Regular readers will know of my, shall we say, erratic reading habits. I never seem to have less than three books on the go at any given time. Just recently the situation worsened due to all this glorious 'global warming' which, being a rarity here, leads one into outdoors country and seaside temptations, to say nothing of snoozing gently on a lounger under the shadow of a tree, and the pile of books grows higher! However, I want you all to know that I spoke to myself in a very severe manner the other day and promised that I would get a grip of my lackadaisical reading habits. I was particularly conscience-stricken by the fact that I had started Margaret MacMillan's superb history of the run-up to WWI but then been distracted by other books that, I don't know, just seem to have turned up! Anyway, a few days ago I returned to WWI and, even though I am fairly well-informed of the lachrymose details, Ms. MacMillan's pelucid English and shrewd judgment kept me enthralled - up until this morning!
Despatched by the 'Memsahib' into the blistering heat, at least 21 degrees - what are you Aussies sniggering at? - I duly shopped for the weekend and then wandered innocently along through Sherborne market and, goodness me, there was the second-hand bookseller and his stall - what a surprise - well, even if he's there every Saturday it was still a surprise to me - honest! So I browsed - it would have been bad manners not to - and there, before my horror-stricken eyes, was temptation! A fairly slim volume called: Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare by Clare Asquith. I simply couldn't resist!
The book purports to be an analysis of the life and works of WS which 'proves' that he was a secret Catholic recusant. At that point two of his plays instantly came to mind - King Lear and Measure for Measure. The latter, a play with Catholic religiosity at its very centre, mocks the central, God-like character of the Duke of Vienna as a bumbling prat whose actions and judgments are mostly ill-conceived and nearly disasterous. In King Lear we have a sustained tract telling the stories of not one but two families who are denied any earthly redemption as a cold, implacable universe squidges them out of existence as though a giant Monty Python foot has descended on them. Even worse, and even more cruel, both men, Lear and Gloucester, are given brief moments of glorious hope and happiness before - squelch! - and they're dead! "As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods/ They kill us for their sport", says Gloucester. Hardly the message of a dedicated Catholic, I feel!
Even so, I bought the book and I will read it because it is important to try and read as many interpretations of that quiet, crafty, observant and highly intelligent scribbler from Stratford as you can. Also, it is important not to assume that - hey! - Will Shakespeare agrees with me! We all want to feel that somehow he is on our side even, or perhaps especially, the Catholics. I have personally come a cropper on several occasions for that lazy style of (non)thinking. Even so, and despite the fact that I have only just finished Chaper One, I have been given cause to read Clare Asquith, or the Countess of Oxford and Asquith, to give her full title, very carefully indeed. In her opening chapter she provides a brief history of the Catholic/Protestant clashes which started with Henry VIII, continued through his son's brief reign and on into Queen Mary's regime and finally into that of Elizabeth I. She emphasises the undoubted cruelties inflicted on Catholics but rather skims the retaliation when they had power. For example, she admits that under Mary, 270 Protestants were burned at the stake but she emphasises that under Elizabeth 207 Catholics faced a similar fate. She fails to remind us that Mary only reigned for 5 years where-as Elizabeth held power for 45 years, so Mary's 'kill ratio' exceeded Elizabeth's by a huge margin. In addition she makes great play of the 'tens of thousands' of Catholics who perished, unrecorded, in various jails but somehow I don't think prison conditions were any better in Mary's reign!
There is a site you can visit which contains a critical review of her book by David Womersley, an 'EngLit' swot from Oxford. To say that he was underwhelmed puts it mildly! There looks to be a fairly waspish (but entertaining!) exchange of opinions in the comments thread demonstrating that a punch-up between university swots makes a 'Glasgie' punch-up look like a vicar's tea-party. I am not going to read the whole thing because I do want to read the book first and without prejudice - or at least, not too much prejudice. However, I am always and forever suspicious of books which have words like "hidden beliefs" and "coded politics" in their titles, it smacks of all those silly books purporting to prove that someone other than Shakespeare wrote his plays. Come to think of it, one of the prime fantasy candidates for that role is Edward de Vere, former Earl of Oxford and therefore part of Ms. Asquith's family!