Tuesday 23 July 2019

Epic poem by Shakespeare cast in new political light

SECRET: Shakespeare is said to have made veiled pro-Catholic references in an early poem
SECRET: Shakespeare is said to have made veiled pro-Catholic references in an early poem

Patrick Sawer

His plays and sonnets have enriched humanity beyond measure and left us a literary legacy still performed and read around the world to this day.

But it has now been claimed there was an unknown side to William Shakespeare - that of political commentator and champion of England's oppressed Catholic minority.

The Elizabethan playwright is often regarded as being largely apolitical, with little to say on contemporary politics, but a scholar has argued that he was in fact deeply engaged with one of the biggest issues of the day.

Clare Asquith, the Countess of Oxford and Asquith, has suggested that his early epic poem The Rape of Lucrece is, at nearly 2,000 lines, neither a poem nor is about the rape of a Roman noblewoman, but is in fact a political pamphlet decrying the persecution of the country's Catholics.

She has reinterpreted the 1594 work as an extended account of the Act of Supremacy of 1534 and the destruction of old Catholic England by Protestants following the establishment of the Church of England under Henry VIII.

The poem is ostensibly about the rape of Lucrece, the devout wife of Collatine, by Tarquin, the son of the king of Rome. In the story - first told by the Roman poet Ovid and later painted by Rembrandt - this outrageous crime inspires an insurrection led by Collatine's friend Brutus, leading to the foundation of the first Roman republic.

But in Lady Asquith's reading, the violence and grief recounted in the poem are code for the destruction of the Catholic church's monasteries, the selling off of its land and artworks, the demolition of church ornament and the shutting of charitable almshouses.

"His audience would have understood the references contained in the poem, whether it was the king, the court or its victims," she said. "The Catholics and the reformers were the victims and he uses terminology that would have provided comfort to them and makes a plea to the court for tolerance.

"The Rape of Lucrece is an extended allegory for what happened to England, to the Catholics and the reformers at the hands of the newly established church and the Privy Council, led by William Cecil, the man who set up the first secret services and had a file on pretty much everyone."

Lady Asquith speculates that the poem may have been commissioned by the Earl of Essex, who championed religious tolerance.

She lays out her radical interpretation in her new book Shakespeare and the Resistance: The Earl of Southampton, the Essex Rebellion and the Poems that Challenged Tudor Tyranny, which was published last week.

The persecution of England's Catholics followed the act of Parliament that recognised Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England and established the Anglican Church as the spiritual authority of the nation. Lady Asquith first began exploring the hidden subtext of Shakespeare's plays after noting the coded messages in plays by Soviet dissidents while her husband Raymond, Earl of Oxford and Asquith, served as a diplomat in Moscow during the Cold War. She says it has long been difficult for many literary critics to recognise the political nature of Shakespeare's work.

"He was far from apolitical and we only think he was because we don't know what the sides were," she said. "He was, in a veiled way, referring to the political disputes of the time. The Rape of Lucrece is about life under a police state."


Sunday Independent

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