Macbeth and the Gunpowder Plot
By Mercedes Rochelle
By Mercedes Rochelle
It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the link between Shakespeare’s famous play and the event that nearly shook England’s ruling class to its knees. The Gunpowder Plot was a carefully planned event with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder stashed under the House of Lords in order to blow King James and his government sky-high. Most fortunately—as the story goes—it was foiled by a last-minute letter to Lord Monteagle warning him not to attend Parliament the next day. A timely search of the basement exposed Guy Fawkes and his stockpile before he had the opportunity to apply the fuse. England celebrated its miraculous escape from disaster, and the king’s men went after the conspiracy with a vengeance.
|Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, Contemporary engraving, National Portrait Gallery, Source: Wikipedia.|
What did this have to do with Shakespeare? Well, as it turns out, Warwickshire was a hotbed of conspirators, and some properties near Stratford-Upon-Avon had been leased to provide a meeting house for the plotters. Worse than that, the town was full of closet Catholics known as recusants—and Shakespeare may have been one of them. A search of the properties in question revealed a hoard of forbidden Catholic paraphernalia—or “massing relics”, as they were called. William Shakespeare, unfortunately, was distantly related to some of the plotters themselves and had business relationships with others. Talk about guilt by association!
Since we know next to nothing about Shakespeare, we can only speculate about his motivations. But I suspect appeasing the king might have been on his mind. Not so coincidentally, less than a year after the gunpowder plot we see the first performance of Macbeth, demonstrating the consequences of killing a king. Shakespeare also gives a nod to James’s lineage—Banquo was recognized as the ancestor to the Stewarts—as well as a reference to witches—a theme close to the monarch’s heart. It was commonly thought that diabolical agents were responsible for the most evil of human activities.
Macbeth consulting the vision of the armed head, by Henry Fuseli. Source: Wikipedia.
But that’s not all. Renowned Shakespearean historian James Shapiro tells us that a discovery during the gunpowder plot investigation introduced a new word to the English lexicon: equivocation. Actually, the word wasn’t new; it was just redefined and “had become a byword that transfixed the nation and suffused the play he was writing”.1 The government badly needed a scapegoat—a leader—and they found him in the guise of Jesuit Superior Henry Garnet, who had written a treatise advising Catholics how to lie under oath during interrogation, while seeming to tell the truth. It was a play on words extraordinaire.
A diligent search of the Inner Temple in London had uncovered this amazing manuscript, with a crossed-out title: “A Treatise of Equivocation” which had been changed to “A Treatise of Lying and Fraudulent Equivocation”. Here, too, the word “of” was crossed out and changed to “against”, but no one was fooled; the authorities had, in their hands, a how-to guide for evading prosecution. For example, “You could deny that you were harboring a priest by saying that the priest ‘lyeth not in my house,’ since he wasn’t telling lies there.”2
Whether the treatise had anything to do with the gunpowder plot was irrelevant; Garnet apparently knew about the conspiracy and kept silent. This was good enough, and so much better than prosecuting a handful of disgruntled Catholic gentry. Now the detested fingers of the Jesuits were all over the plot, and the treatise took on a major role in the legal proceedings. The word equivocation had gone viral, so to speak, and a high-profile trial of Garnet himself ended in the inevitable conviction of treason.
|Anonymous portrait of Friar Henry Garnet, Source: Wikipedia.|
In Macbeth, as Professor Shapiro tells us, “Equivocation permeates the play”. The witches equivocate when they tell Macbeth he shall be king—not informing him that he will need to kill in order to get the crown. And of course, later on, they equivocate, telling him he should never be vanquished ‘till Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. Macbeth equivocates to his wife, not telling her that Banquo’s heirs will be kings rather than his own. He equivocates when he kills the guards, then again when he hires Banquo’s murderers. Lady Macbeth equivocates when she tells the banquet guests that “my lord is often thus” after they watch him shriek at an empty chair. Even Lady McDuff equivocates, pretending to her son that his absent father is dead. But the most telling aspect of all is the porter scene, in which the word equivocate is used over and over again:
“Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’ other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator.”
The word is used five times by the porter and later, once by Macbeth. There’s no doubt that equivocation truly is the byword this time around, made even more interesting that it is only used once in all Shakespeare’s plays written before Macbeth.
As he often did, Shakespeare wrote his play in response to concerns pervading London society. A fear of unseen forces was very real to his contemporaries, and Macbeth would have struck a chord in the unsettled atmosphere pervading King James’s court. One wonders what the playgoers might have thought when passing underneath the severed heads of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, while crossing London Bridge from Southwark on their way home.
1 Shapiro, James, THE YEAR OF LEAR, SHAKESPEARE IN 1606, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2015, p.156
2 ibid, p.158
2 ibid, p.158
HEIR TO A PROPHECY
HEIR TO A PROPHECY
Chapter 1: Ambush
Fleance barely slowed his step as Banquo stopped again, removing a rock from his shoe. He and his father were already late to the king's banquet, and a half mile still stretched between them and the castle gate. It had seemed like a fine idea a couple of hours ago, taking a walk to get away from that hostile environment. There had been too many uncomfortable pauses in conversation, too many unfinished phrases, too many sideways glances. But now, dusk was quickly deepening into night, and it was getting difficult to see into the forest. There was probably a spy in every tree, for all he could tell.
