Was the Bard a Catholic?

Viscountess Asquith believes that Shakespeare's works show he was a papist. As incendiary religious theories go, it's right up there with 'The Da Vinci Code'. Oliver Marre reports
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The Independent Culture

Clare Asquith - or Viscountess Asquith, to give her the proper title - has done something that has dropped an almighty stone into the tranquil waters of academia and created ripples that will spread far and wide. She's been labelled a "conspiracy theorist" by Polly Toynbee in The Guardian and accused of "floating above the facts" by Professor Stanley Wells on the Today programme. For Asquith has written a book which, play by play, sets out to prove that Shakespeare was a papist.

Amid the Da Vinci hype, this Catholic mother of five has been working quietly in her Somerset farm to decode a secret history of her own discovery, and to reclaim the nation's greatest poet for her country's "old religion". Her journey has taken her from the former Soviet Union, via the libraries of ancient monasteries, to a book tour of the United States.

When I meet Clare at a friend's Notting Hill townhouse, she sits neatly at the dining-room table with a glass of water and tries, in a soft and reasonable voice, to persuade me of her thesis. "People haven't picked up the extent to which the language he uses is a code," she explains. "But I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude to Shakespeare, because he keeps his markers so rigorously."

The elements of the cypher - touches of liturgy, adaptations of contemporary politics to the characters of the plays, even a simple glossary of new and old, true and false, light and dark - are traced carefully through close textual analysis.

The book has taken her five years to write, but Asquith dates her inspiration to a moment in Russia in the 1970s where she quite candidly admits that her husband, Raymond, the great-grandson of the prime minister Herbert Asquith, was a spy.

"That moment, when we first arrived in Russia, I have vivid memories of my husband being taken aside by a member of the British embassy, who had been there for ages, and having explained to him real secrets, things other people simply didn't know - who were genuinely dissidents and who weren't. This sudden immersion in the covert world was a deep experience; we had people following us down the street, decoys and counter-decoys. It was a terribly complicated shadow world."

With her husband, she used to go to the theatre and watch dissident drama, disguised to seem favourable to the state or just irrelevant to contemporary politics. It suddenly dawned on Asquith that if Soviet artists could dissent without it being obvious to censors, the same would almost certainly have happened through history - including during the repression of Catholics in reformation England.

"People had to be very brave and I suppose it was my first entry, as a sheltered English person, into a world where courage was very important, and where courage existed in the artistic world," she says. "That is why, in the last paragraph of the book, I make the point that Shakespeare was a very courageous man."

She sets Shakespeare's courage firmly in its time, an era of turmoil, repression and censorship, with an active Catholic resistance working to undermine the state's new religion. These troubles are the "storms" of the plays, and his heroes' constancy in love equates to constancy of belief.

This is not the first time the suggestion of a Catholic bard has been made. Writers such as Michael Woods have put forward the thesis in works of historical scholarship, but this is the first time an attempt has been made to prove it through textual criticism. And all the research is new.

According to Asquith's reading, within Shakespeare's language the "red rose" was a widely used coded symbol for the old religion itself, and his "sunburned" heroines (Viola, Imogen and Portia) are close to God. Order and harmony in the family is order and harmony in the state, derived from acceptance of the banished old faith. Twins from overseas are exiled Catholics returning to their spiritual homeland.

Even dates are linked to important moments in the work of the resistance: 6 July, when Henry VIII executed his Catholic Chancellor, crops up in Much Ado About Nothing, with the instruction "Mock not".

Asquith plans to put on the internet a more detailed reading of every play than she had space for in her book. "Pace was the thing we went for, but in maintaining it, I inevitably had to lose some detail. So I am going to put it on the web," she says.

Asquith has a habit of speaking of Shakespeare as though she knew the man well. From time to time, as she races through her web of coded references to 16th-century politics and fictional Shakespearean lands, she even confuses the real with the imaginary, more than once referring to Olivia in Twelfth Night as Queen Elizabeth.

It is endearing, if slightly disconcerting, but it shows her passion. And Asquith, who lives with her children in the farmhouse at Mells, Somerset, where her husband's family has nurtured writers for generations, does not claim to be a traditional scholar.

"I am a mother," she laughs. "I never thought I would be a writer, and I knew from the beginning that if I were to write this book, it would have to be integrated into family life."

