First Things Review

22 04 2014

The May edition of First Things – ‘America’s most influential journal of religion and public life’ – has a nice review of Tragic Muse.

Thumbs up:

‘fascinating book … what Dodwell does in the book is elucidate connections – in the network of clandestine Catholics; between players, playhouse owners, and landlords with one another and with Line’s family – and in Shakespeare’s plays and poetry – that make at least possible, and in my view plausible, his postulation that Anne Line was ‘Shakespeare’s tragic muse’’

Thumbs down:

‘His thoughts on Anne Line and The Tempest are regrettably elliptical’

It is in the ‘briefly noted’ section (behind a paywall in the online edition) and is by William Tighe, an historian who has specialized in Tudor and Stuart Britain. His doctoral thesis (Cambridge) was on the Gentlemen Pensioners at the court of Queen Elizabeth, and he has published on various 16th and 17th century subjects so he is in a pretty good position to make an assessment.

The one real criticism he makes: ‘His thoughts on Anne Line and The Tempest are regrettably elliptical’. I am not entirely sure what the problem is but perhaps he is implying that my thoughts do not really go anywhere, that I am somehow chasing my own tail. If so, he has a point. Although I am quite clear that Stephano’s ‘Mistress line’ (IV.i) in The Tempest is a reference to Anne Line, how this fits into the play as a whole was obscured from my mind by the dark clouds and lashing rain of incomprehension (despite seeing the force of arguments that it was a signing-off play and a psychomachia). With Cymbeline or ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’, it is quite different – I feel confident that I can see the whole work and show how the parts make up that whole – but with The Tempest the big picture eluded me. More recently though, I have been given pause by the following comment from Hugh Richmond (Emeritus English prof at Berkeley) :

The Tempest has long been recognized as directly deriving, in part, from Montaigne’s essay “Of Cannibals” (including Gonzalo’s famous speech) in which Montaigne prefers the values of the Cannibal tribe (of which Caliban is an anagram) to those of contemporary Europeans. Cannibal is a variant of Carribal (or Carribean), a name derived from the indigenous inhabitants of that region. Montaigne suggested that eating dead people was not as bad as the tortures inflicted on the living in the European religious wars.

If the theme of religious toleration is central to the play, and central to the argument is that point of Montaigne’s about the inhumanity being perpetrated in the name of religion, the hanging of Anne Line fits this precisely, as do the macabre allusions to the horrors inflicted on the two priests who died with her (‘jerkin under the line’ and references to the quartering process).

Shakespeare’s Catholicism

As part of his review, Tighe provides a summary of evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism that bares repeating:

And Shakespeare? Evidence has been mounting over the past thirty years to support the following claims, none of them uncontested, and presented here in order of descending agreement: that Shakespeare came from a strongly Catholic family; that in all of his works he refrains from disparaging Catholic practices and beliefs, or abusing the papacy, which all would have gone over well with his audiences had he done it; that many of his plays and poems display a sympathetic attitude towards, or at least a nostalgia for, Catholicism; that he may have studied in a Lancashire Catholic gentry household (as “William Shakeshafte”) in the early 1580s, or abroad in a Catholic educational establishment; even that on three occasions in the mid-1580s he may have registered as a visitor to the English College in Rome; that he appears to have avoided making his Easter Communion in the Church of England during the years that he resided in Southwar[k] (where unusually good records of communicants have been kept and preserved); and that “he died a papist” (to cite Richard Davies, writing some decades after Shakespeare’s death).

Not a bad list, but the big miss in my opinion is the John Speed quote from 1611: ‘this papist and his poet, … the one ever feigning, the other ever falsifying the truth’. The ‘poet’ here is believed to be Shakespeare, and the ‘papist’ is Nicholas Doleman, a pseudonym of the chief Catholic propagandist of the day, the Jesuit exile Fr Robert Parsons. This hostile comment from the Protestant Speed slams Shakespeare as a ‘papist’ but it is often overlooked or underestimated because Shakespeare is not actually named in the text.