The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare


By Clare Asquith

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In 16th century England many loyal subjects to the crown were asked to make a terrible choice: to follow their monarch or their God. The era was one of unprecedented authoritarianism: England, it seemed, had become a police state, fearful of threats from abroad and plotters at home. This age of terror was also the era of the greatest creative genius the world has ever known: William Shakespeare. How, then, could such a remarkable man born into such violently volatile times apparently make no comment about the state of England in his work?

He did. But it was hidden. Revealing Shakespeare’s sophisticated version of a forgotten code developed by 16th-century dissidents, Clare Asquith shows how he was both a genius for all time and utterly a creature of his own era: a writer who was supported by dissident Catholic aristocrats, who agonized about the fate of England’s spiritual and political life and who used the stage to attack and expose a regime which he believed had seized illegal control of the country he loved.

Shakespeare’s plays offer an acute insight into the politics and personalities of his era. And Clare Asquith’s decoding of them offers answers to several mysteries surrounding Shakespeare’s own life, including most notably why he stopped writing while still at the height of his powers. An utterly compelling combination of literary detection and political revelation, Shadowplay is the definitive expose of how Shakespeare lived through and understood the agonies of his time, and what he had to say about them.



MY INTEREST in the coded writing of William Shakespeare’s era began in the winter of 1983, towards the end of the Cold War, when I found myself in a shabby theatre in a crumbling, stuccoed building near the centre of Moscow, watching a dramatisation of Chekhov’s short stories. The venue was a long room with a podium at one end. It was packed. A group of KGB operatives hung about the door; our two minders slipped into the back row. It was immediately obvious that my husband and I were the only Westerners in the audience.

At first the performance seemed blandly innocuous, an unadventurous subject typical of Soviet theatre. But before long we noticed that the actors were introducing occasional allusions that gave a risky contemporary angle to the otherwise familiar stories. The hints were too fleeting to alert the watchers in the doorway, but they were enough for an educated audience to realise that the hidden setting was not nineteenth-century tsarism; it was twentieth-century communism. At one point my husband was hauled onto the stage and hustled into the walk-on role of a banker. To the audience’s appreciative laughter, he was linked not simply with ‘dengi’, which means money, but with ‘valuta’—foreign currency. The KGB men smiled at what they took to be a standard dig at Western capitalism. But they missed the covert meaning. Those following the story would have known that Chekhov’s banker was a benefactor and that the scene carried the prophetic message that Russia’s only hope lay in openness to the West. It was my first experience of the subtleties of political drama under a repressive regime.

There were two striking similarities between Shakespeare’s work and the performance I had witnessed in the Moscow theatre. Both omitted any mention of contemporary politics, and both avoided original plots, dramatising instead classic stories likely to pass the scrutiny of the government censor. I began to wonder if there was a third similarity: a series of puns, hints and allusions linking the ‘safe’ narrative to the forbidden subject of current events. Ever since his death, Shakespeare’s universal plays have been adapted to a wide spectrum of topical and political messages: it could be that the one message we had overlooked was his own.

As the wife of a British diplomat in Moscow during the Cold War, I became fascinated by the artful double language and hidden identities used in Russian dissident writing. At the same time, I was reading the works of historians who emphasise the repressive aspect of late Tudor England and highlight the forgotten extent of the country’s resistance to the Protestant reformation. I read slowly through Shakespeare’s works, alert, as a Soviet audience might have been, for obliquely topical indications of political doublespeak. After returning to England, I read the works of his contemporaries and predecessors and explored the little-known writings of Elizabethan and Jacobean exiles, preserved in the nearby library of the Benedictine abbey at Downside in Somerset. The trail led further: to the British Library, the Bodleian, the Jesuit library at Farm Street; to Lambeth Palace, the Guildhall, Southwark Cathedral, to the conferences and papers of Reformation scholars. Finally, I returned to Shakespeare and I became convinced. This book is the result.

