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.