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Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley

Posted: January 4, 2006 11:05 PM

Try This



About this time last year, I finished reading for my book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (which was published by Knopf this past September). Thirteen Ways is comprised of two roughly equal halves. The first half consists of the general principles that, I think, describe the anatomy of most, if not all, novels, and the second half consists of an appendix/bibliography of the hundred (actually 112) novels that I read while pondering the nature of my favorite literary form. My list is roughly chronological, beginning with The Tale of Genji (1004) and ending with Look at Me (2001), by Jennifer Egan. My plan, in the appendix of Thirteen Ways, was not to come up with a "best novels" list, but to come up with a "representative novels" list. I read very famous novels, such as Moby Dick, very infamous novels, such as the Marquis de Sade's Justine, and very unfamous novels, such as James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (which is actually quite famous in Scotland, Hogg's homeland, but not in the US). I found that after three steady and sometimes arduous years of reading (Cervantes, Proust, Balzac, Trollope), there was nothing I wanted to do more than--to read!

And so I kept reading. What I missed in my subsequent reading, though, was the chance to reflect upon what I was reading, in writing, for the potential perusal of other readers. It was fine to keep reading--I couldn't help myself, because I had become attached to that feeling that I had a friend, or at least a companion, or at least a steady human voice always right there, beside the bathtub or on the bedside table. But I had gained a taste for sharing my thoughts, which were sometimes conventional (I got a lot out of Cervantes and Kafka, as everyone does) and sometimes unconventional (I got very little out of The Great Gatsby). Writing Thirteen Ways convinced me that yes, there is room for yet another book "critic" and the reading I've done in the last year convinced me that there are plenty of worthwhile books, fiction and non-fiction, that are worth recommending. So I talked Arianna into letting me write a column from time to time called "Try This", about books I am reading and have read that I consider compelling and worth recommending.

My plan is not to review current books. I hate getting unsolicited books in the mail! My plan is to, in some sense, meander around in the stacks and pull things off the shelf. Some of them will be relevant to what is happening in our world and some won't. Some will be fun to read and some won't. I don't plan to be either regular or exhaustive, only to post when I feel enthusiastic about to particular work. If I can make a few Huffington readers eager to try something, well then, all the better. And, of course, many books will be familiar to Huffington readers, and I am sure you will be happy to agree or disagree with my opinions. I hope you'll do so at length!


Your World Turned Upside-Down

Clare Asquith, Shadowplay, Public Affairs, 2005

When I was in graduate school, my office-mate, who was a Shakespeare student, often said, "Shakespeare is God." He meant that Shakespeare was so all-knowing and all-seeing that he did not himself have any writerly axes to grind--the Shakespearean consciousness that was evident in the plays was so wise that it was not subject to normal human psychology and not locatable in any particular place or time. The name? Just a convenience. The biographical dates? Just happenstance. According to this model, an author could be such a genius that no human imperfections could be attached to him. Such a genius could not be truly emulated, I realized, but that was okay. I could use him in my own career as a distant light source--the Earth can't be the sun, but it can be warmed by the Sun.

As a lifelong sucker, I never buy anything that anyone tries to sell me. If it's advertised or it comes in the mail, or there's a special offer, or so-and-so thinks this is right up my alley, I assume there's something wrong with it and I don't even look at it, but last May, I let Amazon send me Clare Asquith's Shadowplay because, having ordered Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World, I had fallen into a certain customer bin. I let them send me the hardback, I let them charge me whatever they wanted, and I let them charge me shipping. God knows why. I was therefore not best pleased when Shadowplay arrived, especially since Mr. Greenblatt's biography had convinced me that I already knew the last word on William Shakespeare.

But one incident in Greenblatt's biography stood out in my mind--the fact that secret Catholic materials seemed to have been discovered hidden in the Shakespeare house in Stratford, and they seemed to have belonged to Shakespeare's father. Therefore, Asquith's premise, that Shakespeare himself was Catholic, and that his plays can only be understood as coded Catholic communications about the painful demise of Catholicism in Elizabethan and Jacobean Britain, was just plausible enough to be interesting. I did not, however, think it was relevant enough to my own concerns to be especially compelling, since I am not Catholic or Protestant. Wrong again.

