With The Da Vinci Code still the year's soaraway best-seller, religious cyphers are very much in literary vogue. A contender has stepped forward to challenge Dan Brown, however, and decode a secret history that proves rather more favourable to Catholics.
Clare Asquith " or Viscountess Asquith, to give her the proper title " has done something that has dropped an almighty stone into the tranquil waters of academia and created ripples that will spread far and wide. She's been labelled a 'conspiracy theorist' by Polly Toynbee in The Guardian and accused of 'floating above the facts' by Professor Stanley Wells on the Today programme. For Asquith has written a book which, play by play, sets out to prove that Shakespeare was a papist.
Amid the Da Vinci hype, this Catholic mother of five has been working quietly in her Somerset farm to decode a secret history of her own discovery, and to reclaim the nation's greatest poet for her country's 'old religion'. Her journey has taken her from the former Soviet Union, via the libraries of ancient monasteries, to a book tour of the United States.
When I meet Clare at a friend's Notting Hill townhouse, she sits neatly at the dining-room table with a glass of water and tries, in a soft and reasonable voice, to persuade me of her thesis. 'People haven't picked up the extent to which the language he uses is a code,' she explains. 'But I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude to Shakespeare, because he keeps his markers so rigorously.'
The elements of the cypher " touches of liturgy, adaptations of contemporary politics to the characters of the plays, even a simple glossary of new and old, true and false, light and dark " are traced carefully through close textual analysis.
The book has taken her five years to write, but Asquith dates her inspiration to a moment in Russia in the 1970s where she quite candidly admits that her husband, Raymond, the great-grandson of the prime minister Herbert Asquith, was a spy.
'That moment, when we first arrived in Russia, I have vivid memories of my husband being taken aside by a member of the British embassy, who had been there for ages, and having explained to him real secrets, things other people simply didn't know " who were genuinely dissidents and who weren't. This sudden immersion in the covert world was a deep experience; we had people following us down the street, decoys and counter-decoys. It was a terribly complicated shadow world.'
With her husband, she used to go to the theatre and watch dissident drama, disguised to seem favourable to the state or just irrelevant to contemporary politics. It suddenly dawned on Asquith that if Soviet artists could dissent without it being obvious to censors, the same would almost certainly have happened through history " including during the repression of Catholics in reformation England.
'People had to be very brave and I suppose it was my first entry, as a sheltered English person, into a world where courage was very important, and where courage existed in the artistic world,' she says. 'That is why, in the last paragraph of the book, I make the point that Shakespeare was a very courageous man.'
She sets Shakespeare's courage firmly in its time, an era of turmoil, repression and censorship, with an active Catholic resistance working to undermine the state's new religion. These troubles are the 'storms' of the plays, and his heroes' constancy in love equates to constancy of belief.
This is not the first time the suggestion of a Catholic bard has been made. Writers such as Michael Woods have put forward the thesis in works of historical scholarship, but this is the first time an attempt has been made to prove it through textual criticism. And all the research is new.
According to Asquith's reading, within Shakespeare's language the 'red rose' was a widely used coded symbol for the old religion itself, and his 'sunburned' heroines (Viola, Imogen and Portia) are close to God. …