Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

20288812572_b85c321e3e_mShadowplay: The hidden beliefs and coded politics of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare can be tough to decipher at the best of times and now there’s another layer of complexity to think about.

Fortunately, code-breaking author Clare Asquith is an excellent interpreter and fashions a page-turning thriller from a tangled web of period politics.

Why did the Bard quit writing and return to Stratford at the height of his powers? Is it credible to think that the greatest playwright of the age would have nothing to say about the turbulent times in which he lived? What did Shakespeare believe in and to whom did his sympathies lie?

The answers to these questions don’t come easy. The concealed messages and ambiguities have eluded scholars for more than 400 years and modern day academic skeptics abound.

It’s the breadth and depth of Asquith’s research in support of her conclusions that make the book so compelling. Little is known about the man, but her painstaking and rigorous inquiries give great insight into neglected areas of an already well documented era.

Shakespeare was living in a virtual police state, an England where political beliefs weren’t just cerebral debating points: Where you stood on an issue, what you said and what you did had consequences – and the wrong answers could cost you dear.

Coded messages

Was your ultimate allegiance to the church or state, monarch or to God? Were you Catholic or Protestant, Jesuit or Puritan? Where did you go? Who did you see? What did you do? Where did your loyalties lie?

Walsingham’s spy network was constantly on alert for plots from abroad and dissidence from within. An allegation, a rumor, a betrayal, any whiff of insurrection could lead to dispossession, torture and a grisly execution.

It’s within this context that Asquith unravels the coded messages that have become even more opaque through the passage of time.

Few of Shakespeare’s contemporaries are read today and, as she explains, the sophisticated elite then were better versed in the classics than many modern theatregoers; they were attuned to allegories, allusions and hidden meanings.

One court dramatist of the time described his play as a Trojan horse: an elaborate gift concealing an unpalatable message.

The subversive genius of Shakespeare was to get his message through to a Catholic audience while concealing the true meaning from the rest. This was a dangerous tightrope to be on and one he walked for many years until, it seems, he had a major fall from grace.



With the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth fast approaching, the ‘Bardolatory’ industry is in full swing.

There are screeds of scholarly opinion and conspiracy theories out there, all of which are drawn from the barest scraps of information.

The truth is, we know very little about the greatest playwright of the age, even his true date of birth; the official record doesn’t tell us the day, it gives only his baptism date.

The information vacuum around Stratford’s most famous son gives academics licence to indulge in ‘Bard Wars’ – intellectual jousting that’s all very interesting, but ultimately inconclusive.

The authorship debate is at once both fascinating and sterile. Without new information we’ll never know. Was the true author my fellow Stratfordian, William, or was it Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson or any of the other dozens of candidates advanced over the past two centuries?

Neil MacGregor’s book is refreshingly different in that it takes as its starting point knowledge that we do have about life in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods and the people for whom Shakespeare was writing.

From objects as disparate as a model ship, a peddler’s trunk, a fork and a woollen cap he brings context to the life of the Bard of Avon by illustrating the prevailing fears and tensions of audiences of the time.

The reverberations of The Gunpowder Plot equate to the modern world’s post 9-11 period. Plots and conspiracies are seen everywhere, Jesuit priests are hunted down and tortured; martyrdom represents the ultimate test of faith and sacrifice.

Magic, ghosts and the power to call up spirits are readily accepted by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. It’s a concept hard for us to comprehend now and one MacGregor likens to acceptance of today’s celebrity scientists; we admire their work but only dimly comprehend.

Plague, pestilence, state-directed hangings and dismemberment, mean death is never far away. An Italianate rapier and dagger recovered from the foreshore of the Thames attest to routine levels of violence on London’s mean streets but also illuminate the status and style of ambitions of the owner.

The book’s glimpses into the backdrop of the lives of the people are woven with an historical narrative that catalyses the fears and anxieties that dogged them.

Issues such as the succession, no more than tabloid fodder now had, back then, the potential to unleash persecution and terror at every level of society.

Bridging the past and the present to aid understanding is MacGregor’s great gift. Much of what you’ll read is familiar, but there are many “aha!” moments to enjoy and to reinforce appreciation of the Bard and his works – whoever he (or she) may be.

Sarah Palin’s recent “refudiate” neologism may have attracted opprobrium from some quarters but it does put her in some pretty exalted company.

Shakespeare, as she pointed out, introduced many new words to the English language, while Ben Johnson, John Donne and John Milton were quick to coin a new expression or phrase when it suited their purpose.

The Bard of Avon, she ain’t, though.

My fellow Stratfordian is supposed to have had a vocabulary of nearly 20,000 words compared to the 4,000 or so we lesser mortals command.

He is credited with hundreds of single words like majestic, lonely, gnarled, eventful and with now- familiar compounds such as ill-starred, blood-stained and lack-lustre.

His phrases and idioms are part of our everyday language even if we don’t always realise it:

Eaten out of house and home

As dead as a doornail

A foregone conclusion

As pure as the driven snow

The milk of human kindness

Now, Sarah, did you mean repudiate or refute?

And don’t even start me on the misuse of refute.