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Hi, this site previews some of my research into Anne Line and the reasons why I think she is key to really understanding Shakespeare.

If you have found your way here, I expect that you already know something about Anne Line. As a young woman in the reign of Elizabeth I she was rejected by her Puritan father when she became a Roman Catholic and was later executed for assisting a Catholic priest. Some believe (including me) that Shakespeare eulogised Anne Line as the phoenix of his poem ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’, and makes reference to her in other works. The reason this is so significant is that Anne Line was very closely associated with the Jesuits, the bete noire of the Elizabethan authorities. The implication is that Shakespeare was viscerally opposed to the establishment of his day but his art was ‘tongue-tied’ – the authorities tried and succeeded in taming him, neutralising his critical voice, and making it seem as though he was one of them.

Topical Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s work is usually presented and taught from the point of view of the universal. For example, in terms of what he has to say about human nature and human dilemmas that apply to people of every day and age. However, it is apparent that Shakespeare is also ‘topical’. In other words, he refers very specifically to particular events and issues of his own time. To take an uncontroversial example, the farmer mentioned by the drunk porter in Macbeth is generally recognised to be a reference to the Jesuit Henry Garnet, who used the pseudonym ‘Mr Farmer’. A less well known example is the character Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, that may represent Shakespeare’s fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe1. I think he probably does. Romeo describes him as ‘One who made himself to mar’ (II.iv.111) and repeats the phrase, inviting us to decode it. God is ‘One’; the God who made himself is Christ – thus Christ(opher) Mar(lowe). To take this a little further. ‘Christopher’ actually means ‘Christ-bearer’. We all ‘bear Christ’ in a sense because all people are made in the image of God, but this image is ‘marred’ by our sinfulness and lack of faith. Moreover, it is Lucifer whose self-imposed task it is to ‘mar’ the beauty of God’s creation by urging this process on. Is this a hint that Marlowe had made the kind of pact that he portrayed in his own most enduring play, Doctor Faustus? Many of his contemporaries no doubt thought as much of this creatively brilliant but irreligious and ‘mercurial’ man, with his devil-may-care attitude, readiness for a brawl, and involvement with the internal spy network.2 And that is not even to mention the more lurid accusations (atheism, paedophilia) that were made against him. Shakespeare’s Mercutio could well be a relatively benign portrait of a man whose stabbing to death by a fellow government-agent was probably related to the on-going conflict between the Protestant state system that Marlowe had worked for and the mainly Catholic dissident elements that he seems to have found himself increasingly in sympathy with – thus Mercutio dies cursing ‘both your houses’ (III.i.88-103). The official account of Marlowe’s death had it that a brawl had started over settling the bill at a tavern, leading many to note Touchstone’s words in As You Like It (III.iii):

When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s
good wit seconded with the forward child understanding, it
strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.

Truly, I would the gods had made thee poetical.

These examples of topical references can be taken as more or less incidental. They do not seem fundamental to the plays in which they occur. However, the entire Shakespeare canon can be, and I think should be, interpreted as topical in the first instance.3 What I mean by that is that Shakespeare set out to address the great issues of his day and that is why he produced the work that he did. The universal aspect of his work is actually secondary, it is a by-product of his topical agenda. This, of course, is very far from being the mainstream view of Shakespeare scholars, but it may be that a paradigm shift of this kind needs to take place if we are to ‘delve him to the root’. Asquith (66) puts it like this:

Shakespeare clearly worked from the topical to the universal, not the other way round. Given a choice, he advances the coded plot at the expense of the literal one. This is why The Taming of the Shrew is so uncharacteristically chauvinistic, why The Comedy of Errors is so discursive and why the end of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is so absurdly improbable. Shakespeare’s eye is firmly on the hidden message. But in the course of the difficult job of disguising and dramatising a detailed version of the politics of his day, he has already hit, almost by accident, on the mixture of elements that will make him a writer ‘not of an age, but for all time’.

Martin Dodwell, 16 July 2013


1. Asquith, Shadowplay, 77.
2. See Nicholl, The Reckoning for a fascinating account of the circumstances and background to Marlowe’s death.
3. In my opinion Clare Asquith’s Shadowplay is the most compelling of the various attempts to date to interpret the Shakespeare canon in this way.

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