Its starting point is an account of the history of Shakespeare’s times, based not on the traditional version of England’s past but on the work of a new generation of Reformation scholars who paint a picture of widespread resistance, surveillance, coercion and persecution in sixteenth-century England. It goes on to trace the growth of a coded, dissident language in the repressive years following the Reformation, years of censorship and propaganda during which the subjects of religion and politics were forbidden to dramatists. And it reveals that Shakespeare developed this hidden code into a sophisticated art form, integrating it into his more familiar work with dazzling skill.

The essence of this coded method of writing, of course, was that it be ‘deniable’—in other words, incapable of proof. Only a detailed demonstration of the strikingly precise parallels between the momentous events of the sixteenth century and the references concealed in the censored literature of the time will persuade modern Shakespeare lovers, accustomed to centuries of resolutely universalist readings of his work, that there is now a case for re-examining his writing in the light of its revised historical context. For many, this will come as a shock. Unlike the great classical authors, Shakespeare is usually seen as a writer so outstanding that the politics of his time are irrelevant, even distracting. But increasingly, historians and literature scholars are unearthing conscious echoes of the times in the literature of the day, echoes so subtle and allusive that they amount to a hidden language.

Once accepted, the new history and the forgotten code, outlined in Part 1, provide the tools for the reader to investigate one of the most anguished periods of England’s history, seen through the eyes of the country’s greatest creative genius. This approach demonstrates that Shakespeare was a man passionately involved in the upheavals of his day, increasingly concerned that the truth about what was happening to his country would never be recorded. Instead of diminishing Shakespeare’s work, awareness of the shadowed language deepens it, adding a cutting edge of contemporary reference to the famously universal plays and giving them an often acutely poignant hidden context. The pleasure of experiencing his work on this dual level can be compared to the discovery of a hidden optical illusion that gives a new perspective to a familiar masterpiece. Once the standpoint for ‘seeing’ the hidden dimension is found, readers and spectators can explore for themselves the full range of Shakespeare’s topical insight and ceaseless, in places obsessive, cryptic ingenuity.

Among the revelations thrown up by this approach to Shakespeare’s work is the significance of his obscurities, digressions and ‘problem’ plays. It emerges that these are the areas where the hidden language is at its most intense; often, where Shakespeare has the most difficulty containing the urgency of his covert message. The same is true of characters who act incongruously or indulge in irrelevant flights of fancy: the reason can be found in the allegorical demands of their secondary, hidden role.

Another revelation is the extent to which Shakespeare, a court dramatist, had specific audiences in mind and demonstrated extraordinary psychological insight in his approach to his various patrons. Three plays appeal personally to Queen Elizabeth; four to King James; and three of his last plays to James’s young heir, Prince Henry. The hidden level of the ‘Roman’ plays is directed primarily at England’s Catholic subjects. Apart from one painful period of enforced conformity, the concealed narrative reveals that Shakespeare pursued his own spiritual and political objectives with unwavering determination, protected and supported by powerful members of the aristocracy. Finally, the forgotten history of the times, highlighted in his own subtext, answers a number of the puzzles about Shakespeare’s education and upbringing that have led many to propose that someone else wrote the plays.

The Glossary at the end of the book illustrates the way Shakespeare and his contemporaries used apparently innocuous words and phrases to develop their common dissident language.

