2020 - Issue Four

Writing in Riddles: The Subversive Role of Language under Tudor Repression

Clare Asquith Download Article

In 1933, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam wrote a short epigram satirizing Josef Stalin. It was later described as a sixteen-line death sentence. Like all Mandelstam’s poetry, it was oblique, but on this occasion not oblique enough: the brutal leader in the poem comes from the Caucasus, he sits in the Kremlin: his moustache wriggles “like a pair of cockroaches.” Mandelstam was arrested, interrogated, and five years later died in a concentration camp. “Only in Russia is poetry respected: it gets people killed,” he wrote. “Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?”

Tyrants and despotic regimes dread the subversive threat of art forms that the liberal west associates with entertainment: drama, painting, music, poetry. And yet censorship is often counter-productive. Allusive and deniable, the arts flourish under repressive governments. It’s even arguable that they have a more profound emotional impact wherever freedom of speech is banned. Artistic expression is rarely as risky and therapeutic as it is in countries where armed police patrol the streets; where theatres and concert halls are regularly raided. We now know that much of Shostakovich’s outwardly conformist music contained a veiled critique of the communist regime. The great Somali poet, Hadrawi, spent five years in jail in the 1970s for a poem that covertly challenged his country’s military regime. Hundreds of years ago in England, William Collingbourne, an opponent of Richard III, was hanged drawn and quartered for “making a small rhyme” criticizing Richard and his aides.

A recent and intriguing school of scholarship proposes that in England a golden age of this kind of oblique political writing occurred during the period of Tudor repression, lasting from the 1530s to the 1590s. Shadowy political themes have been detected in those many flowery Tudor poems, plays and novels that are almost unreadable now. The same thing appears to be going on in certain neglected works of Shakespeare, in particular his longer poems. Were these people, like Mandelstam, writing during a period when a wrong step was a motive for murder? Is that why their work—dense and knotted, perhaps, with lost political reference—has not stood the test of time?

The idea that the English started writing in riddles as soon as Henry VIII began imposing radical religious and social changes on his country makes their work potentially a great deal more interesting. The “complaint” tradition, for instance, appears to be a tedious poetic game in which all Shakespeare’s leading contemporaries and predecessors seemed compelled to take part. Their huge popularity in their own time is puzzling.

There are wordy, complicated monologues by the ghosts of fallen women which seem, at first glance, to have little literary merit. That is, until we notice the significance of a curious common factor, not evident in their titles. All of these poetic subjects are the victims of royal rape. They are women who, when young, have sacred, church-like attributes, and who lose their virtue, beauty and status at the hands of a rapacious king. The poetic treatment of this assaulted figure varies depending on the views of the writer. Michael Drayton’s saintly Matilda manages to resist King John’s assault, but is forced to commit suicide. Thomas Churchyard’s royal mistress is pathetically degraded and humiliated. Daniel’s Rosalind laments that her gravestone with its request for prayers is destroyed, like so many in the tide of iconoclasm that swept through the country in the wake of the English Reformation. Instead she begs the reader to pray for her. It gradually becomes clear that these writers are engaged in a long-running, passionate debate on potentially treasonable topics. They include the validity of Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy, the violent means by which the Reformation was achieved, the acquiescence of the clergy in the takeover.

Towards the end of the period, Shakespeare himself joins in the game. His contributions to the debate were his two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

Critics have often wondered why these works made his name. The first admiring references to him are to Shakespeare the poet, not the playwright. In the 1590s they were far more widely published, quoted and anthologized than his plays. Yet to us they appear to be nothing more than over-long, artificial classical exercises. In the lighter and wittier of the two, Venus and Adonis, a protesting youth is swept from his horse and pinned to the ground by a sexually rapacious Venus. She fails to arouse him but, indirectly, causes his death. Having finally escaped too late to retrieve his horse, he is killed by a monstrous boar.

The second poem, Lucrece, is longer and more ponderous, and was admiringly compared by one contemporary to Hamlet. It is difficult to see why. In remorseless slow-motion, and with many asides, it follows the story of the rape and suicide of the virtuous Lucrece by Tarquin, Rome’s tyrannical prince.

Poetry like this appears to have no political relevance if it is set in the context of the traditional perception of the reign of Elizabeth I, the enlightened queen who wisely steered a middle way between the religious extremes that were convulsing the rest of Europe. The stream of protests by victims of royal enforcement have always been read as mere variations on the ever popular theme of greatness brought low. It is becoming increasingly clear however, that they have another, more pressing, political dimension.

