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Preface: As I've said, oldie writing will be dusted off and plunked blogside (at least at first; new stuff should gradually overtake i...

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Loserly Legacy: Prologue and Sphinx

As stated in the preceding post, this blog will recycle a bunch of OLD ARTICLES (click here for a Zen exercise in futility) partly for the amusement of visitors, partly as a "batch of clippings" for any employer brave or crazy enough to actually consider hiring this freaky critic.

For starters, here is a 2005 book review, never published, as it seems to have scared the editor who first agreed to let me review the book (Shadowplay), sending me the review-copy but then retreating into a shell of silence when I submitted the dissection. You have to sympathize; even to a Shakespeare specialist the critique must seem presumptuous, and of course it shows (deliberately) myself groping my way through that mystery poem "The Phoenix and the Turtle."

But I believe a critic should NOT use the standard aloof-pontifical style (except maybe humorously, or reviewing a lesser work), but should show the messy and awkward "workings" of criticism to some degree. The review's main job, next to giving a general idea of the book, is to pique an interest in author and effort -- informality does that best, although it's no easy task given how high-school pedants have dully inflicted Shakespeare upon their victims!

PS: I posted this on FaceBook nine months ago, to absolutely zero response. You just know it's going to be a long, hard slog for this heretic and his heresies...

* * * *

Author wanders from the sublime to the ridiculous
Was the Sphinx of Avon... Catholic? Puritan? Or what?

Clare Asquith
Public Affairs, $37.95

The passerby’s t-shirt is white, but darkly states: “Humpty was pushed.” I laugh, for all conspiracy theories are humdingers, from Keegstra’s Illuminati to the DaVinci Code piffle to John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire-bastardized intelligentsia.

But of all the paranoid mysteries, none surpasses the chronic question of Shakespeare’s true beliefs. Herewith, another agenda-hunter, reviving the century-old theory of his Catholicism. A tough one to prove, as Reformation zealots suppressed English Catholics, often with sickening ferocity. Evidence is thus mostly in textual intimations, the fodder of looney conjecture.

Having spent a few years poking at the religious enigma, I came to Shadowplay armed. Is Shakespeare’s bird-fable poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle” here? Yes, naturally, since recent studies plausibly make it a stealthy elegy to a dead Anglo-Catholic couple, one executed... But Asquith skimps on details of this nice sleuth job.

If only she had trimmed her 2,000 repetitions of “Old Church good, Reformation bad” she could have provided better insight into a sphinx-poem that retains some mystery. For instance, one of its lines, “grace in all simplicity,”is almost a Puritan slap at ornate Catholic ceremony. What’s with that?

Asquith quotes the line and its neighbors, intuiting, “Shakespeare is here confronting for the first time the possibility that the spirit of the Catholic resistance would be extinguished” A mighty conjectural leap! The line, “Truth and beauty buried be” is her only visible evidence.

But now another possibility jolts me: this line’s double meaning is imperative: Shakespeare is quietly telling Truth (scripture-based Protestantism) and Beauty (ceremonial Catholicism) to “buried be” (i.e. bury their differences?--and in the poem’s final triad, pray for the dead, whether “true or fair”–a very significant “or” methinks).

Such analysis follows Asquith’s two critical methods of choice, testing the Bard’s writing with a keyword-code (e.g. “beauty,” “fair” and “gazer” indicating Catholic), and assuming “allegory” in his plays (i.e. veiled parallels behind stories and characters). But while these tools do resolve some cryptic bits, as a panacea they fail. Her attempt to make Julius Caesar a Christ-figure in a play promoting papal authority, for instance, is a knee-slapper.

Proud Caesar equals humble foot-washing Jesus?? Well, you see, Caesar’s 23 reported wounds are upped to 33, the years Jesus lived. Shakespeare prankish, maybe? Nah.

Still, hidden meanings have a respectable vintage. As scholar David Bevington notes, Elizabethans generally assumed that plays commented sneakily on current events, and often they did. But 19th-century poet Swinburne illustrated the downside, lampooning the habit of finding Robert Cecil, sly fixer for Elizabeth I, everywhere in the plays, arguing Juliet was a Cecil-figure, the sheer ludicrousness of this being proof of Shakespeare’s masterful concealment.

But Asquith’s pratfalls into “Fluellenism” (a term honoring the bonehead academic in Henry V who made dubious parallels an art) are balanced by pause-giving items: the details of an Anglo-Catholic execution in the “dovehouse”aside in Romeo and Juliet, Catholic Viscountess Montague lurking in A Winter’s Tale; and above all, many a perplexity cleared up by keyword coding, particularly in the Sonnets and early plays.

But Asquith uses her tools clumsily. She detects wavering Catholic Lord Strange in Sonnet 89, for instance, but doesn't connect the persecuted “gazers” in Sonnet 96. She virtually ignores Protestant hero Falstaff (as does last year’s pro-Catholic tome The Secret Shakespeare). Worse, twisting Hamlet to fit Catholic allegory reveals a gap in her references: Shakespeare’s Christian Dimension (1994, ed. Battenhouse). Its critics painstakingly delineate Hamlet not as her tragic hero but a vicious schmuck (and when will stage productions move beyond costuming atrocities to reflect such advances in understanding?)