Authority for the prevalence of coded writing among Shakespeare’s contemporaries comes from Christian humanist writers of the time, for whom civilised literature was coded by its very nature, and from the many allusions by Elizabethan poets and dramatists to the way they exploited this allegorical tradition in order to dodge political censorship. But the real key to the code lies in the rediscovery of the ‘forgotten’ history of early modern England. So precise are the parallels between this suppressed history and the covert literature of the day that in many cases it is now impossible to miss them: Curtis Breight is one historian who uses Shakespeare’s ‘hidden’ plays to illustrate his thesis.1

This book relies heavily on the long tradition of specialists in the ‘recusant’ history of English Catholicism, who over the centuries have preserved, transcribed and published the little-known works of Catholic exiles and dissidents: they include J. H. Pollen, Philip Caraman, David Rogers, Thomas McCoog, Gerard Kilroy. The importance of their work has become more widely recognised as mainstream historians, working on a new range of neglected sources, have begun to question the traditional ‘Whig’ version of the English Reformation. The first was the authoritative John Lingard, whose twelve-volume History of England was published in the early nineteenth century. Later scholars include Jack Scarisbrick, Christopher Haigh, John Bossy, Michael Questier, Edwin Jones, Pierre Janelle, Patrick Collinson, Eamon Duffy and Diarmaid MacCulloch; there has been further research by popular historians of the period, among them Antonia Fraser, John Carey and Charles Nicholl. A new school of Shakespearean biographers has begun to present ordinary readers with the full story of Shakespeare’s Catholic background: Park Honan’s lead in 1998 was followed by Anthony Holden, Michael Wood, and Stephen Greenblatt.

But the full implications of this new history have made little impact on the study of the literature of the period. The many specialists in sixteenth-century literature who have uncovered seams of suggestive dissident reference remain cautious about what their findings mean. As Shakespeare’s work in particular has never ‘fitted’ the traditional history of the times, there has always been an implicit veto on setting his plays and poems in a political or religious context: most attempts to do so have resulted in unsustainable, often ludicrous, theories. Set against the background of the revised history, however, his works and those of his contemporaries begin to take on a significant new dimension, highlighted by a few unusually bold scholars, among them Richard Wilson and Peter Milward. Milward, an acknowledged expert on Shakespeare’s religious context, has been for many years a lone voice, claiming that Shakespeare consistently used allegory to communicate with an oppressed and persecuted England. The exact nature of that coded allegory is gradually emerging through the work of more guarded scholars, among them Alison Shell, Velma Richmond, Gary Hamilton, Lucas Erne, John Klause, Richard Dutton and Gary Taylor.

This book builds on their findings and those of recent historians in order to reclaim Shakespeare for his febrile, revolutionary times. We now know that England’s most brilliant writer lived and worked during the country’s most turbulent era. It is impossible to believe he had nothing to say about the drama of his day. In fact, it infuses everything he wrote: England’s crisis was Shakespeare’s passion.





In Act Thy Bed-Vow Broke1

ON 15 NOVEMBER 1539, a procession wound its way up Glastonbury Tor, a steep conical hill overlooking the peatlands of Somerset in the south-west of England. The journey over the windy ridges was arduous, for the crowd struggled to drag with them three men tied to sledge-like wooden frames. On the top of the hill stood a newly constructed gallows; near it was a fire, knives and a cauldron.

Though some of the spectators may have been jeering, many would have been aghast, not only at the barbarity but at the sacrilege of what they were witnessing. Glastonbury was the most ancient and sacred Christian site in Britain. Long ago, when it was still surrounded by sea, it was called Yniswitren, the Island of Glass, where Joseph of Arimathea and his eleven companions were believed to have arrived by boat from the Holy Land, bearing with them the Holy Grail containing the blood of Christ. There on the island they built a small church of willow reeds in honour of the Virgin, a church that would be preserved for centuries. In time the place became known as Avalon, the Isle of Apples, where King Arthur was said to be buried with Guinevere sixteen feet deep under a great stone slab. The first missionaries from Rome came to Glastonbury, repaired the church and settled there; St Patrick, returning from Ireland, became their abbot and was buried under the church. The learned St Dunstan established a great Benedictine monastery around the Tor, and until the Reformation, the ancient Celtic site remained one of England’s greatest centres of pilgrimage—the burial place of saints and a direct, mysterious link with Christ himself.

