Epic poem by Shake­speare cast in new po­lit­i­cal light

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Worldwide - Patrick Sawer in Lon­don ©Tele­graph

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.”

‘We think he was apo­lit­i­cal be­cause we don’t know the sides’

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

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