The flaws will leave Shadowplay beneath most scholars, while its esoteric topic sinks it for most general readers. Still, for noting that poet Edmund Spenser was once banished to Ireland for calling Cecil’s father William a fox (a link to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, where sly Ulysses --say his name backwards-- is called a “dog-fox”), for this gift I give Asquith my own discovery: Shakespeare’s stealthy references to the morality plays in the Macro manuscript, a medieval relic likely rescued by Catholics.

All these connections clearly show Shakespeare’s familiarity with what Orwell called “ecclesiastic Trotskyism.” But was he thus Catholic? Or Puritan?--as Rev. T. Carter suggests, finding that Shakespeare’s father helped remove Catholic images from Stratford’s church, and was listed as a Puritan recusant by church-establishment spies.

For myself, the question is moot. Everything I have teased out of Shakespeare reveals an ecumenical above all, a conclusion that jolted home again when my headbanging against “The Phoenix and the Turtle” finally unriddled the poem’s subtext: that the horrific infighting between Protestant and Catholic destroys the loving essence of Christianity.

Check yourself if you doubt me. After 400 years Shakespeare still yields surprises.

Cabbie Jens Andersen devoutly wishes some publisher shared his fascination with the religious undertones of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.

* * * *

Actually the theory of Shakespeare's Catholicism is about 200 years old (which didn't stop a heavyweight Maclean's reviewer from calling Asquith's book a fresh new insight), and the "nice sleuth job" on the "Phoenix" turns out to be Asquith's own, as I re-discovered on checking my Horrible Heap of scholarly articles. In my undergrad days (before her sleuth article) I wrote a course-essay on the poem--discovering exactly how little is really known about it (almost nothing), and what a big step Asquith's detective-work was, however groping and clumsy.

The latest scholarly book containing the "Phoenix" (from about 2007? -- check the Horrible Heap?...) doesn't mention Asquith at all, nor any "Christian" interpretation of the poem. Academic thickheads! Glad I'm no conventional Christian faithmonger so I can champion this view without being accused of the obvious biases...

2015 note: A few years ago I was also surprised to find an Anglo-Catholic Church in my neighborhood--and see that it wasn't Catholic but Anglican! Ooops. Things have gotten more complicated since Shakespeare's day...


Anonymous said...

Hello crusty old clown,

Well I am now plowing through your own articles while cooking my dinner - must say you really do go in depth! (I love "Troilus and Cressida" so this is interesting!)

I am pretty young but not so idealistic anymore (now you're thinking she was WORSE before??) Did you really think my Lennon article was idealistic? I suppose you could say I'm just disappointed by the reality of it then...

Anyway onto making my rose-soup! ;)

Your number 1 stalker/ follower now,


PS: Who are you on NwAC?

Jens Andersen, alleged critic said...

You've HEARD of _Troilus and Cressida_??? It's a pretty obscure play, virtually unknown outside the dust and tweed of the English departments --largely because no on has a clue what old Will was up to when he wrote it.

Sneaky stuff, trust me on this! (there's a bit on NwAC about it somewhere -- Alice would be perfect in the role of Thersites).

As to the proper attitude for careening around this deranged planet, idealism or realism may be all the same. Just don't get so embittered you become a mere bystander.

Oh yes, the NwAC handle is madstone. And you still didn't answer the all-important question about your hairdo... =[

Anonymous said...

Not only have I heard of it, I even acted out a monologue of Cressida's back when I thought my life's calling was to become an actress! haha (In which case GOOD- Alice SHOULD be in it and I'll dig out my old Cressida-isms too!!)

Oh right, my hairdo! It's not a bob at all unfortunately.. when my hair is down it actually looks a LOT like Alice's (unintentionally too!) ... I still can't work out whether that would be considered a good hair day for me or a bad one..

Jens Andersen, alleged critic said...

I'm guessing the soliloquy was the early one where she says she loves Troilus but vows not to let it show? (out of feminine wiliness -- ironic considering how open and forward she later is on their tryst) It is her only real speech unless you count her exit lines -- "minds swayed by eyes" etc.

She is the hero of the play, by the way, And Ulysses, whe calls her a slut, is the very
villain. Anyone who says otherwise is a dingbat professor!!

Anonymous said...

Yes! That was the monologue I did actually! Hah, funny you'd guess that... I suppose it does make sense though considering how few longer lines she has throughout the rest of the play.

Don't know whether she's a hero or not, I can't say I liked her that much by the end of the story.. but she was cool to play! :)

Jens Andersen, alleged critic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jens Andersen, alleged critic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jens Andersen, alleged critic said...

Actually, have the vague recollection of seeing that scene with Cressida in some sort of "practise scenes for actors" anthology.

Doing scenes like that is even fairly common for English students. In Canadian Drama we did Scott's execution from Coulter's _Riel_ and in Medieval and Tudor Drama we did a segment of _Castle of Perseverance_ -- straight, unfortunately. More creative classmates monkeyed with the Middle English and produced some very amusing results. Of course the medieval drama is geared to the peasantry, and pretty bawdy to begin with...

(THERE we go!! -- without the stinking tpos of two previous abortions...)

Jens Andersen, alleged critic said...

I mean "typos" !

How ironic...