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In 16th century England many loyal subjects to the crown were asked to make a terrible choice: to follow their monarch or their God. The era was one of unprecedented authoritarianism: England, it seemed, had become a police state, fearful of threats from abroad and plotters at home. This age of terror was also the era of the greatest creative genius the world has ever known: William Shakespeare. How, then, could such a remarkable man born into such violently volatile times apparently make no comment about the state of England in his work?
He did. But it was hidden. Revealing Shakespeare's sophisticated version of a forgotten code developed by 16th-century dissidents, Clare Asquith shows how he was both a genius for all time and utterly a creature of his own era: a writer who was supported by dissident Catholic aristocrats, who agonized about the fate of England's spiritual and political life and who used the stage to attack and expose a regime which he believed had seized illegal control of the country he loved.
Shakespeare's plays offer an acute insight into the politics and personalities of his era. And Clare Asquith's decoding of them offers answers to several mysteries surrounding Shakespeare's own life, including most notably why he stopped writing while still at the height of his powers. An utterly compelling combination of literary detection and political revelation, Shadowplay is the definitive expose of how Shakespeare lived through and understood the agonies of his time, and what he had to say about them.
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Clare Asquith has lectured on Shakespeare in England and Canada. Her article on The Phoenix and the Turtle was published in 2001 by the Times Literary Supplement, and her essay on Love's Labour's Lost appeared this year in Shakespeare and the Culture of Christianity in Early Modern England. She lives in London.Review:
"It is rare when a work of such painstaking scholarship is so dramatic, important and exciting to read. Lucidly and persuasively, Clare Asquith takes us through the complexities of religious politics in Elizabethan England, and reveals the anguished debates hidden in Shakespeare's plays. Shadowplay solves many of the puzzles that have perplexed scholars over the years, dramatically enhances our understanding of the dramas of our greatest playwright and, in my view, will lead to a seismic shift in our understanding of our past." Piers Paul Read "Clare Asquith is an inspired and compelling code-breaker - her fascinating study takes us into the concealed heart of the English identity and shows that the Catholic Shakespeare was an exemplary and committed writer, not simply the famously protean bard who resists all attempts to pin down his beliefs. Shadowplay is a remarkable and exciting work of scholarship which shows us the deep structures of Shakespeare's imagination." Tom Paulin, G. M. Young Lecturer in English at Hertford College, Oxford, editor of The Faber Book of Political Verse (1986) and The Faber Book of Vernacular Poetry (1990) "... even if only half of Clare Asquith's argument turns out to be correct, she's written the most visceral, challenging, compelling book on Shakespeare's place in history we've had for over 20 years." Dr John Guy, Winner of the Whitbread Biography Award, 2004 'This book shows us the enticing possibilities of what is certainly needed, a reading of the works which, with real inwardness, takes seriously their rootedness in the poet's increasingly discernible intent: to speak for (and to) a network of men and women living double lives within the English establishment, and to deploy the freshly available resources of English and European poetic and dramatic form in memorializing those lives by making them transcend their time and their predicament.' John Finnis, Professor of Law and Legal Philosophy, University College Oxford "The politics of language is back in fashion, and in this book we have a daring excursus into the field of oppositional discourse in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Here we are introduced to the workings of a dissident religion that very much dares, even if in code, to speak its name. Scholars will have to think again about how far Shakespeare's faith and his view of the Reformation, inflected contemporaries' understanding of the controversies over the Church in England." Dr Michael Questier, Lecturer in Early Modern British and European history, Queen Mary College, University of London" "Clare Asquith's textual criticism is a marvel; eminently readable scholarship". Sir John Keegan, Daily Telegraph Defence Editor and author of The Face of Battle "This is a book of thrilling scholarship and great daring. Any venture into Shakespearean investigation requires panache, deep affection for "the man" and a delicate balance between nerve and learning. Clare Asquith has