Jack Carrigan talks to Clare Asquith, the author spearheading the quest to prove that the Bard of Avon was a hidden Catholic Anew film is on general release called Anonymous. Directed by Roland Emmerich, it asks: “Was Shakespeare a fraud?” Apparently the real author happens to be Edward de Vere,17th Earl of Oxford. Naturally enough this notion, first floated by J Thomas Looney in 1920, has its critics. Among them is Clare Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith (no relation to de Vere: her husband is the great-grandson of the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith). Her book Shadowplay, published in 2005, daringly suggested that Shakespeare hid his Catholic beliefs behind innumerable coded references within his dramas.
Speaking to her, I ask: “Why do people keep on questioning the authorship of the plays? Why won’t they accept that Shakespeare was simply who he said he was – a belief accepted without question by his friends and associates for 250 years following his death.” Her answer is incisive and makes much sense: modern Shakespeare scholars have laid themselves open to challenges about the authorship because they won’t accept that he could have been a covert Catholic like so many intellectuals and aristocrats of the day.
She says: “If modern scholars could take this on board, they would be able to answer the authorship question by addressing the two obvious puzzles that have given rise to the challenge of Shakespeare’s identity: the lack of documentation about his life and the verbal and thematic parallels between his sonnets and those of others, notably the Earl of Oxford.” Getting into her stride on a subject with which she is obviously deeply familiar, She asks me if I know the book Ungentle Shakespeare by Katherine Duncan-Jones. I confess I don’t, and she tells me that while not in any way supporting the Catholic position, Duncan-Jones produces a wealth of evidence which shows our most famous poetic dramatist was not the “gentle Shakespeare” of romantic tradition.
“Like his father and other Stratford business men, he was shrewd, avoiding paying taxes and keeping a deliberately low profile from the state authorities; such a man would be equally skilful at concealing his political and religious connections.” Asquith adds, “The Montagues of Cowdray are among the many court Catholics who, like the Earl of Worcester, could have patronised drama covertly pleading their cause. But their records were lost in a fire.” What about the so-called “lost years”, when Shakespeare left Stratford and had not yet become publicly known in London? Asquith thinks he may have studied abroad, travelled in Italy or even gone to Oxford. “The archivist at St John’s College told me that it was perfectly possible for students in those days to go through Oxford without leaving a trace – especially if they left before taking their degree.” She mentions the diarist John Aubrey’s remark that Shakespeare was for a time a schoolmaster in the country.
“That is possible,” she says. “And he could also have gone abroad, to Italy, which he obviously knew well.” As she talks, the shadowy profile of this most secretive and mysterious of men begins to take on shape and substance: a student at one of the shadowy Catholic halls at Oxford or under alias abroad, a practical man of the world, a trusted protégée of a noble family – and a Catholic of the “ChurchPapist” sort, someone who paid lip-service to the Protestant faith while secretly sharing his emotional and imaginative life with his beleaguered coreligionists.
It all makes sense – if one accepts Shakespeare’s religious convictions. I mention to Asquith a remark I read a couple of years ago by Sir Richard Eyre, former director of the National Theatre, that Hamlet showed the author had no religious beliefs; indeed, that he must have been agnostic. She laughs. “Modern scholars see religious belief as ridiculous. It is a great pity there is this deliberate blind spot about Shakespeare.” She mentions Jonathan’s Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare. “He is an excellent textual scholar and his book offers a fine defence against the Oxfordians. Yet there is a kind of self-censorship about the Catholic aspect of his identity. These scholars treat Shakespeare as being like themselves. They put his faith on the same level as the ‘Oxfordian’ theory, ie as something wildly improbable.” I remark that we are both assuming the dramatist was a Catholic, but is there any hard biographical evidence for this? Asquith admits not, though she cites Richard Davies, a Lichfield clergyman, who stated in the late 17th century that Shakespeare “died a papist”. She also mentions John Speed, who in 1611 appears to refer sneeringly to the poet as an associate of the Jesuit, Robert Parsons, when he speaks about “this papist and his poet, of like conscience for lies”, in relation to the portrayal of Sir John Oldcastle as Falstaff. Nonetheless, she points out that “a highly educated and sympathetic acquaintance with Catholic feasts, practice and doctrine is evident from his plays, and undisputed. Many critics would agree that the end of A Winter’s Tale stages a sacramental moment in a chapel in circumstances very like the Mass. And to a few critics, Catholic ones, the last act of The Merchant of Venice strongly recalls the Easter Triduum.” On this theme, she mentions Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt, an American scholar, who is fascinated by all the Catholic references in the plays. “He finds a wealth of them – but concludes it is merely decorative imagery. So I admire his research even though I don’t agree with his conclusions.” Asquith then enlarges on her main point: the turmoil in England as a result of the Reformation and how it affected the poets and playwrights of the old faith. She cites Michael Questier’s research as being very important in depicting Catholic dissidence at a high level.
“It was not easy to be heroic. Shakespeare would have had to have kept his head down. This hinterland of marginalised Catholicism could only have been expressed obliquely on the stage. To write openly about religion or politics in the drama was forbidden by the Elizabethan censor. You had to set your plots in a country far away. It was a necessary convention that everyone knew about.” She puts the case even more forcibly, painting a scene worthy of the drama. “There was a suppressed civil war in the psyche of England between the Catholics and Protestants. Before the Reformation there had been an integration of the different elements in the Church, between the conservative and the reformist element. Even Ted Hughes, who admittedly got much wrong, understood this schizophrenia when he wrote, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.” I remind Asquith of her own book, Shadowplay, and she relates how, when her husband was a diplomat in Moscow, she saw how religious and political themes could be covertly expressed in the theatre to evade official censorship. “It is just the same in Shakespeare. His language is subtle. He can’t be pinned down. I think all the plays use deniable ‘cover’ themes to air the Catholic predicament and the larger religious divide. But of course the cover is very cleverly deniable. So there is no hard evidence from the plays. But I would argue that the more the reader is aware of the intricacies of English politics from 1590 to 1623, when the First Folio came out, the more striking the parallels are with the material and arguments of Shakespeare’s poems and plays.” So how did Shakespeare’s genius develop, I ask? Asquith is eloquent.
“You have to picture the complex political and religious situation,” she says. “How can you be true to yourself and survive? There would be endless self-analysis, self-examination and self-doubt. It was from this crucible that Shakespeare’s drama was formed. His deep knowledge of the human soul was shaped within the milieu of the necessity of constantly employing subterfuges and disguises.” A last question: will she go and see Anonymous? She is cautious. “I might go, but it sounds so boring and the critics have panned it. I think even the Oxfordians will be embarrassed by it. Why couldn’t they have made something like the film Shakespeare in Love, which I thought was marvellous.” I am referred to a final book, Monstrous Adversary by Alan Nelson. “He examines every scrap of evidence dredged up by the Oxfordians – and completely demolishes it.” By now Asquith has given me the answer to my own question: will I see Anonymous or not? I think not.
Clare Asquith is the author of Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare