In response to:

The One and Only from the May 11, 2006 issue

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare; drawing by David Levine

To the Editors:

I am grateful to Anne Barton for giving extended attention to Shadowplay [“The One and Only,” NYR, May 11]. She rightly picks up on some inaccurate references (though to be pedantic, they do not occur on page 297, and the phrase “like players’ costumes,” which has lost a comma, is my own comment, not Gonzalo’s). But in proposing that my necessarily elliptical book omits everything that conflicts with my thesis, she herself is more damagingly inaccurate.

Her argument rests on my omission of the intractably Protestant King John. There are two errors here. First, I do not omit King John—it is discussed on page 79. Secondly, it is not now seen as a Protestant play. Others have already demonstrated the way Shakespeare undermines the traditional Protestant image of John as anti-papal hero, aligning him instead with the dissident perception of Elizabeth as an interdicted, vacillating usurper. Moreover the assumption that a play which features a “scheming papal legate” must be anti-Catholic illustrates the restrictive effect of centuries of Protestant bias on the interpretation of Elizabethan literature. Antagonism to Rome was common among Shakespeare’s Catholic compatriots, torn, like the play’s King Philip, between an oath to the English monarch and a deeper loyalty enforced by an intransigent papacy. So as the single illustration of my strategy of selective omission, King John will not do.

Similarly, the lone example of old Hamlet’s grizzled beard does not scupper the dark/fair entry code. Among the dissident motifs explored in Shadowplay is nostalgia for the coexistence of “low, dark” reformers and “high, fair” traditionalists within a united Christendom. Dark, low Hermia and tall, fair Helena, polarized by circumstance, were originally “a double cherry, seeming parted.” The intermingled sable and silver of the armed, “majestical” ghost link him with England’s lost dark/fair consensus, and with its militant reemergence in the alliance of persecuted Catholics and Puritans under tolerationist Essex.

To Barton’s query as to who could possibly detect such arcane references my answer is the same audience who detected the sonnet buried in the text of Romeo and Juliet: cultivated readers who, whatever their beliefs, longed for a resolution to England’s “cold” civil war.

But it is evidently not so much the detail as the whole concept of a secondary level which Barton finds preposterous. To illustrate its absurdity she cites the Wittgensteinian rabbit/duck picture as proof that simultaneous apprehension of two images is impossible. However, the teasing experience of oscillating between two meanings is not only the essence of the allegorical wit which delighted the Renaissance: in the more developed form of anamorphic perspective, it is invoked by both Chapman and Shakespeare (sonnet 24) as the “best” aspect of their art, a pointer to “something that is and is not” (Richard II, Twelfth Night). Far from demolishing my case, her illustration exemplifies the way all deniable dissident drama works.

Finally the secondary level does not diminish our sense of Shakespeare’s impartiality. On the contrary, it confirms his stance as that of a tolerant Catholic humanist, as ready to idealize the virtues of the Protestant religion as he was to satirize the faults of his own. Under a severely partisan government, such impartiality was considered subversive; civilized writers therefore used elaborate Renaissance cover to undercut the ban on religious and political drama. If we want to resurrect this sophisticated level of communication, there may be some value in the two aspects of Shadowplay dismissed by Anne Barton as extraneous and fanciful: a readiness to bring extreme, alert ingenuity to the text, and an interest in what was once meant by English Catholicism.

Clare Asquith

Mells, Somerset, England

Anne Barton replies:

To take Ms. Asquith’s objections in order: I apologize first of all for specifying page 297 of Shadowplay rather than 267 as the site of four inaccuracies in her reading of The Tempest. All those inaccuracies, however, remain. Her explanation that the phrase “like players’ costumes” is her own comment, not Gonzalo’s, can scarcely be reconciled with her original sentence, which reads: “Gonzalo notes that they are new-dyed like players’ costumes.” Page 297, by the way, part of her glossary of selected “coded terms,” contains its own absurdities, including the statement that “an apparently motiveless or disproportionate desire for revenge in Shakespeare’s plays refers to the revenge of Puritans for the persecutions under Mary—the shrew [sic], Shylock, Malvolio, Aaron.” While overleaf, on page 298, the reader will find the Greek Sinon, alluded to in three of Shakespeare’s works, misidentified as a “treacherous Trojan” who “persuaded his countrymen” to admit the wooden horse.

Secondly, I did not claim that Ms. Asquith omitted Shakespeare’s King John entirely, but “in its entirety.” I was perfectly aware that she names it in a list of other early histories at the bottom of her page 78 and then gives it exactly one sentence on page 79. That is scarcely to deal with this complicated play “in its entirety.” Nor did I assert at any point that it was “intractably Protestant”—in the manner of Bale’s earlier King John. Merely “intractable” for her purposes, which is presumably why she gives it such notably short shrift.

Recognition that Romeo and Juliet create a sonnet between them on their first meeting is scarcely difficult or problematic—unlike her ingenious but far-fetched explanation of the significance of Old Hamlet’s “grizzled” beard. She might just about as plausibly have argued that he began life as a Protestant but was veering toward the Roman church when Claudius poisoned him. The game is easy to play. The rabbit/ duck is not an “anamorphic perspective,” like the famous one in Holbein’s painting of the English ambassadors, requiring a shift in the viewer’s physical position. It is something different, and incommensurate with the experience of reading or watching Shakespeare. And so on.

Never, either in this review or in my critical writing generally, have I ever suggested either a Protestant or a Catholic bias in Shakespeare’s work—as opposed to the kind of impartial, “layered” attitude so well described by James Shapiro. I am afraid that, for all her inventiveness and fervor, Ms. Asquith’s response to my review of Shadowplay is just like her reading of Shakespeare’s texts—inaccurate and slipshod.

This Issue

June 22, 2006