She knew also from the beginning that her thesis would meet with resistance from traditional academic circles. "Simply to associate Shakespeare with God is enough to get you alienated from a lot of people, so that hasn't come as a surprise. But it still makes me angry that a great injustice has been done. Shakespeare definitely thought that his coded message would be picked up, and thanks to years of bias, particularly under the Victorians but still present in some places, it never was.

"I think a proper understanding of the resistance of that time is terribly important both to understanding who Shakespeare really was - and to who we are, as a nation."

Asquith's education was at Oxford, but she is dismissive of it - "a lot of questions were left unanswered. I was frustrated" - and it is her inquisitive mind, as well as her strong Catholic faith, that has driven her to write the book.

"Once I understood that the plays describe contemporary events that Shakespeare was living through, I actually learnt a lot of history from them - and a lot about Shakespeare's own life."

It is quite possible, of course, that much of what she has written simply does not prove that the Bard was Catholic. References to contemporary events prove nothing on their own, and the use of liturgical and religious language has been known from authors who definitely did not sympathise with the belief systems they borrowed from.

With expectations raised, perhaps, by The Da Vinci Code, one yearns for Asquith to provide a more coherent cryptography - if only, say, the first letter of each line of the most famous speeches spelt a secret message. But she acknowledges "a very strong counter-argument," without conceding for a second that she might be wrong. "Above all, the reason for this is the rigour with which Shakespeare uses his code. It cannot be for slight, romantic overtones; it is like a web of cryptic crossword clues."

The ground she has covered remains controversial. The book's original publisher, Simon and Schuster, dropped it without explanation and is now involved in a legal dispute over Asquith's advance.

"Having been very enthusiastic, they suddenly went cold," she says, thinking a little sadly of the wider audience a mainstream publisher might have reached. "The editor I'd been working with suddenly turned round and said she didn't understand what I was attempting with the book.

We reached a stage where I even found my own freelance editor to do some work on it, before we gave up on Simon and Schuster altogether. It took us a year to find another publisher."

A sadder thing, however, is that this looks like it might be the last book Asquith attempts, despite surprise success in America and a warm reception from the literary establishment here, drawing praise even from Antonia Fraser. There are people keen for me to try another book, but the truth is I don't find it very easy to write," Asquith says.

"And I can't really see myself tackling anything else. I have tried hard to keep away from anything too emotive. Shakespeare himself does such a beautiful job, and does it so wittily, that all one needs to do is induct the reader. It is a far greater pleasure to leave them to discover it themselves."

And with that, she smiles and disappears to dinner.

'Shadowplay: the hidden beliefs and coded politics of William Shakespeare' by Clare Asquith is published by PublicAffairs

Secrets and lies: weird and wonderful beliefs about the Bard

* Shakespeare did not write the plays

Shakespeare has been the subject of an intense and relentless authorship debate. Theories abound, attributing the plays variously to the poet Christopher Marlowe, the playwright Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, a nobleman, and even Queen Elizabeth I. Another popular theory, advocated by the artistic director of The Globe, Mark Rylance, holds that one man could not have written all 37 great plays and that the works were written "by committee".

* Shakespeare was a double agent

In 1994, The Shakespeare Conspiracy was published. In it, Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman claim that Shakespeare led a double life as William Shakespeare, a grain merchant in Stratford, and William Hall, a secret agent in the Elizabethan secret service who plotted to kill the Queen and was murdered by Sir Walter Raleigh.

* Shakespeare wrote the Bible

Some numerologists assert that Shakespeare worked on the King James version of the Bible, printed in 1611, when he was 46 years old. The decidedly shaky "evidence"? That "shake" is the 46th word of Psalm 46, and "spear" is the 46th word from the end of Psalm 46.

* Shakespeare had an illegitimate son

Salacious whispers report that Shakespeare fathered an illegitimate son. William Davenant was allegedly the product of one of several clandestine meetings with the wife of the innkeeper of the Crown Inn, Oxford.

* Shakespeare: the man without a face

The iconic image of the long-faced man in the stiff collar, instantly recognisable to generations of Shakespeare-lovers, is false. In April, the famous "Flower Portrait" was revealed to be a 19th-century fake, inspired by a resurgence in the popularity of the Bard's plays in the 1800s.