The Reverend Edward Casaubon, in Middlemarch, working himself to death in pursuit of the Key to All Mythologies, is an awful warning to scholars who seek to reduce untidy and complex ideas to a system, with inevitably skewed results. Clare Asquith’s Shakespeare and the Resistance, the successor to her Shadowplay (2005), is in the line of descent from Ted Hughes’s maverick Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992), which proposed, with a mixture of insight and obfuscation, that Shakespeare’s narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) engaged with mythical archetypes and occult Neoplatonism to dramatize the enmity between the Catholic and Puritan wings of the Elizabethan church.1 Hughes stopped short of identifying Shakespeare with either party, but Asquith, who comes from a distinguished Catholic family, has no doubts. For her, the narrative poems must be understood as covert expressions of support for the earls of Southampton and Essex in their power struggle, at the late-Elizabethan court, with the faction led by William Cecil, Lord Burghley—Elizabeth’s chief minister and spymaster—and his son Robert. Southampton’s family was staunchly Catholic, and Essex attracted a following among Catholics; the Cecils were hard-line Protestants.

When Asquith wrote Shadowplay, she had just become aware of the powerful revisionist reading of English Reformation history, notably espoused by Eamon Duffy, as a shift of religious allegiance imposed by an autocratic regime upon a largely unwilling populace, rather than as the response of government to public outcry for reform. Catholic resistance to the so-called “Elizabethan Settlement” remained stubborn throughout the Queen’s reign and up to the Gunpowder Plot. This was a class issue as well as a religious one. Southampton and Essex saw themselves as champions of the traditions of aristocratic chivalry, menaced by upstarts. Shakespeare’s poems, written in quick succession during a period when the theaters were closed due to plague, were both dedicated to Southampton, angling for patronage—a prospect which collapsed when, on coming of age, the earl had to pay a massive £5,000 forfeit for having refused to marry Burghley’s granddaughter (he had been Burghley’s ward during his minority), which would have consolidated the Cecils’ power at court. Burghley probably engineered, by refusing supplies, the failure of Essex’s attempt, in 1599, to quash rebellion in Ireland, a mission on which Southampton accompanied him. Essex, in disgrace with the Queen, led a botched rising in London in 1601 which, although aimed at no more than warning her against Burghley and ensuring that James VI would, in due time, peaceably succeed her, was presented by his enemies as a bid for the throne. His execution swiftly followed; Southampton, who had taken part in the affray, was spared the block, but was imprisoned until James’s accession.

Connections between Shakespeare and Southampton are long-established; the link with Essex is more elusive. The more intimate tone of the dedication to Lucrece suggests that Southampton had responded positively to Venus and Adonis, but there is no record of contact after 1594, when Shakespeare became a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and had to please a different patron. Nor is there conclusive evidence that Southampton was, as many would like to believe, the “Mr W. H.” to whom Shakespeare’s sonnets were dedicated—although the first seventeen poems, with their urging upon the beautiful young man his duty to marry, do evoke a parallel situation to Southampton’s life. As for Essex, on February 7, 1601, the eve of the rising, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were paid by some of his supporters to give a special performance of a play about Richard II—almost certainly Shakespeare’s, written in 1595—at the Globe. The staging of the enforced abdication, and subsequent murder, of a reigning monarch could hardly have been more inflammatory (the deposition scene did not appear in print in Elizabeth’s lifetime). But the company went unpunished and, indeed, were soon playing at court once more. Richard II suited the purposes of Essex’s supporters, but there is no suggestion that he attended the performance, or even knew of it. Much is made of the apparent allusion, in the Chorus before Act V of Henry V (1599), to Essex’s Irish campaign, which must have been written before his failure was known, but what that voices is the hope of a military victory by the army of “our gracious empress” rather than seditious support for her favorite. There were certainly some who thought of Essex as a possible successor to Elizabeth, but we cannot count Shakespeare among them. If, as has been suggested, he was remembering Essex when he created the character of Coriolanus, his feelings were decidedly mixed.

Shakespeare’s fascination with political questions needs no demonstration, and through performances at court he must have been acquainted to some degree with influential public figures.

