Despite their obscurity, The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis were Shakespeare’s best-sellers. But why were these poems so wildly popular?
In Shadowplay—her first book about the secret messages in Shakespeare’s plays—Clare Asquith explains what sparked first her imagination and then her research: In the early 1980s she and her husband attended a small production in a dreary theater in Moscow. Ostensibly the play was a dramatization of a Chekhov short story. The couple’s KGB minders stood at the door, and as the play continued, Mrs. Asquith and her husband became aware that the audience and the cast were sharing a secret anti-Soviet message.
She writes, “As the wife of a British diplomat in Moscow during the Cold War, I became fascinated by the artful double language and hidden identities used in Russian dissident writing. At the same time, I was reading the works of historians who emphasize the repressive aspect of late Tudor England and highlight the forgotten extent of the country’s resistance to the Protestant Reformation. I read slowly through Shakespeare’s works, alert as a Soviet audience might have been, for obliquely topical indications of political doublespeak.”
Mrs. Asquith’s work, along with that of Fr. Peter Milward, Richard Wilson, Joseph Pearce, and others, have established for many the importance of Shakespeare’s Catholic faith, and the subversive political and religious messages embedded in his poems and plays.
Mrs. Asquith’s latest volume, Shakespeare and the Resistance, takes her thesis one step further. Subtitled The Earl of Southampton, the Essex Rebellion and the Poems That Challenged the Tudor Tyranny, Mrs. Asquith’s new book guides us through the political labyrinth of the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts while pointing to the congruences between the political personalities and events of the day and Shakespeare’s writings. Eschewing the kind of lit-crit sola Scriptura that approaches the text and the text only, Mrs. Asquith is unashamed to weave together the writings with the personal crises and faith of the author and the tumultuous political and cultural events of the time.
Mrs. Asquith begins with the story of the dashing dandy, the Earl of Southampton. He was part of the ill-fated rebellion against Queen Elizabeth led by the Earl of Essex and was imprisoned in the Tower. Shakespeare not only knew him, but dedicated the two poems in question to him. The poems were Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Mrs. Asquith explains the mysterious fact that, while the two poems are now read with bewilderment (if they are read at all) because of their obscurity, they were Shakespeare’s popular best-sellers — the poems that made his name. Why were they so wildly popular? Mrs. Asquith believes it is because they were subtle, subversive tracts supporting the mostly Catholic resistance against the Elizabethan police state.
The Rape of Lucrece is a classic tale recorded by Ovid in which a faithful wife is raped by a lustful prince. Mrs. Asquith outlines the plot and shows how well known the story was to the general population of Shakespeare’s day. Furthermore, the story was recounted by poets and painters as both an “erotic fable and a morality tale” and was used by both Protestant and Catholics to highlight the violence that comes with the abuse of power. Mrs. Asquith explores Shakespeare’s dense and difficult take on the story and asks what the poet’s deeper message might be.
Then follows a chapter which warrants the purchase of Mrs. Asquith’s book on its own. Her exposition of the wholesale cultural revolution that we call the English Reformation is devastating. The popular whitewash in which “those monks were fat, lazy, and superstitious, and good ole’ King Henry cleaned up the monasteries and reformed the church” is hung, drawn, and quartered by Mrs. Asquith. She relentlessly chronicles the willful pillage, destruction and sack of the English church by the one whom the pope had titled “defender of the faith.” Henry’s lust for Anne Boleyn was only an emblem of his great and grotesque greed for the wealth of the monasteries. History would not see a similar, total cultural revolution until that other fat tyrant, Mao Tse Tung.
Mrs. Asquith’s chapter on the true violence of Henry’s pillage brilliantly sets the stage for a discussion of the role of poetry in the politics of the day, before going on to a detailed explication and application of The Rape of Lucrece. These three chapters together make Mrs. Asquith’s argument unassailable. Once she adds a portrait of the sinister Lord Burghley, his son Robert Cecil, and the Machiavellian machinations of the Elizabethan court, we can make sense of the second poem, Venus and Adonis.
In that poem a lascivious goddess imposes herself on a resistant youth who is eventually killed. Mrs. Asquith sets this poem in the context of the Earl of Essex’ downfall, after which the resistance to the tyranny of Elizabeth’s courtiers collapses.
Clare Asquith’s book is exhaustively researched, carefully written, and cleverly argued. Some critics of Shadowplay have suggested that “the lady doth protest too much” and that she overplayed her hand—stretching the secret code idea to its breaking point and thereby weakening her argument. The same point is made about some of Fr. Milward’s writings on the same subject. Like conspiracy theorists, it is all too easy with a subject like this to connect dots which are not there and to spy secret messages that are written in invisible ink. If it was a problem before, this time Mrs. Asquith sidesteps and is more cautious in her conclusions.
Shakespeare and the Resistance is well-written, clear, and accessible. The detail of its content may be heavy going for someone new to the subject, but for anyone even a little familiar with Shakespeare, the Reformation, and Tudor England, this will be an absorbing read and an excellent addition to the library. That studies on “Shakespeare the Catholic” are having an impact can be seen in the recent TV series Will, in which Shakespeare’s Catholicism provided a powerful sub plot.
Not only does Mrs. Asquith’s book give us a glimpse into Shakespeare, but more importantly it provides an excellent description of the power plays of the time and the relevance and impact of popular culture. As such, it should remind us of the value of drama, fiction, film, and television today. When oppressive regimes arise, censorship stomps down, and arguments are impossible, drama and literature may come to the fore. Satire, allegory, and symbolism will regain their power and draw, and they may once again play a part in subverting the lies with truth and in empowering the resistance.
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