The old man standing under the shadow of the gallows in 1539 taking his final look at the wide stretch of Glastonbury lands spread out below him was Richard Whiting, the monastery’s last abbot, a humanist scholar and respected administrator, condemned to death on the orders of a government determined to appropriate the wealth of the great abbey. Along with his two fellow monks he uttered a final prayer, asking forgiveness of God and his captors; the cart beneath him jerked and for a moment he dangled from the gallows. Then he was cut down, his chest sliced open, his bowels removed and tossed into the cauldron, and his heart, still beating, torn out and held aloft by the hangman who proclaimed it ‘the heart of a traitor’. Finally, his body was dismembered and boiled, the head fastened up over the gate of the deserted abbey and the quartered limbs exposed in the cities of Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgewater, a terrible warning to the West Country of the price of resistance to the King’s new regime. Meanwhile, the monastery went the way of all the other religious houses in England. The monks were evicted, their possessions auctioned, their lands, treasures and buildings seized by the Crown, which sold them off to the highest bidder. The abbey itself was dismantled and used for building stone.

No laments survive for the passing of the abbot and his monastery or for the destruction of Avalon, the spiritual heart of England. Yet the assault on shrines like Glastonbury were acts of cultural vandalism as shocking and irrevocable as any in human history. Searching for suitable words, the usually restrained historian David Knowles ends his account of the destruction of Glastonbury by quoting Shakespeare’s description of the death of Duncan in Macbeth. ‘Sacrilegious murder’ has broken open ‘the Lord’s anointed temple’ and stolen thence ‘the life of the building’.2

For centuries, English children have been taught that their country gained from the Reformation, that sixteenth-century England watched with indifference as the vast and intricate fabric of late medieval Christianity was gradually dismantled by a powerful group of politicians and religious reformers. People were released from an age of superstition to one of enlightenment; the transfer of wealth created an industrious middle class, energised by a new sense of national pride. The Protestant Reformation, according to generations of Protestant historians, was welcomed by the English.

But this rendition of history overlooks one all-important fact: England was not a free society. The precarious Tudor regime made sophisticated use of propaganda and exercised tight control over the country’s small number of licensed printing presses. We read only what they wanted us to read—histories that reflect the vested interest of the new property owners in the official version of the Reformation. Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, was ‘the first man in England who consciously worked as a minister of propaganda’;3 his was a regime that ‘manufactured history on an unprecedented scale’.4 A contemporary ballad survives lamenting ‘little John Nobody, that durst not speak’—the silenced voice of the Catholic opposition.5

Since the mid-twentieth century, however, things have changed. England’s Protestant identity has been called into question, and historians have begun to take an interest in John Nobody’s forgotten story. Recent ‘revisionist’ historians, among them John Bossy, Eamon Duffy, Jack Scarisbrick, Edwin Jones and Christopher Haigh, have resurrected evidence neglected since the sixteenth century: churchwardens’ accounts, local wills, family histories, private manuscripts, the writings of exiled dissidents and foreign diplomats; and they have looked again at the pioneering research of the nineteenth-century historian John Lingard. As this testimony has been painstakingly pieced together, the full extent of the Tudor government’s propaganda drive has been revealed; it now emerges that the repression of John Nobody was crucial to its survival.

The first surprise is the size of the Catholic opposition to the new Protestant order. It was in a majority right up to the end of the sixteenth century. A powerful group, it was easily capable of removing the regime that oppressed it. Yet there was no organised opposition: most religious dissidents chose the path of passive resistance. Even at the time, the extent of John Nobody’s silence was puzzling. Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, himself an uncertain and vacillating Catholic, observed caustically that instead of saving their heads by rebellion, Catholics chose to wear ‘Ave Maria cockscombs’—the haloes of martyrdom. Elizabeth I was repeatedly warned about her ‘strong, factious’ Catholic subjects.6 All over the country, Protestants fretted constantly about the hidden Catholic threat. Very few at the time made the mistake of assuming that John Nobody’s silence denoted consent.

