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.
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.