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Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare.

Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare. By Clare Asquith. New York: PublicAffairs. 2005. xvii + 348 pp. 18.99 [pounds sterling]. isbn: 978-1-58648-316-6.

Shakespeare and Republicanism. By Andrew Hadfield. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2005. xiii + 363 pp. 53 [pounds sterling]. isbn: 978-0-521-81607-6.

As someone who has been reassured, comforted even, by Terence Hawkes's 'Shakespeare doesn't mean: we mean by Shakespeare' (Meaning by Shakespeare, 1992), it is salutary to be reminded how significant the author and authorial intent (plus its adjunct--speculative and selective biography) remain for some. Intent, biography, and thus 'meaning', accessed through 'hidden plot', 'hidden work', 'hidden language', 'hidden levels', 'hidden code', 'key', 'secret[s]', and unearthing that which has been 'concealed' form the basis of Clare Asquith's conviction that Shakespeare was a political and religious dissident. Perhaps 'conviction criticism' is the best label for the work: it is going to fall foul not only of Shakespeare scholars but anyone who prefers evidence to speculation and conspiracy. And it stumbles early.

Asquith begins with an anecdote about hidden meaning. As the wife of a diplomat in Moscow in 1983, she attends a dramatization of Chekhov's short stories: actors interpolate contemporary references that are received differently by the main audience and the KGB watchers and minders. Asquith then 'recognises the subtleties of political drama under a repressive regime' (p. xiii) and draws parallels with Shakespeare and his work. The problem here is surely obvious: the tale tells nothing about Chekov (and therefore, using her analogy, Shakespeare) and a great deal about applied rather than intrinsic 'meaning'. It is a comment on the reception of drama too, but fortunately for the reader Asquith has no difficulty in determining how, for example, King James (who, she believes, was placed by Shakespeare 'on the psychiatrist's couch', p. 201) responded to Othello. Some of this becomes quite engaging: to view Sycorax as Queen Elizabeth I (the hidden meaning here revealed by associations with the moon) and 'the blight she inflicted on England' (p. 267) is novel. After The Tempest Shakespeare, in this account, is silenced by the repressive regime, and Fletcher, a government stooge and Shakespeare's minder, completes the plays. Furthermore, he writes all of Henry VIII, but it is passed off as Shakespeare's to demonstrate, expediently, his Protestant credentials. Asquith's reclamation of authorial intent extends to Jonson too: it is he who explains the silencing of Shakespeare in the Induction of Batholomew Fair. So there is fun to be had in Shadowplay, but the general reader should be warned that, in addition to the problems created by the conjectural or fictional nature of swathes of this book, the author seems unaware of the difficulty of determining an authorial text and hence, in her terms, Shakespeare's meaning--hidden or otherwise. To quote from an edition of 1897 to confirm Fletcher as the author of Two Noble Kinsmen or deny the co-authorship of Pericles seems perverse.

There are superficial similarities between Shadowplay and Andrew Hadfield's Shakespeare and Republicanism: he poses a biographical question--'Was Shakespeare a republican?'--and suggests, ominously, 'We always need to read between the lines' (p. 13). Hadfield, however, is aware of the difficulties associated with those lines, not least in determining the chronology of the works and the problems posed by co-authorship, the ascription of intent, and the nature of interpretation, and he has created a structure and a compelling and sustaining apparatus to support his contention.

He begins by considering the neglect of Elizabethan and Jacobean political culture and Shakespeare's place in it, arguing that the once liberating Cultural Materialist/New Historicist approach to literary texts has become an orthodoxy of binary oppositions (subversion/containment; dominant/dissident) that has left important questions of politics and affiliation uninterrogated. He points to the roughly equal claims of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth (p. 10), for example, and asks by what criteria the supporters of each monarch may be described as 'dissident'. The overview of modern political readings of the period (and, indeed, the very naming of the period) in the introduction is skilfully succinct.

He acknowledges the difficulties of his task throughout, and the traps that snared Asquith are spotted, deactivated, and circumvented. He explores the political culture of Elizabethan and Jacobean England and the ways in which this is reflected in Shakespeare's plays, without making claims for unsubstantiated authorial belief or falling into the pit that is autobiographical readings of the material. Hadfield's work is broader than Shakespeare's republicanism too--it is a history of theatre, of publishing, and he is aware of commercial influences as well as political ones--and the quality of his scholarship from a range of domains (for this is, above all, a thoroughly researched and referenced work) contributes to a coherent, convincing (convincing through the collation of contemporary material, not Asquith-style conviction) narrative that equates the chronological composition of texts with phases of republican belief. The structure of the book is carefully crafted to sustain his thesis and is, in the author's phrase 'a work of historical and cultural archaeology' (p. 13). The first part establishes what republicanism meant in the period and the various forms in which it was manifest, as both a language and a belief system, in a range of writing. The second part explores how Shakespeare interacted with this republican culture. Some of this is not new, but this is a sophisticated reading of the plays and so, while recognizing the topical political resonances of Antony and Cleopatra, for example, he is aware of the drawbacks of a superficial comparison of James with Octavius. Perhaps, he suggests, that in providing stability for his subjects, James--for Shakespeare--is more like 'the compromised but attractive heroes of the ancient world' (p. 229): Antony or Pompey, for instance.

Asquith's Shadowplay is a piece of Shakespeare ephemera, interesting perhaps to students of cultural phenomenology. Hadfield's work has enduring value and is a fine addition to Shakespeare studies.

Catherine M. S. Alexander

The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford upon Avon
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Title Annotation:Shakespeare and Republicanism
Author:Alexander, Catherine M.S.
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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