakespeare Died, published in 1961; his book itself reflects earlier research on the topic. But Clare Asquith’s book is more daring and detailed than its predecessors. Analysing each play and unravelling the hidden allusions behind the diction, she comes to the dramatic conclusion that a “shadow play” exists at all times behind the brilliant, polished surface meaning. Where Ackroyd acknowledges Catholic imagery in Pericles or King Lear, Asquith is convinced that by the mid-1590s Shakespeare “began to consider new ways of recording for posterity a truthful account of what had happened to England as a result of the Reformation”.

A code for the persecuted and oppressed
This required all the plots and characters, however complex, “to have equally complex shadow identities”. Thus for instance, Mercutio becomes a portrait of Christopher Marlowe; Richard III is a portrait of Robert Cecil, the hunchback power behind the throne of Elizabeth; Paulina in A Winter’s Tale is based on Lady Magdalen Montague; Hamlet, interpreted as a drama of the hesitancy and indecision of the Catholic party in the country, is modelled on Sir Philip Sidney, who was outwardly Protestant but secretly a Catholic sympathiser. Is this far-fetched? Certainly. Is it a beguiling notion? Definitely. Is it persuasively argued? Every inch of the way.

The idea for the book came to the author when she watched a play in Moscow during the Soviet regime and became aware of the coded messages it was sending out to a suppressed but politically aware audience, yet concealed from the KGB censors. Elizabethan England, with its oppressive Protestant regime, its network of spies and its secret yet obstinate Catholic opposition, presented a compelling parallel. And would it not be highly improbable, not to say false, to imagine that London’s finest and most fluent playwright – already known to have come from staunch Catholic stock – would not attempt to pit his subtle wits against the Tudor censors and appeal over their heads to his fellow countrymen?

The young Karol Wojtyla, later to become John Paul II, has testified to the huge and inspiring influence of patriotic Polish poetry and drama on his own youth in a country crushed first by the Germans and then by the Russians. Polish literature helped the Poles to retain their identity during the long years of political impotence. It is also the nature of great poetry to be subversive, to challenge the accepted order of things, as well as to express the secret yearnings of the heart. Shakespeare understood this supremely well; instead of standing aside with Olympian detachment as earlier critics have asserted, Asquith suggests that he continually commented on, criticised and caricatured the turbulent events of his own time, but in an oblique, disguised fashion.

Too narrow an interpretation
As an adherent of the old faith, I naturally find this idea very attractive. The book is highly plausible and its author very persistent in her interpretation. Once you master the terms in the glossary – for example, “fair” and “high” denoting Catholicism, “low” and “dark” denoting Protestantism, “tempest” meaning the Reformation, “Hecuba” representing widowed England and so on – it is a short step to seek Shakespeare’s hidden language everywhere, as he records “the whole unhappy story of the country’s spiritual collapse.” It almost invites a “conspiracy theory” approach.

Yet is it true?

The short answer is that we will never know for sure. Asquith agrees that the concealed codes are so subtle and allusive that they will always be deniable; indeed, Shakespeare could not have survived as a court dramatist if this were not the case. But somehow I feel that this strict, though highly ingenious, “translation” of his deeper meaning is reductive of its subject.

To think of Shakespeare at all times deliberately seeking plots and stories through which to convey one insistent undercover message seems to undermine his prodigality, his life-enhancing bounty, his inventiveness. Although the author insists on his universality, the portrait that emerges from her book is of a man wholly bound up, indeed obsessed, with one theme only. From the evidence of the plays – and they provide almost the only evidence – the sheer variety of the voices and the energy and life that their author breathes into them would indicate that if Shakespeare was using them as a hidden vehicle for constant reminders of the true faith, his method was convoluted, wayward, inexact, ambiguous, often obscure and confusing, open to as many layers of interpretation as there are scholars to seek them out.

Ackroyd points out that, among all his other copious references, Shakespeare alludes to 108 different plants and 60 species of birds. Are we to believe that there may be coded meanings behind all these, or only some of them, and if so, which does one select for particular symbolic purpose and which discard? Further, there are more than 1300 sexual allusions in the plays. Ackroyd observes that Shakespeare is “never more lively… witty than in dealing with sexual matters.” It is conjectured with some plausibility that he did not lead a monkish existence during the long periods away from Stratford. Of course, Asquith is not writing a straightforward biography (and the word “straightforward” is itself inappropriate for such a wily and seductive wordsmith) and it is possible that he was both a devout recusant as well as a sinner in the flesh. His characters are wonderfully all too human; why not their creator?

Lost in a labyrinth of clues
Yet to bolster her thesis Asquith sometimes has to push the dramatist and his plays into a kind of improbable strait-jacket: if Othello secretly concerns the complex psychological makeup of James I, with good and evil spirits struggling for possession of his soul, it might conceivably describe Iago as the evil spirit, but hardly Cassio as the good spirit. Would a Catholic audience watching Hamlet have attended to the vacillations of certain Catholics and their crises of conscience, or simply been caught up, as later audiences, with the myriad shades and sorrows of a human soul? At every level, Shakespeare’s meanings slip into other meanings and possibilities; it is why the plays can be interpreted in endless different guises by all who encounter them. For critics, too, the man himself mirrors their own natural bias: with Harold Bloom, Shakespeare becomes a gnostic; in the hands of Ackroyd he is an energetic man of affairs; in Asquith’s view he is a committed fellow Catholic. And thus he succeeds in concealing himself. Even the provenance of his supposed likenesses in art have been challenged; we don’t really know what he looked like.

At the end, for Ackroyd, Shakespeare retires to Stratford to enjoy the pleasures of his hard-won prosperity; for Asquith he goes into “exile”, silenced by the state. Yet she admits that a “disillusioned retirement is as much a guess as that of the shrewd and contented Stratford man of business”. My own guess after reading and pondering both these books (and often having repeated to myself Prospero’s final lines) is a mixture of the two: that he was a believing Catholic but made prudential public choices; that he was sometimes fired up by the sufferings of his fellow-Catholics and friends and gave veiled but eloquent voice to them in certain allusions and characters; and that he was very frequently so possessed by the deep wells of his own creative impulse that he followed the spirit within wherever it took him. So both these books throw (refracted) light on a multifaceted, mysterious and ever-moving target.

They make good Advent reading. The scriptural readings for this liturgical season constantly warn us to stay awake for the Second Coming of Christ. Shakespeare would have known them well; the Bible, as Ackroyd says, was an “echo-chamber” for his imagination. And as I always think of Hamlet as being closest to his master’s heart, it is good to be reminded of the Prince of Denmark’s words: “

Why let the stricken deer go weep
The hart ungalled play
For some must watch while some must sleep
So runs the world away.

Francis Phillips, who is married with eight children, lives in Bucks, in the UK. Her reviews often appear in British Catholic publications.



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