The young man’s curly hair blew about his face as he looked up at the treetops. High cheekbones accentuated dark brown eyes as he raised his brows to see better through the shadows. His fine square chin gave him a profile he was proud of, and he went beardless, disregarding the current fashion. But his mouth, usually so prone to laughter, was pursed tonight in frustration.
"Blast this uphill climb," he grumbled as Banquo adjusted his cloak clasp. He glanced at his father wryly; this reticence was most unusual for him. His father grunted a response, but finally shifted his belt, shaking off his lethargy. Picking up their pace, father and son strode deep into the forest.
It was a quiet night, punctuated by the crunch of stones underfoot. Not a cricket was heard, nor birds, only the sigh of leaves rustling far overhead.
"It shall be rain tonight," Banquo said.
From behind came the cry: "Let it come down!"
In an instant, three dark forms were among them. Banquo was their main target, and two of them fell upon him, slashing the startled man in the face. The worthy lord was blinded by his own blood even as he shouted, "Villains, Murderers! Fly, Fleance, Fly!"
Though past his physical prime, the old warrior still was more than a match for both opponents. With a practiced motion, Banquo swept his sword from the scabbard, aiming an overhead cut at his nearest attacker's head. If the blow had hit, he would have cleaved the man's skull. But the blood was flowing so fast into his eyes that his aim was flawed. The blade only glanced off the other's shoulder, eliciting a howl of pain.
Enraged, the murderer dived at Banquo, catching him in the throat with a dagger. Letting go the knife, the man stepped back, clutching his arm; he was astounded that Banquo was still on his feet. For a moment, it seemed that their victim would respond with a last lunge. Then he staggered, gurgling, and collapsed into the arms of his murderers.
Fleance was already in motion before his father had shouted. Shoving his torch into the third assassin's face, he set the man's mask aflame. Screaming, clawing his face, the murderer went down, his feet kicked out from under him.
Fleance allowed himself a brief sneer. Then, wasting no more time, he moved toward the others when he saw the killers slashing Banquo's face. The boy hesitated, reluctant to abandon his father. But the assassins were too good at their work. Even from this distance he could tell that Banquo was already finished; his body gave no more sign of life.
It was also clear that their companion’s screaming made no impression on them; the assassins must have assumed that the victim was himself. Cursing, Fleance took advantage of the confusion. He stamped out his torch, kicked his assailant once more as the man was struggling up, and ran for his life.
Murder gave the forest a sinister cast. The trees seemed to bend their limbs before him, seeking to block his way. Fleance's breath came in short gasps, heightening the pain in his side as he ran frantically the way he had come.
His first thought was to go to Macbeth and raise a search party to ride down these outlaws. Then, a deeper, more telling conviction assailed him, though he knew not whence it came: perhaps the murderers were not there by chance. Perhaps they were paid assassins, in which case he could trust no one.
He considered, leaning against a tree and catching his breath. He wasn’t going anywhere without a horse, and both horses were still stabled at the castle. Going any closer to that accursed place was the last thing he wanted to do; however, he reminded himself that no one besides the assassins would know that there had been any trouble.
It was a risk. Perhaps they would lie in wait for him near the stables and finish the job. But he had a feeling that they would be too busy tending their wounds. Despite himself, Fleance smiled grimly.
He looked slowly around the tree and up the path. Everything was quiet. He took one step then another, resisting the urge to break into a run. This was no time to panic. He needed to keep his senses about him. He looked one more time in all directions, then began striding quickly toward the castle, hand on his dagger.
No one stopped him at the castle gate and Fleance went directly to the stabler’s door. He knocked quickly then stepped back, looking around. There was no indication he was being followed yet.
The stabler took his time answering, his face breaking into a scowl when he recognized Fleance; he hadn’t expected anyone to leave for some hours yet. But when the youth held out a penny, his mouth curled into a greedy sneer and he quickly came out, making the coin disappear as he passed.
Fleance watched him go into the stable, resisting the urge to shout at the other to hurry up. The man seemed to take an inordinately long time, then he came out—alone.
"What about t’other?"
"I only need one now. Is he ready?"
The man shrugged. "Whatever you want." He opened the stable door and Fleance sighed with relief to see that his horse was saddled. Without another word he mounted, offering no explanation for his hasty conduct and rode off, leaving the man scratching his head.
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HEIR TO A PROPHECY
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Mercedes Rochelle is an ardent lover of medieval history, and has channeled this interest into fiction writing. She believes that good Historical Fiction, or Faction as it's coming to be known, is an excellent way to introduce the subject to curious readers. Her first four books cover eleventh-century Britain and events surrounding the Norman Conquest of England. Her new project is called “The Plantagenet Legacy” and begins with the reign of Richard II. She also writes a blog: HistoricalBritainBlog.com to explore the history behind the story. Born in St. Louis, MO, she received by BA in Literature at the Univ. of Missouri St.Louis in 1979 then moved to New York in 1982 while in her mid-20s to "see the world". The search hasn't ended! Today she lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.