The story of his quiet surrender begins in 1533, the year in which Henry VIII divorced his dull, popular wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Anne Boleyn. Henry’s motive was simple. He needed a male heir and was prepared to defy the Pope in order to get one. As a good Catholic, the King had done his best to make his case to Rome, but he had failed: the Pope refused to permit the divorce.

Instantly, the King found himself surrounded by members of his new wife’s entourage, urging him to widen the breach with the papacy. Anne Boleyn and her circle were followers of Martin Luther, the first great Protestant reformer, a German ex-monk who portrayed the Pope as Antichrist and the Catholic Church as a monstrously bloated edifice, a barrier to true religion. A country’s beliefs, according to Luther, should be decided by its prince, not by the Pope. To the Lutherans gathering at the English court, Henry’s quarrel with Rome was a gift: it offered them the chance of winning England over to the new religion. And to Henry, the Lutheran arguments were a godsend. He could end the long-running wrangle with the Pope by taking over the English church himself. There was a further bonus. For some time now, he had been enviously eyeing the vast wealth of England’s religious houses. ‘Would to God they were all dissolved’, Luther had said, denouncing such institutions as hopelessly corrupt. Henry could not wait. Royal commissioners were dispatched to investigate the state of the country’s monasteries; and he himself was proclaimed Supreme Head of the Church in England. England was cut loose from Western Christendom, having played a leading role in it for centuries.

The reformers moved in with a speed and thoroughness that occasionally alarmed the King, who had recommended acting in ‘secrete silence’. In 1538, the cult of saints was abolished, along with their feast days and holidays. Pilgrimages were banned and shrines wrecked. The statue of Our Lady of Walsingham was carted to Chelsea and publicly burned; Canterbury, one of the greatest European centres of pilgrimage, was ransacked, its treasures seized by the Crown. Henry’s supporters rushed out books, sermons and plays that stressed a new theology of obedience, identifying God’s will with submission to the King. New laws passed by Parliament required subjects to consent on oath to the Royal Supremacy. According to the terms of the oath, the monarch was Supreme Head of the English Church, the Pope merely a foreign bishop with no authority within the realm. To swear to such terms was impossible to a Catholic. Yet to refuse it was to deny the King—in other words, to commit treason. Over the next seventy-five years, this key device for enforcing loyalty was repeatedly portrayed by Catholics as the wedge that divided the country’s soul from its body.7 When the Lord Chancellor, England’s most senior legal authority, Sir Thomas More, refused the oath in 1534, Henry had him executed, to international outrage—More was famous among humanist scholars for his wit, learning and personal holiness. Within five years, 9,000 men and women had been turned out of the country’s monasteries and pensioned off, while their buildings, tenancies, common lands, schools, hospitals, almshouses and libraries were dismantled and privatised. Tracts and woodcuts poured from the presses, portraying the monks as idle, ignorant and corrupt. Gradually it was forgotten that places like Glastonbury and Evesham had been enlightened centres of scholarship, fostering literate lay students and university scholars enthusiastic for the new learning of Catholic reformers such as Desiderius Erasmus, the great Dutch theologian and close friend of More.

This sudden development was so unexpected that it was widely believed the King had been bewitched by his new Queen. A few years earlier, Henry had been in the forefront of the international condemnation of Luther, earning the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ from a grateful papacy for his learned theological work denouncing Luther’s teachings. Moreover, though parts of Europe had been quick to attack the Catholic clergy and embrace Protestantism, England had not. There were many who recognised the need for change, in particular the need for an English translation of the Bible. Its provision, scandalously opposed by the clergy, was one of the major attractions of the new religion. But the University of Oxford had provided a beacon for the international humanist movement for reform within the church, not outside it. On a humbler level, parish records indicate a people deeply and contentedly committed to their own flourishing brand of Catholicism. On the eve of the Reformation in England, the time-honoured certainties and beauties of English Catholicism still penetrated every aspect of ordinary life. Distances were judged by the length of time it took to say familiar prayers, time was measured by feast days, and seasons were marked by great communal events like the Corpus Christi plays or the liturgical drama of Holy Week. As one historian, Diarmaid MacCulloch, puts it, the old liturgy was ‘not only good for the soul, it was fun’:8 he quotes the ‘cosmic hooliganism’ contained in religious drama and sees the apparent irreverence as the ebullient reaction of a people comfortable with their system of belief.

