August 20, 2005

From Bridget Jones to Shakespeare in one fell swoop

I was getting tired of the cool, rainy weather so feeling rather hopeful about encouraging an Indian summer I picked up the "Summer Double Issue" (August 1, 2005) of Maclean's magazine yesterday at the library.

Had fun reading Robert Mason Lee's article about the newish book, Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare by Clare Asquith; yes, her husband's grandfather was the British PM.
Asquith's premise is that nearly all of Shakespeare's work contains a coded reference to the politics of his day. This code would have been understood by his intended audience -- what Asquith calls the "educated but ordinary" people -- but would not have been apparent to his Elizabethan censors. This was crucial, for in Shakespearean times the performance of dissident works led not to the gulag, but to the gallows.

His intention, she believes, was not merely to amuse his audience with subterfuge. Surrounded by a repressive police state and haunted by spies, Shakespeare was concerned that the true historical record of his age would be lost, censored out of existence by the Elizabethan court. "He was much more like a journalist than a scholar," she told Maclean's. According to Shadowplay, Shakespeare was also a recusant Catholic [Asquith herself is Catholic] -- he refused to attend Church of England services -- with ties to similar-minded aristocrats.

"Even if only half of Clare Asquith's argument turns out to be correct," Cambridge historian and biographer John Guy has written, "she's written the most visceral, challenging, and compelling book on Shakespeare's place in history we've had for over twenty years." And if it all turns out to be correct, she will have single-handedly turned the mighty citadel of Shakespearean scholarship on its head.

Only in the past few decades have historians revised their assumptions about the period. Far from being a happy time of peaceful transition from Catholicism to Protestantism, the Tudor and Elizabethan reigns were in fact the most brutal and turbulent period in English history. Shakespeare required not only the wit to encode his plays and sonnets with historical references, but the confidence that his works would survive until the day their deeper meaning could be clearly understood by posterity.

Obviously, his works have survived. And Asquith believes that now, four centuries on, she has finally discovered the key to unlocking their hidden messages. If true -- and she makes a convincing argument of her case -- then it can only heighten appreciation of the Bard's manifold gifts. "Clearly," she says, "he is the cleverest man that ever writ." ...

Prior to Asquith, Shakespeare's works have been considered devoid of topical references, dealing instead with universal themes of love, power and ambition. But it struck Asquith as ridiculous to presume that someone of Shakespeare's intelligence and curiosity would ignore the momentous events around him -- or that the audience would tolerate such disregard.

She began to look for clues in his works, alive to the Elizabethan love of wordplay, puns and double meanings (a love which lives on in England to this day, whether in the endemic crossword puzzles or double entendres of English comedy). Her excitement mounted as she read the texts with new eyes: "I was simply blown away," she says. "Once I got into the zone, I knew every day, as I would pull the thread that much farther, it would yield something new." ...

Her theories have gained the endorsement of E.A.J. Honigmann, the esteemed dean of Shakespearean scholars [whose Lost Years always reminds me of Agatha Christie's disappearing act], who at first found them too incredible to believe. He returned her manuscript with the comment, "No, sorry, I can't accept this." He later came to stay at the Manor of Mells, where Asquith pleaded her case with what she calls a "full, Technicolor, wide-screen lecture." At the end of which, Honigmann bowed his head and replied: "You have persuaded me to change my position."

While I'm a bit put off by Lee's reference to the new book as "a real-life Da Vinci Code for people who think," I find the Honigmann support reassuring. I'm thinking that Asquith's work, perhaps along with The Age of Shakespeare by Frank Kermode, would be lovely additions to the high school curriculum, especially for those seeking to study the plays in more context. Unsurprisingly, Shadowplay isn't in the library system yet (though I find 77 entries for SpongeBob). But I found this recent essay, "The Catholic Bard: Shakespeare & the ‘Old Religion’," by Asquith (herself a Catholic), adapted from the book, at Commonweal's website, which should be enough to keep me busy for now.

I'm also excited about an upcoming reissue of a Shakespeare book I heard about from one of the members at the Latin Classical Education group at Yahoo. The book is Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language, by Sister Miriam Joseph. Yes, that Sister Miriam, who also wrote The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric. According to the publisher's website,
In Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language, Sister Miriam Joseph teaches writing in the manner Shakespeare was taught—with a thorough grounding in the arts of language: logic, grammar, and rhetoric (the first three of the seven liberal arts, known as the trivium). In Shakespeare's time, every grammar-school student would have recognized the two hundred figures of speech that Renaissance scholars had derived from Latin and Greek sources (from amphibolgia through onomatopoeia to zeugma). Sister Miriam Joseph organizes these figures into simple, understandable patterns and illustrates each one with examples from Shakespeare.

Sounds like a wonderful addition to the classical homeschool, whether it's Latin-centered or history-centered. Books like these make me happy that my eldest is only just eight. I have more than a few years to wallow in them myself, and reread the plays, before sharing them with the kids.

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