To write off Asquith’s book as partisan fantasy, however, would be unfair. Her premises are not absurd. Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and Spenser’s Faerie Queene, to name no others, show that poetry could contain coded political and religious messages. Tudor courtier-poets such as Wyatt, Sidney, and Raleigh wrote lyrics with political undertones. Shakespeare’s fascination with political questions needs no demonstration, and through performances at court he must have been acquainted to some degree with influential public figures. As for religion, nobody can deny that he and his wife came from Catholic families. His Stratford schoolmasters were probably Catholics, as was the priest who married him. The Jesuit poet and martyr Robert Southwell was his cousin on his mother’s side. His father may have been a recusant (the genuineness of the alleged documentary “proof” of this has been questioned), and his daughter Susanna was on one occasion summoned for non-attendance at church. He has been thought to be a “church papist,” a Catholic who attended Anglican services for the sake of a quiet life, but there is no hard evidence of that. His plays show extensive, detailed acquaintance with the beliefs, liturgy, and practices of the pre-Reformation church, and they often do so in a cryptic fashion. Yet to conclude from all this that he must have been a Catholic, “an apologist for a particular party” in Asquith’s words, is too dogmatic. As Peter Lake, among others, has shown, confessional identities in the sixteenth century were remarkably fissiparous. One always returns to the fact that Shakespeare is a creative artist, in the business of imagining ideas in which he did not himself believe. That he could so convincingly dramatize opposing positions is his genius and our problem.

Venus and Adonis, in many respects faithful to its source, Ovid, departs radically from him in making Adonis resist the blandishments of the goddess. Asquith sees this, reasonably enough, as an allusion to Southampton’s refusal to make a marriage for Burghley’s convenience. She also argues that Venus’s domineering treatment of Adonis recalls Elizabeth’s often coercive treatment of her subjects, and sees the boar which fatally wounds Adonis as symbolic of Burghley’s system of torture and imprisonment for recusants, implemented by the hated sadist-executioner Richard Topcliffe. It is true that Essex referred to the Queen as “Venus” in secret communications with James VI, but it was widespread practice to confer mythological status upon her—indeed, Adonis’s love of hunting and insistence on chastity associate him with Diana, with whom the Queen was also identified. The problem with these decrypting readings is that there are so many different possible solutions. It is in the nature of codes, after all, that they are purposely hard to crack.

The poem contains two extended digressions from the amatory theme: the bolting of Adonis’s stallion in pursuit of a mare, and the description of a hare-coursing. Building on Richard Wilson’s Secret Shakespeare (2004), Asquith interprets the stallion as Pegasus, a traditional symbol of the poet; Shakespeare, she suggests, presents himself in equestrian disguise, “proclaiming with magnificent verve and elan his own political intent.” While Adonis hesitates, the horse bolts, and his chance of escape is lost; this means, according to Asquith, that Catholics should take note that decisive action is required if their cause is not to be thrown away. But the conventional symbolic association of the unbridled horse is with unrestrained passion, not fatal indecision (it is used in that way of Tarquin in the later poem). The hare episode, again with a nod to Wilson, is seen to figure the priest-hunting of the 1590s, when to say or hear Mass, or to harbor a priest, was a capital crime. The subterfuges to avoid detection, such as priest holes, concealed cupboards, and cellars, are reflected, Asquith thinks, in the weaving, zigzagging movements of the hare. She identifies the boar with the Calydonian boar, familiar from Ovid, that the goddess Diana lets loose to punish the king of Calydon for neglecting her rites—a parallel to the enforcement of Anglican conformity?—and she concludes that the havoc it wreaks equates to Topcliffe’s tortures. (Wilson, who sees the boar as Burghley, intriguingly points out that Boarhunt is the name of a wooded region in Southampton’s Hampshire estates.) Yet that does not explain the disquietingly erotic tone in which the boar’s assault on Adonis is described.

The title of The Rape of Lucrece invokes the Latin raptu, meaning illegal seizure or abduction; Asquith sees allusions to the dissolution of the monasteries and the appropriation of their goods into Henry VIII’s coffers. Lucrece becomes the English church, despoiled and dishonored by Henry/Tarquin, whose ownership is subsequently disputed between the Catholic and Protestant parties (her father and husband). The Roman setting offers Asquith an opportunity to make parallels with Reformation controversy. In doing so, she mentions the opportunism of Southampton’s paternal grandfather, Thomas Wriothesley, Henry’s Lord Chancellor, who profited from the monastic revenues. If the young Southampton thought of this, would he not find it an odd note to strike in a poem intended to flatter and encourage him? No, Asquith says: he would have disapproved of his grandfather and “Shakespeare’s attack on Reformation opportunists in Lucrece must have echoed Southampton’s own attitude to his family’s past.” Note that “must”—insisted upon only because otherwise the alleged “attack” looks even less credible.