At the heart of the life of every parish lay the essential Catholic doctrine of the Mass, which transported the Christian into the presence of the divine sacrifice. The ‘Real Presence’ of God was the object of profound devotion: the bread, or ‘host’, consecrated by the priest, hung richly ornamented above the altar in every church, representing the spiritual core of England before the Reformation. Merely to set eyes on the host at the moment of consecration was a channel of grace, the reason Catholics were often dubbed ‘gazers’ by Protestants. To Protestants, devotion to the saints and the Virgin distracted from the relationship between God and the soul—but well into the 1530s, parishes continued to produce a wealth of devotional imagery in stone, alabaster, and glass, accompanied by verbal equivalents in drama, poetry and song, all of which gave vigorous expression to England’s spirituality.

Especially precious to Catholics was the concept of the ‘communion of saints’—the idea of a web of spiritual relationships linking living and dead. They believed that those who died in a state of sin were condemned to a period of ‘purgatorial’ suffering that could be shortened by the prayers and actions of the living. These devotions, which ranged from funeral rites to commemorative masses, endowments, chapels, tombs and chantries (chapels for private devotions for the dead), were an essential part of pre-Reformation culture, along with the belief that those who had died could still help and care for the living.

England in 1535 was a country that by and large embodied the ideal of Erasmus—a place where the two complementary spirits of contemporary Christianity could coexist, ‘the spirit of free and critical enquiry stemming from the Renaissance, and the spirit of respectful, trusting adherence to dogma that formed the traditional strength and unity of the Church’.9 Henry’s destruction of this balance had nothing to do with popular demand or with his own theological convictions—it was an act of expediency, which before long he would regret.

At first the schism appeared to be just one more blip in England’s scratchy relationship with the papacy. In fact, it had triggered events that would alter the identity of the country forever. The royal sale of monastic property amounted to the biggest peacetime land transaction ever seen in England. It attracted a new, pragmatic breed of landowner—those among the nobility, courtiers and gentry who were prepared to set spiritual matters aside for the sake of a share in the bonanza. Privately, many were out of sympathy with the reformers; but they and their descendants became supporters of the new order, well aware that a national return to Catholicism could mean the loss of their lands and manor houses. These nouveau riche formed the first and most decisive element in the make-up of John Nobody. No matter what their personal beliefs, if they were to keep their new wealth they ‘durst not speak’.

In 1536, the country erupted in protest at what had happened. Demanding the restoration of their native religion and the reinstatement of the monasteries, 30,000 commoners, priests, and gentry, the largest rebellion in England’s history, gathered in the North and marched on London under a banner of the Five Wounds of Christ, one of the popular devotions banned by the new order. Henry agreed to consider their demands, and, taking him at his word, the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ dispersed. As soon as it was safe to act, the royal promises were broken and the leaders of the protest executed. But the scale of the revolt had shaken the King. In 1538, he began to reverse the religious changes, affirming orthodox Catholic teaching, but he was too late.10


On Sale
Sep 25, 2018
Page Count
370 pages

Clare Asquith

About the Author

Clare Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith, is the author of Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare. She studied English literature at Oxford, where she gained a congratulatory First. Her ideas about Shakespeare’s politics and religion were first raised in the Times Literary Supplement in 2001. Since then, she has written numerous articles and lectured widely on Shakespeare and his background.

Learn more about this author