I read an article by Asquith last fall and then a reader recommended this book. I love Shakespeare; but have been a bit sceptical about the claims that he was a closet Catholic hiding subversive elements in his plays. It felt too much like the pet-theory driven criticism, eisogesis rather than exegesis, that I find all too-common in the current academic establishment and that drove me crazy during my grad school days at BC. However, the article did engage in some close reading of the text that I found plausible so I decided to give the book a try and got it through our local library (I love interlibrary loan here, by the way. When I lived in the Dallas area they charged exorbitant fees for this service. Here I can get a book from anywhere in the state and it’s free unless I accrue late fees!)
But I was pleasantly surprised by Asquith’s book. It was quite scholarly and rooted in historical context, which at times made for tough going. I have to confess I’ve never really studied English history (a curious lack, I’ll admit, but it wasn’t offered as an elective while I was in school) and I’m not really one to pick up history books except in the context of a class. (I love historical fiction, but that’s another matter.) So I am not fit to judge Asquith’s recounting of recusant history during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods but I was fascinated by a slice of history that I’d never been exposed to. I did find it tough going at times. The book is quite dense and I kept putting it down in favor of lighter reading.
What made for even harder going is that I haven’t (gasp) read all of Shakespeare’s plays. So in some of the chapters I was trying to absorb her summary and analysis of an unfamiliar text.
But one nice thing about the book was that her summaries were good and I didn’t feel at sea when reading about a play I had not yet read or seen.
I think some of her individual textual glosses might be a bit of a reach, but I don’t have enough knowledge to judge them. On the whole, though, her placing of her reading in the context of reading other texts of the time is illuminating. Glosses which might have seemed far-fetched when taken on their own look much more plausible when one looks at what other authors of the time were writing.
On the whole, Asquith’s style is not quite my cup of tea. I’m really looking forward to Joseph Pearce’s promised treatment of the subject. I find his prose very readable, his style approachable. Still, Asquith doesn’t strive for the convoluted style that passes for scholarship in contemporary academia which says you know I’m smart because only those in the know can understand what I’m saying. That kind of tortured neo-gnosticism disgusts me. No, Asquith is fairly readable and she strives for clarity in her writing. But she’s also packing in a lot of data which makes for a dense book.