Macbeth, Equivocation and the Gunpowder Plot

Blog post written by Shannon Murray, publicist for our production of Macbeth. Shannon is a Professor is the faculty of English Language and Literature at the University of Prince Edward Island.

The Gunpowder Plot’s characters. From BBC Website.

The story of which Macbeth is based was not recent history for Shakespeare.  The King Macbeth of legend was to have lived in the 11thcentury, but Shakespeare may have been alluding throughout the play to one of the most notorious events of his own time: the foiled Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

That plot involved a conspiracy of Roman Catholic supporters who managed to tunnel under the Palace of Westminister (now the English Houses of Parliament) and plant an impressive  cache of explosives before they were discovered just a day before the planned explosion.  Their target was King James (the 1st of England and 6th of Scotland).  James, by the way, believed himself to be descended of Banquo, and he also loved the theatre (but preferred short plays) and believed and wrote about the dangers of witchcraft, so this play was right up his royal alley.

As you can imagine, the discovery of the plot before the attack could happen was heralded as a delivery by God; even to this day, children across England – as I did when I was a little (Catholic!) girl in London – celebrate the day by carrying stuffed “Guys” from door to door demanding “a penny for the guy.”  (Well, when I was a kid, it was already “a sixpence for the guy,” so I imagine it’s now a pound.)  At the end of the night all the “Guys” are thrown on massive bonfires to celebrate – even 400 years later – what would have been Renaissance England’s 9/11.

The “Guy” the children are talking about is Guy Fawkes, one of the conspirators and focus of sensational trials that were the talk of England for years after.  Tried along with Guy Fawkes was Father Garnet, a Jesuit priest who was especially noted for his ability to answer a question from his inquisitors with equivocation.  To “equivocate” means to speak  doubly, to say one thing and have it taken two ways, or even to speak in a way that will be deliberately misunderstood.  Garnet would not lie, but neither would he speak plainly.

So when Macbeth’s Porter welcomes a variety of people through Hell’s Gate, and one of them is an “equivocator, that could swear on both the scales against

either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven,”  Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would get the reference: he’s talking about Father Garnet.  That event was as familiar and fresh for them as 9/11 would have been for New Yorkers.

But of course, that’s not the only example of equivocation: the whole play depends on those great equivocators, the three weird sisters, who can speak the truth and lie at the same time.   It is true that Macbeth will be safe until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, but Macbeth thinks that’s a good thing for him: the witches know it isn’t.  And throughout the play, what one speaks and what one means are not the same.   The play explores political equivocation.

 So Macbeth is about distant Scots history, and it may flatter some of James’s preferences: but it is also a very topical play, one that reminds Londoners of how close they came to disaster and of the sensational trials that followed: “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, / The gunpowder, treason and plot; / I see no reason why gunpowder treason / Ever should be forgot.”

Of course, more recently Guy Fawkes has been resurfacing as the face of “Anonymous” and of the Occupy movement. I wonder what Shakespeare – and the Porter – would have made of that.




Malcolm, Ross and Duncan use practice props at a hot July rehearsal

Props: short for properties.  From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: “A theatrical property, commonly referred to as a prop, is an object used on stage by actors to further the plot or story line of a theatrical production. Smaller props are referred to as “hand props”. Larger props may also be set decoration, such as a chair or table.”

While (I suppose) you can stage a show that features actors on a black empty stage and depends entirely on dialogue and emotion, it would be pretty boring.  One of my favourite aspects of producing a show is finding and creating props: it demands creativity, thinking outside the box, and if you’re an amateur group, borrowing, scrounging and making do.

So what props does Macbeth need?  Well, for starters, there are numerous battles, murders, and fights, so there must be weapons, shields, knives and blood (about which more later.)  This production of Macbeth has been fortunate to have a connection to an expert on period weapons and fighting techniques so we have weapons ranging from pikes and daggers to broad axes and bows.  One of the highlights of the show will be a sword fight between Macduff and Macbeth in the final scene.

There is a banquet scene in the play that demands formality – but we’re playing this out of doors.  Four picnic tables have been brought in to join the one in the park and each will be fitted out with a tablecloth, pewter or clay vessels, and baskets and bowls of food.  And, because this play is being staged to encourage audience participation, 24 attendees at each show will sit at four of the picnic tables and drink something potable while Banquo’s ghost haunts Macbeth.

Later in the show the audience will pick up tree branches to carry Birnam Wood to Dunsinane. It is the props team’s job  to get enough tree branches for an audience of 100 to join the cast in the march on Macbeth’s castle.

One of the more challenging aspects of props for this show are the ingredients for the witches’ cauldron, not to mention the cauldron itself.  It is a credit to the director that this scene, which could easily descend to farce, will not.  We’re still looking for some items: anyone out there have a wolf’s tooth or a shark’s stomach?

Earlier I mentioned blood. One person has taken on the task of coming up with several recipes for blood: blood for the battle casualties (which can be left in from one show to the next), blood for daggers and hands, and blood for clothes that will need to be cleaned.  Experiments are proceeding with poster paint, finger paints, cocoa, peanut butter, dish soap, but not corn syrup (a component of many recipes) as this may attract ants and would require thorough cleaning between shows.

When you watch the show, you will hardly be conscious of the hundreds of props, but without them, many a scene would not unfold with such drama and realism.


Swords from an earlier ACT play will be cleaned up and reused in Macbeth.