Early work contained references interpreted as decrying Catholic persecution.
Clare Asquith, the Countess of Oxford and Asquith, has made a study of his early poem The Rape of Lucrece, a 2,000-line epic that seems to be neither about the rape of a Roman noblewoman nor really a poem. Asquith believes that it is, in fact, a political pamphlet that sides against England’s persecution of the Catholic population.
Through diligent study of the work, Clare has reinterpreted The Rape of Lucrece as an account of the 1534 Act of Supremacy — the edict that established King Henry VIII of England and subsequent monarchs as the supreme heads of the Church of England — and the subsequent destruction of old Catholic England.
In the poem, Lucrece, wife of Collatine, was raped by Tarquin, the son of the king of Rome. The story goes that the crime spurred an insurrection, led by Collatine’s friend Brutus. The uprising would eventually lead to the first Roman Republic.
Lady Asquith’s new interpretation likens the destruction in the poem to the systematic destruction of the Catholic Church in England. In the years after the Act of Supremacy, the Church’s infrastructure was destroyed and its lands taken and sold.
“His audience would have understood the references contained in the poem, whether it was the King, the Court or its victims,” she said. “The Catholics and the reformers were the victims and he uses terminology that would have provided comfort to them and make a plea to the court for tolerance.
“The Rape of Lucrece is an extended allegory for what happened to England, to the Catholics and the reformers at the hands of the newly established church and the Privy Council, led by William Cecil, the man who set up the first secret services and had a file on pretty much everyone.”
The Rape of Lucrece was previously viewed as one of Shakespeare’s lesser works, but now it is receiving more attention. It was written during his early years, when he was attempting to land a wealthy patron. Asquith speculates the poem may have been commissioned by the Earl of Southampton or the Earl of Essex; both men were in favor of religious tolerance. Her entire argument is highlighted in Asquith’s new book: The Earl of Southampton, the Essex Rebellion and the Poems that Challenged Tudor Tyranny.
Clare was inspired to study Shakespeare’s works more closely after noting the coded messages in plays written by Soviet dissidents during the Cold War. She says it’s been difficult for literary critics to identify the political nature of Shakespeare’s works, but she hopes that her new argument will enlighten all those who study the works of the Bard:
“He was far from apolitical and we only think he was because we don’t know what the sides were,” she said. “All his work has a political undertext which we don’t recognize because we don’t recognize the history and events to which he is alluding.
“But he was, in a veiled way, referring to the political disputes of the time. The Rape of Lucrece is about life under a police state and the attempt at regime change.”