On “Shadowplay” by Clare Asquith

clailre asquith MarloweThis book, published in 2005, (subtitled “The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare”) is a mildly contrarian view of the Shakespeare mythology. Asquith shares the starting assumptions of other Shakespeare scholars, namely that he had at least a grammar school education, that he became an actor and playwright soon after moving to London c. 1590, that he was a member of the “dissident”  theatrical company of Lord Strange’s men, and that he was known to other playwrights (notably Robert Greene) as a playwright.[1]

Comment by Robert U. Ayres, Paris, 15 October 2014

Her heterodoxy is that she believes he was a secret Roman Catholic and that he was a religious “dissident” throughout  Queen Elizabeth’s reign as well as that of King James I. She argues that he used code-words – many listed in the back of her book — to comment on current events in England, even while pretending that his characters were living at another time in another country. I disagree strongly.

It seems clear to me, for a variety of reasons that need not be listed here,  that William Shakespeare  of Stratford never wrote anything except a few scribbled signatures, and that Kit Marlowe was the real author of everything now attributed to him. It is also clear that Kit Marlowe was not a Catholic. In fact he spent much of his life spying on Catholic plotters and trying to undermine their plans.  This fact (which I take it to be) leaves  questions about  the significance of the literary indications of Catholic sympathies, cited by Asquith.

However, I do not think Marlowe hated Catholics as such for their beliefs or that he agreed with the extreme policies advocated by some in the English government, probably including the Cecils, father and son.  He was a politically moderate humanist and free thinker, possibly a Freemason, and what we would call agnostic in religious terms. (The charge of atheism by Richard Baines, was probably not too far from the truth, though he certainly did not “teach” it, as Baines claimed). This alone is consistent with his underlying sympathy with the plight of Catholic recidivists  when the religious authorities under Archbishop Whitgift (1583-1603) began their active search for and  persecution of papists as well as “schismatics” (Puritans and marrons or converted Jews). In fact,  Archbishop Whitgift was Marlowe’s particular bête noir  and many of his writings undoubtedly reflect that hatred, albeit doubtless in “coded” form.  I suspect that some of the seemingly pro-Catholic material found by Asquith was really anti-establishment.

Asquith argues that the Protestant reformation initiated by Henry VIII (because of the Pope’s refusal to countenance his proposed nullification of his previous marriage to Catherine of Aragon) destroyed the “spiritual” aspect of religion in England.  She thinks  that persecution of Roman Catholics in England, especially after the Jesuit-led counter-reformation  in the early 1580s, was far more comprehensive  and more cruel than standard English history acknowledges. Given that the winners write the history books, it is quite likely that she is right about that.[2] (Quite a lot of Catholic martyrs of the period, not only her favorites, Robert Persons and  Edmund Campion, have been retroactively canonized or beatified by the Church in the last century.)

In her view, QE along with the Cecils were responsible for perhaps the most extreme religious persecution in history.  I  differ on that point. She scarcely acknowledges the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, the reign of QE’s older sister Mary or the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris in 1572 and its aftermath.  In fact, the contrast between the  national experiences of France and England during the 16th and 17th centuries is noteworthy.  In France, under Catherine de Medici, there was a massacre in 1572 that killed at least ten thousand and perhaps as many as fifty thousand Huegenots, followed by a civil war that lasted twenty years and devastated the country.  That war was stopped temporarily by Henry IV (the edict of Nantes) but it re-started after his death with the revocation of the edict. That led to  Huegenot rebellions (1620-28) and severe Catholic  repression under Cardinals  Richelieu and Mazarin and more wars.  In Central Europe the thirty years war (1616-1648) left even greater devastation.

In England, by contrast, the anti-Catholic persecution led by Archbishop Whitgift and the witch-hunt following the Gunpowder Plot resulted in something like 100 executions (horrific though they were).  The later English Civil War (1640-42) was comparatively short and much more about the respective roles of parliament vs. monarch than it was about religion.  (The religious conflict at that point was essentially between the Puritans and the Anglicans, who had become Catholics in all respects except the pope). The “bloody question” had been resolved by neglect.  Roman Catholics were largely left alone after 1660 under easy-going Charles II. When his brother James II came to the throne (1685) he tried, foolishly, to reinstate Roman Catholicism as the official state religion. James was promptly deposed by the “glorious revolution” of 1688) and replaced by the Dutch prince, William of Orange. There was only one serious military battle, and it was in Ireland “the battle of the Boyne”) which the Orange forces won.

The “bottom line” of the above bit of potted history is that the religious conflict in England was a lot less painful to the country as a whole (barring the ghastly fates of individual martyrs) than the corresponding  periods in the rest of  Western Europe.  This is inconsistent with Asquith’s very negative view of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Regarding the actual situation in England during Marlowe’s lifetime, I suggest that some background is needed. The events of Henry VIII’s reign through the reign of “bloody Mary” who was married to Philip II of Spain need not be recapitulated, except to say that, when Elizabeth was crowned in late 1558, the country was close to civil war.

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[1]There is no actual evidence for any of this except for the famous reference to “Shakeshaft”  in Robert Greene’s pamphlet   “A  Groatsworth  of Wit” written just before his death. It is more likely, in my view,  that the parson Greene was complaining  about was Edward Alleyn, the famous actor who had played the part of Tamburlaine for several years at the Rose Theater, where he undoubtedly did some “bombasting” of Marlowe’s blank verse.


[2] Ironically, Asquith accepts the myth, still taught in English history books, that Richard III was an evil usurper, who murdered his nephew’s, the princes, to gain the throne. The truth, which has been uncovered several times, but is still ignored – is that the Richard’s elder brother, Edward V,  was a bigamist, making the princes bastards,and that his childless first wife was still living in a convent. When this fact was made known to the Paliament after Edward’s death, Richard was confirmed as the rightful heir by acclamation.Moreover, the two boys were alive and well at the time of the takeover by Henry VII. It was Henry’s supporter, Thomas More,  who wrote the history which demonized Richard.

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