We now know that the second half of the 16th century was not an age of contented consensus in England. To the reformers and Puritans, secular supremacy was as repugnant as the old papal supremacy. To Catholics, the wealth of the Church had been blasphemously hijacked by profiteers, and a new heresy had been forced on a contentedly traditional country at the point of a sword. To the aristocracy, the social order had been scandalously overturned: upstart Protestants, enriched by the destruction of the monasteries, were usurping the governing role of the largely Catholic nobility. As a tide of increasingly desperate resentment gathered force under the charismatic leadership of the young Earl of Essex in the early 1590s, literature and drama became a vital channel for the voice of the opposition. It was at exactly this point, the mid-1590s, that Shakespeare published his poems. He dedicated them to the Earl of Southampton, Essex’s lieutenant. Both were to lead a rebellion against Elizabeth’s regime shortly before her death.

Building on the earlier “complaints,”  but deploying far greater wit and precision than his poetic predecessors, Shakespeare’s two long poems dramatize all the grievances of the many in England who longed for regime change. Repeatedly, Adonis’ predicament at the hands of a predatory queen is aligned with the predicament of young Catholic noblemen like Southampton, by turns wooed and coerced into religious conformity by the queen and her council. The outsize boar that kills him is presented in terms of the enforcers who terrorized anyone—Catholics in particular—who resisted the royal supremacy. A year later, in The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare widens his historical lens. He adds digressions to a familiar Roman tale to provide cover for his account of every stage of what was then called the “great alteration.” He starts with the first stages of Henry VIII’s break with Rome and his takeover of a cowed and bullied church, continues through the long period of destruction and plunder, bewilderment and remorse, and ends at the point the poem was published, the year 1594, when a leader steps forward to inspire a broken, divided country to remove a tyrannical regime.

So effective was the historical winners’ rewriting of Tudor history that, until recently, it was assumed that Essex was an ambitious loner; and that, apart from a few disgruntled minorities, there was no opposition to speak of. But a quick look at the manuscripts circulating unofficially at the time gives a taste of how violently many subjects objected to the new order. John Donne’s satires, unpublished for the next half-century, highlight the brutality of the enforcement, and the impossibility of retaining spiritual integrity under Elizabeth’s rule. Robert Southwell’s “Humble Supplication,” perhaps the finest piece of Elizabethan prose, gives a graphic front-line picture of the sufferings and the despair of ordinary English Catholics. The courtier John Harington, on the surface a conformist, circulated a series of bitter epigrams on the corruption of the new church.

Hints survive that centuries ago, many were aware that officially sanctioned Elizabethan literature was not all it seemed. “The juggling feat of two-edged words,” Thomas Carew called it in 1631, “the subtle feat of sly exchanges.” He was writing at a later period when the religious question appeared to be settled, and he associates the bad old days of poetic double-speak with the subversive Catholic threat. He hopes that “those old idols”—the phony classical tales, the reference-heavy pastorals—will not be “adored again with new apostasy.” Carey’s contemporary, the poet George Herbert, felt the same way. There was no need for coded language now. Others can “riddle” if they like, he says, but he would rather speak directly. “Must all be veiled, while he that reads, divines / Catching the sense at two removes?”

As Mandelstam knew, however, riddling is a valve for the release of tension, for the forbidden expression of dissent. Ted Hughes described the “new Puritan spirit and the old Catholic spirit… deadlocked out of sight, forcibly disarmed and forbidden any physical, direct expression whatsoever, inside Elizabeth’s crucible.” But in the hands of a few bold writers, indirect expression flourished: the country would have done well to attend to what they said. Shortly after Carew and Herbert wrote so comfortably about the new consensus, England erupted into a long and exceptionally bloody civil war, fueled by the bitter religious issues publicly but artfully aired by the Elizabethans. It is worth re-reading Shakespeare in this new light—as an incisive, if covert, political commentator, and master of that half-forgotten Elizabethan art-form, “the juggling feat of two-edged words.”


Clare Asquith worked in publishing, writing and teaching before traveling Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 90s with her husband, Viscount Asquith, a diplomat serving in Moscow and Kiev. The experience led her to publish Shadowplay and Shakespeare and the Resistance. Her work sets Shakespeare and his contemporaries in the context of a political oppression largely ignored by Western literary critics yet, Asquith argues, crucial to a full understanding of 16th century literature.  

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