Asquith's view of Shakespeare is utterly opposed to the "Shakespeare as God" view. For Asquith, the specific circumstances of the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I were too dramatic and dangeorus, too fraught with meaning, for Shakespeare or any writer to have been able to detach himself from them. Power politics and religious controversy shaped everything about the playwright--his life, his career, his esthetic vision, the action of particular plays, and the relationships between the plays as a group. As I read Shadowplay, I realized that this had to be so. The missing link in my knowledge of Shakespeare was a true and detailed estimation of the horror and cruelty of the English religious wars. I had been thinking of the period as the Renaissance, but really it was the Reformation, a time when state terror was the order of the day.

Asquith's argument is precise and efficiently told--I can't encapsulate it here without misrepresenting it--and it is the only argument about Shakespeare's life that I have read that works in precisely in the way it does. There are, as we all know, few attested biographical facts about William Shakespeare. What Asquisth's argument does is to plot the development of the plays against the chronology of events, drawing an outline of the man right where history and art meet up. It is an argument that may not be true, but it is compellingly logical. And the author's first premise is that once Henry VIII had seized the wealth of the monasteries and distributed it to his followers, there could be no turning back--Protestants and Catholics entered upon a war against one another in which the stakes were not only beliefs, but also goods and lands. This war was exacerbated by the unpredictability of life in the 16th century--as soon as one side thought it had won, some key figure died and the other side gained ascendency. Crucial to Shakespeare's own development was the fact that Elizabeth's suppression of Catholicism in England after 1559 was ruthless but patchy--Warwickshire, where Stratford-upon-Avon is located, remained defiantly Catholic for most of Shakespeare's boyhood. As a result, both sides (and the Catholic side included the Pope, who was ever-ready to interfere in English politics and to encourage Catholic plotters) remained intransigent. Suppression of traditional belief was marked by acts of astonishing cruelty--burnings, rackings, eviscerations, heads on pikes--which grew into years and years of government savagery on one side and more or less willing martyrdom on the other.

Elizabeth was more liberal than her advisors, William and Robert Cecil, however, and when Shakespeare and his company of players got to court, Shakespeare, according to Asquith, thought he might be able to appeal to the Queen's more humane side--she liked being entertained, and she personally didn't mind a little freedom of thought. Asquith's main point is that the plays contain many coded references, in characters, plots, and language, that were intended by the author to communicate (to the Queen herself, to other Catholics, and to pragmatic moderates) various moral and political ideas. As the political situation evolved, so did Shakespeare's analysis of what was wrong and how to amend it. This turned out to be a futile task, but for me, perhaps the most chilling section of Asquith's book comes toward the end.

The most significant event in Shakespeare's life that we have never heard of might have been the death of James I's eldest son, Henry, who seems to have been well-educated and liberal-minded, of typhoid fever, in 1612. Henry seems to have reacted positively to "The Winter's Tale", a coded depiction of the return of Catholic belief (and resulting redemption) allegorically represented in the play by the resurrection of the dead queen and the discovery of her daughter, thought to be lost. Right about the same time, a noblewoman who might have been Shakepeare's wealthy protector, Vicountess Magdalyn Montague, died, and Henri IV of France (he who said, "Paris is worth a Mass" and espoused religious tolerance) was assassinated by a Catholic friar. The result, in England, was a crack-down against Catholics and, according to Asquith, the silencing of William Shakespeare, who wrote "The Tempest" as a despairing farewell to all his hopes. All the other prominent playwrights except Ben Jonson fell silent also, probably as a result of the activities of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Calvinist George Abbott, who was installed in 1611 and fell from royal favor in 1622, years after Shakespeare's death, but just before Shakespeare's plays were published in the First Folio edition.

Did you ever feel sorry for Shakespeare, Shakespeare the God? I did, at the end of Shadowplay . Not because he had to stop writing, and not because someone botched up his last two plays, "Two Noble Kinsmen" and "Henry VIII", but because he was conscipted into the subsequent Protestant English myth about Elizabeth (whom Asquith thinks he portrayed as the witch Sycorax in "The Tempest") and used by later generations of historians and scholars to exemplify the very ideas and sympathies that in his life he feared and hated. What kind of greatness is that? Wouldn't obscurity be preferable?

I thought for days about Shadowplay after I read it. Something about the construction I had made of art itself (and therefore of my own life) was smashed. Not only could you not transcend your circumstances, your very deepest views and feelings could be misrepresented for centuries, and no one would ever know. No matter how great an artist you were, you could turn up as the subject of a disinformation campaign by the authorities.

I was convinced by Asquith's logic. No doubt other readers were not--if you want to see blind faith at work and hear the sound of grinding axes, go into Shakespeare scholarship. There is no way of knowing whether Asquith's book is a revelation or just another crackpot theory. But for a pure mental shake-up, I say, try this.