Can Catholic literature break the stranglehold of political oppression? Can great Christian art emerge in an age of political fear? How does the imagination of an artist work in a world of intrigue and danger? These questions and others were addressed by students from the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts as they explored the newest and most controversial interpretation of William Shakespeare’s writings at “The Mystery of Shakespeare” conference at the Russell Kirk Center in Mecosta, Michigan last month.
Thomas More College students Gemma Cowhig, Paul Kniaz, and Nicholas Smith, and alumna Anna Maria Mendell learned about the literary interpretation of Clare Asquith, who argues that noted 16th-century English playwright William Shakespeare was a Catholic sympathizer who encoded religious and political messages in his plays. In her new book Shadowplay, Asquith discusses how Shakespeare may have been a dissident Catholic during the reign of Elizabeth I in England. She claims that his works contain codes used by underground Catholics in Elizabethan England during an age of censorship. Asquith, whose work has met with critical acclaim from across the scholarly divide, contends that Shakespeare was not a mere entertainer who downplayed his Catholicism during the repressive reign of Elizabeth I, but was an active participant in the great religious upheaval of his day.
Examples of hidden language include the use of the words “tempest” and “storm” to signify England’s troubles during the time, a theme of constancy in love signifies faith in Catholicism, and heroines Viola, Imogen, and Portia described as “sunburned” or “tanned” indicates a closeness to God. These themes can be understood in a particularly Catholic context.
The weekend seminar featured a new lecture by Asquith on Shakespearean sonnets, wherein she analyzed the religious tension concealed within Shakespeare’s poetry. The weekend also featured talks by Dr. Benjamin Lockerd, Professor of English at Grand Valley State University (Allendale, MI), who spoke on Shakespeare and the Intuition, and Stratford Caldecott, a J.R.R. Tolkien scholar and director of Thomas More College’s Center for Faith and Culture in Oxford, England, who compared the writings of Shakespeare and Tolkien.
“The weekend was a retreat for the mind and body. I came back intellectually rejuvenated, and now I make sure to put a short time aside every day where I can read poetry!” Anna Maria said. “It was wonderful to be included among so many different people who were excited about Shakespeare. I found Clare Asquith’s lecture very convincing. She discussed the ramifications of the religious and political conflict at the time, as well as Shakespeare’s personal battle between his loyalty for England and his sympathy for Catholicism. It was fascinating to follow the tension in the sonnets and view them from within the Catholic tradition.”
Nicholas came away from the weekend with an expanded appreciation for the noted English playwright. “At the very least, we see that Shakespeare had Catholic sensibilities. Some evidence would seem to say more—that he was a Catholic who tried to steer the true course amid the turbulence of his times,” Smith said. “Clare Asquith sees Shakespeare’s sonnets in a very new light, explicating a hidden commentary on the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, the attractions of Catholicism and Anglicanism, the tumultuous culture of the day, and general precariousness of living in such a time.”
The conference was co-sponsored by the Russell Kirk Center and the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.