Past a certain stage in studying literature, you begin to understand, perhaps better appreciate, the fact that texts are crafted entities.
(I choose ‘entities‘ deliberately, firmly believing texts have their own independent post-publication existences: a subject for another time, perhaps)
This fact understood, we then begin to question why writers create these texts. Perhaps Shakespeare was a mix of all four of the reasons famously suggested by Orwell, but it’s hard to deny the presence of the latter two: historical impulse and political impulse. [a]
Implicit in both of these is the recognition that ‘context is king‘ – if writing is a form of magic, of alchemy, then context is the crucible in which texts are cooked up. Clare Asquith‘s book looks to unpack the conditions which created Shakespeare’s famous but opaque long-form poems, ‘Venus and Adonis‘, and ‘The Rape of Lucrece‘. They might be unfashionable and impenetrable to twenty-first century readers, but they were immensely popular in Shakespeare’s day. Asquith posits the theory that they are coded responses to the treatment of English Catholics by the Tudor dynasty. She links the poems to the lives of two notable Elizabethans who Shakespeare is connected with: the Earls of Essex and Southampton.
Importantly, you don’t need to have read the poems to take something from the book. Asquith’s writing is commendably clear and she provides the material you need from Shakespeare’s poems to advance her case. Additionally, there is sufficient contextual information, such as an extended and original commentary on Essex’s life, to draw those contextual links in straight lines. Her take on Tudor England as a police state is frighteningly dystopian; the result is seductive in its plausibility.
In places, especially early on, her writing becomes almost amusingly ‘muscular’ as she describes the excesses of religious intolerance. Here she is on the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot:
Among the multiple repercussions—the bloody executions, the arrests, the demonization of Jesuits, the hellfire sermons, the hurried conversions, the inauguration of annual bonfires celebrating the king’s preservation—one small but significant event has gone almost unnoticed. [b]
A final strength of the work is its relative objectivity. She resists the temptation to label Shakespeare himself a Papist, or to descend into conspiracy theory. If she pins a cause on Shakespeare at all, it is one of tolerance, which anyone familiar with the better-known plays will recognise.
[a] George Orwell, Why I Write (1946), accessed here
[b] Clare Asquith, Shakespeare and the Resistance (New York: Public Affairs, 2018)