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Shakespeare’s writing held codes

Theresa Civantos | Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Shakespeare’s works contain layers of codes and symbols that give his plays unmistakably Catholic themes, author Clare Asquith argued during a lectureTuesday in DeBartolo Hall. Asquith, the author of “Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare,” said she didn’t discover the Catholic undertones in Shakespeare’s writings until she observed coded messages in Russian dissident plays while her husband, a diplomat, worked in Moscow during the Cold War.”I was brought up to believe England accepted the Reformation. It did not,” Asquith said. “At the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign, Catholics were not the minority. They were the vast majority. The entire history of the sixteenth century was nothing but a cover-up, written by the winners.”The conflict between showing allegiance to the Church or the Crown was a serious source of tension for England’s Catholics, yet stringent government censorship prevented many of them from speaking out, she said.”This national conflict is apparently overlooked in Shakespeare’s work, but it was so important to his listeners,” Asquith said. “It was the proverbial elephant in the room.”Shakespeare and other writers turned to symbols and codes embedded in their works to address these issues, she said.”Religion and politics were banned from the stage,” Asquith said. “This led to an explosion of wit encrypted with religion and politics. Wit was a way around the censorship – almost like a modern political cartoon.”Asquith said some of the Catholic symbolism in Shakespeare’s writings included papal metaphors in the shape of fair-haired characters, uses of lighting and references to height and highness, since the Catholic Church was called the “High Church.” England and the Anglican Church were represented by darkness, dark-haired characters, lowness (since the Anglican Church was called the “Low Church”).”Go back and re-read all of Shakespeare’s plays with this code in mind, and you will see these highly complicated, sophisticated and accurate allegories for what was going on at the time,” Asquith said, citing in particular “Much Ado About Nothing” and “The Taming of the Shrew” as clear-cut examples.Despite Shakespeare’s possible Catholic upbringing and secret Catholic beliefs, Asquith does not believe that his plays’ coded themes are extremely favorable to Catholics. Rather, they are representative of the anguish of many of England’s citizens, torn between nationalism and faith.”If you read Shakespeare’s sonnets using this code,” Asquith said, “you will find a very conflicted man. In some of his ‘Dark Lady’ poems, he is addressing his country, while other poems are just love poems.”Asquith encouraged all listeners to search for Shakespeare’s coded messages. “His secondary level is as beautiful and sophisticated as his surface level,” she said.Her claims that Shakespeare’s works carry Catholic undertones, however, have been received with skepticism by many scholars.”I knew I was lobbing a small hand-grenade into the world of Shakespeare scholarship,” she said.But she welcomed her critics’ input.”If a hand grenade is met by silence, one begins to worry, one wonders whether one remembered to pull the pin,” she said, laughing.The lecture was the final installment of the four-week fall Catholic culture lecture series sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Culture. The Center will sponsor a spring series themed around “The Art of the Cinema.”