The expulsion of the Tarquins from Rome, in revenge for Lucrece’s rape, is explained, like the episode of the horse in Venus and Adonis, as an incitement to the Catholic party to take action against those who have usurped their rights. What I find more striking is Lucrece’s interest in the replacement of monarchy by republicanism. It used to be assumed that republican thought was virtually absent from Tudor England, but scholars such as Andrew Hadfield in Shakespeare and Republicanism (2005) have shown that this is incorrect. Asquith’s one reference to the issue comes in the context of her somewhat rose-tinted praise for Essex’s enlightened humanism and Christian piety: “his principled opposition to unlimited royal power, often billed as a new theory of republicanism,” was actually an assertion of the rights of common law.

If Shakespeare was indeed urging action by the Catholics in 1594, he may have felt differently about matters after the Essex uprising. Here and elsewhere, Asquith tends to see the poems in isolation from developments in political affairs, and in Shakespeare’s work both before and after their composition. Patrick Cheney’s stimulating book Shakespeare, National Poet-Playwright (2004) identified anticipations of the poems’ thematic interests in TitusAndronicus and The Two Gentlemen of Verona (in both of which rape plays an important part) and the Henry VI trilogy (which, like Lucrece, contains references to the Trojan War). Both Ted Hughes and Asquith detect a darkening in tone and style in Shakespeare’s later work, but they disagree about the date. For Hughes it is 1599, after As You Like It, with Shakespeare returning obsessively to the opposition between sterile chastity and lustful passion which he had staked out in the poems. For Asquith it is after 1604, the year of James I’s anti-Catholic legislation, which she sees behind the Duke’s enforcement of long-neglected laws against fornication in Measure for Measure, first acted that year. Few will agree with her that Shakespeare is “positioning the predicament of English Catholics at the heart of the plot.” Hughes, in one of his strongest readings, saw Angelo’s move from Puritan to persecutor as a kind of telescoping of the narrative poems; he begins as Adonis but ends as Tarquin. That seems much more coherent, especially when we remember that Measure for Measure may have had some input from Thomas Middleton, a Calvinist and no friend to Rome.

Asquith also ignores Middleton’s undisputed hand in Timon of Athens, a play she sees as portraying the desertion of Essex’s followers as his power waned, with Shakespeare casting himself as the Poet, making “an act of atonement, perhaps,” for his less-than-wholehearted backing. Timon dates from 1605/06, not particularly “soon after Essex’s death” (in 1601) as Asquith says; indeed, Essex’s son, and successor as the third earl, had just married (at the age of thirteen) and was to become a commander of the Parliamentarian army in the Civil War. Like Macbeth, another text with Middletonian associations (whose protagonist compares himself to Tarquin as he approaches Duncan’s chamber), Timon may postdate the Gunpowder Plot, which extinguished any hope of a fair hearing for Catholics; the post-1604 tragic mood “has its roots,” in Asquith’s view, “in the early 1590s when [Shakespeare] gave his allegiance to a cause which ultimately failed.” Were things as simple as that? Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida were written before 1604, and the focus on tragedy in 1603–1606 may have many explanations besides grief for the Catholic cause. After all, it is hard to see where pure romantic comedy could have gone after Twelfth Night, which has plenty of darkness and pain in it. Theatrical tastes were changing; city comedy and mannerist tragedy, both characterized by satire and sexual intrigue, were fashionable in the new reign.

Finally, one reason why religious interpretations are always going to be hard to prove is that legislation against the discussion of theological issues onstage meant that Shakespeare, like his fellow dramatists, had to present such material obliquely if he wished to write about it. In that sense, one can admit that he was operating in a kind of code, but for his own safety it had to be capable of being read several ways. It is a code dependent on allusion rather than one-on-one symbolism or allegory. Undoubtedly, as I mentioned earlier, Shakespeare incorporates allusions to scripture, liturgy, and doctrine both Catholic and Protestant, and is imaginatively engaged by theological debate—but “debate” is the key word. A poet might feel able to back a party line, but such a procedure would be fatal to a dramatist. There is something mechanical, lumbering, and ultimately tedious about the mind and personality which Asquith discerns behind Shakespeare’s work, something that overlooks what is teasing, gnomic, and mischievous in it—in short, sheerly playful.

  1.  Shakespeare and the Resistance: The Earl of Shakespeare and the Resistance: The Earl of Southampton, the Essex Rebellion, and the Poems that Challenged Tudor Tyranny, by Clare Asquith; PublicAffairs, 257 pages, $28.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 3, on page 21
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