rendered all of these elegantly and has also, uniquely, kept pace with the great emotions in the works she scrutinizes." Frank Delaney "A literary detective story, which is quite riveting." Antonia Fraser "So mysteriously little is chronicled about Shakespeare that his life, nature and beliefs lie open to endless speculation. What Clare Asquith has done in Shadowplay is to infinitely widen our perception of who he was. She shows how, despite the rule of terror successfully imposed by the father and son, William and Robert Cecil, Shakespeare throughout his play converses with his contemporary audience in an entirely accessible code that has been lost until now by us. This book is a masterpiece of sustained scholarship that reads like a detective novel." Harriet Waugh "The book, set to cause controversy among experts, is full of such detailed analysis and reads, as historian Antonia Fraser has said, 'like a literary detective story.'" Vanessa Thorpe, The Observer "As incendiary religious theories go, it's right up there with The Da Vinci Code." The Independent "I did find reading Shadowplay was like reading a thriller." James Naughtie, Today Programme "Among the most remarkable books to come out about Shakespeare in years... If she is even partly right, her book represents a small earthquake in our understanding." Sam Leith in The Spectator "(N) obody can fail to be impressed by the verve with which (Clare Asquith) writes, bringing a lost world to life". James Shapiro in the Daily Telegraph "Asquith's learned new book is valuable for the new light it sheds on Shakespeare's life amid the dark religious dangers of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and for the new suggestions she makes about such mysteries as his abrupt retirement from writing." Anthony Holden in the Daily Mail "This is one of the most astonishing and original books ever written about Shakespeare... Clare Asquith has produced a wonderfully stimulating read.... (this is) one of the most important books ever written about his plays." The Catholic Herald "Shadowplay turns a period in English history on its head as well as our most important playwright's role in the time. Thanks to Asquith's ability to decode and clarify his dissident yet patriotic message, the author's simply explained, painstaking research leads the reader down mysterious alleys with the same ease as the best thriller writer. Shadowplay is a masterpiece of precise scholarship uncovering England's most brilliant playwright's politics, religious beliefs and dramatic fight for his country's freedoms. The "Merrie England" of Elizabeth I is no longer the liberated country presided over by an enlightened monarch as we have been taught, but a far darker place. As always, history is owned by its architects, Elizabeth's and her regime. Now hitherto unexplained mysteries about Shakespeare's life and beliefs are brilliantly laid out for us." Leonie Frieda in The Evening Standard "Clare Asquith's Shadowplay... is a fascinating literary detective story and has stirred up controversy as everything to do with Shakespeare - and the Gunpowder Plot - always does." Antonia Fraser - Books of the Year in the Sunday Telegraph "Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare by Clare Asquith looks at the complexities of religious politics in Elizabethan England, revealing the anguished debates hidden in Shakespeare's plays. Piers Paul Read - Books of the Year in The Times "Clare Asquith's Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (Public Affairs, GBP 18.99) is an audacious, compelling literary/historical investigation that challenges our assumptions about the plays, the playwright and English history itself. I am no expert on Shakespeare, but found her account of how the perilous day-to-day politics of Elizabethan England affected Shakespeare's dramas wholly convincing." Piers Paul Read - Books of the Year in The Spectator 'In Shadowplay (Public Affairs, GBP 18.99), Clare Asquith builds up a detailed argument for William Shakespeare having expressed his Catholic beliefs through a series of coded images. As the historian A.W. Kinglake wanted inscribed on churches: "Important if true. Intriguing in any case.'" Christopher Howse - Books of the Year in The Tablet "... passionately argued, compellingly readable... gracefully and persuasively (Claire Asquith) pulls together the findings of those who have labored before her in the academic vineyard." Los Angeles Times "Asquith smashes the familiar icon of Shakespeare as a determined conformist who brilliantly skated the political thin ice that cracked under his less skillful countrymen. Her Shakespeare is darker and more complex - a tormented dissident who died in defeat. Asquith is far from alone in her conjectures. The portrait that is emerging shows that Shakespeare was a hero as magnificent as any he created." Washington Post"
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