No more cakes and ale for Catholics

It seems that 'cakes' was the common nomenclature for the wafers used at Mass in renaissance England and 'ales' were the merry parties of Catholics on high-days and holydays before the Reformation. According to Clare Asquith's book Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, featuring the Count Orsino as Duke of Illyria, was performed for Queen Elizabeth herself only a few months after the visit of Duke Orsini, an envoy sent by the Pope to plead with the Queen to return to Rome.

Asquith maintains that the role played by Feste the clown , 'a licensed fool', was similar to that played by Shakespeare himself. Elizabeth by 1601 was wearing black every day, enslaved to the logic of her father's and brother's religious choices (as Olivia is: enslaved by mourning her father and brother). She herself preferred Latin, celibate clergy and ceremony, and hated the puritans; just as we get the impression that Olivia really hates the whole business of formal mourning.

In fact, at court, Elizabeth surrounded herself with Catholic musicians and actors. The optimistic message of Twelfth Night, according to Asquith, is that perhaps a miracle might occur when the oppressed, disguised Catholicism of Elizabethan England (represented by Viola/Cesario) is reunited with its vigorous alter-ego, the more muscular version developing among English exiles in France (Sebastian), and that Eternal Rome represented by Orsino (after all 3 Orsini were Popes and many more of them bishops and cardinals, it seems) could at last be at peace with Olivia/Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen (called 'Madonna' by Feste.)

It is a compelling thesis and is only part of an extremely impressive argument put forward by Asquith, who has marshalled all the relevant scholarship of Cardinal Newman, Peter Milward, Michael Wood and many others to make a case which it is difficult to fault. Certainly anyone in Shakespeare's Elizabethan audience who was looking for comfort for Catholics, would begin to see it everywhere.

We have been reading Asquith, as a way of getting into the Tudor politico-religious mindset, in my A-level English literature class. The boys seem to be enjoying it. Our text, as you will have guessed, is Twelfth Night.

And yes, Lady Clare Asquith is married to the great grandson of the former Prime-Minister, HH Asquith. HHA's wife became a Catholic after his death and the senior part of the Asquith family has been Catholic ever since.

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