Lecture night: He said, she said

May 25, 2016

The history of the Reformation in England has been of special interest to me since I read Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, in which he challenged the received (though not universally so) account of the docility with which the English people embraced Anglicanism in the sixteenth century. Since then there have been many books published exploring the condition of non-conformists, both Catholic and Protestant, in England, and the oppression and violence they endured from the state.

This freshly considered history has begun to spill into related disciplines, including Shakespeare studies. Although Shakespeare’s own religious views are a matter of dispute, there is at least circumstantial evidence connecting him with Catholic recusancy: among other things, his mother’s family were well-known recusants, and his daughter was also cited for recusancy.

Some have now undertaken to re-read Shakespeare’s plays in the light of this new understanding of the historical context in which he wrote. Do the plays have anything to tell us about the Catholic experience during the Elizabethan period?

Here are are two lectures addressed to this question, both delivered at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture a few years ago. The first, by Peter Holland, answers in the negative: in his view, there is no convincing evidence that Shakespeare was a Catholic and nothing in his plays to suggest that he was concerned about the plight of Catholics in England. He’s a very distinguished Shakespearian, and it’s an excellent lecture.

Opposing him is Clare Asquith, author of Shadowplay, a book which argues that Shakespeare, rather like an Elizabethan Shostakovich, laced his plays with veiled criticisms of the state, especially for its handling of religion, and that Shakespeare was deeply concerned with the suffering of Catholic recusants. She proposes a kind of “code” for understanding the references to religious and political controversy that Shakespeare’s audience would have understood, but which were artfully framed so as to maintain plausible deniability — this is the same “code” of which Peter Holland is critical in his lecture.

Taken together, these two lectures are very interesting. Holland’s skepticism is salutary, but I do think that Asquith makes some good points about his failure to adequately integrate the post-Duffy history into his reading of Shakespeare, and some of the passages she proposes as examples of Shakespearean subterfuge are quite fascinating. On the other hand, when hunting for subtleties it is hard to know when or if a trail has dried up, and Asquith runs the risk of imagining evidence where none exists.

(There are two other lectures from the same Notre Dame series: one by Joseph Pearce and one by John Finnis. Both argue that the evidence supports the view that Shakespeare was himself a Catholic. Pearce focuses on biographical and historical data, while Finnis’ approach is textual, concentrated in this lecture on Richard III. If you should want to hear them all, the order in which they were delivered is: Pearce, Holland, Finnis, Asquith.)

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