Tonight many in England will celebrate an occasion known as Bonfire Night. They celebrate this day to mark the moment King James I was saved from the Gunpowder Plot (along with many in his government) when Guy Fawkes was thwarted in his attempt to blow up England’s Parliament using gunpowder hidden beneath the building during an official government meeting.
While King Lear was technically the very next play performed by William Shakespeare (in December 1605, just one month after the Gunpowder Plot) and contains many nods to the state of James’ government, the real play most connected to The Gunpowder Plot is Macbeth.
This play, which is nothing short of truly masterful in it’s power and poignancy, was the play whose performance would silence all doubt about William Shakespeare’s involvement, or suspected treasonous connections, in the aftermath of The Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
Join us in continuing the legacy of William Shakespeare by becoming a patron. Patrons help support our work and in return, get access to exclusive content like video versions of the podcast, detailed history guides, and monthly events like virtual tours and exclusive interviews. Become a patron today!
William Shakespeare’s personal connection to the Gunpowder Plot was so ingrained, that when you know it, it makes sense for the playwright to go out of his way to declare his loyalty in the most ostentatious way he could: through his performance of a play.
The gunpowder traitors were a small group of angry Catholics who thought that if James was gone, Protestantism would be gone, and they sought to overthrow the government through blowing it up, literally.
Robert Catesby (Whose father was one of Shakespeare’s father’s best friends) was one of the plotters in The Gunpowder Plot, and this man had confessed to Garnet that it was his intention to kill the King. Obeying the Seal of the Confessional, Garnet kept his knowledge a secret. During his trial to determine if he was guilty of treason for not revealing his knowledge of the plot, Garnet tried to say he was using equivocation and could not be held guilty of lying or plotting against the King.
In the trial, this defense was not accepted. Garnet was deeply damaged and would go on to be convicted, hanged, drawn, and quartered for his role in the plot against the King.
Use this Hand Illustrated Print to Explore The Theaters and Inns of 1600 London
Early in Elizabethan times, players performed at any public house that would allow it include Inns and Play yards. In this map of 1600 London, you can see the locations of several of the theaters of London and while this map does not include all of the smaller churches and inns which might have houses plays, it shows most of the major competing playhouses that rivaled Shakespeare when he was writing for the The Globe, and the Blackfriars playhouse.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter right here and immediately download this map as our free gift.
John Shakespeare and William Catesby shared illegal Catholic writings that eventually wound up in the attic of John’s home in Stratford. No one knows why they are there, and historians even debate John or William Shakespeare’s knowledge of the papers. As you might expect, the occurrence does raise eyebrows.
A fanciful 19th-century depiction of Shakespeare and his contemporaries at the Mermaid Tavern. Painting by John Faed, 1851. (Public Domain Image) The Mermaid Tavern burned down in 1666, but was originally on Cheapside in London, east of St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was the site of the legendary “Fraternity of Sireniacal Gentlemen”, a drinking club that met on the first Friday of every month and included Ben Jonson, John Donne, John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, among many other literary giants. Although he cannot be placed there definitively, a popular lore holds that the group included William Shakespeare. Whether Shakespeare attended or not, he did know the tavern’s landlord, William Johnson. When Shakespeare bought the Blackfriars gatehouse on March 10, 1613, Johnson was listed as a trustee for the mortgage. Source
It is hard for some to imagine William Shakespeare, his family, or his friends and connections, were not aware or at least had inklings of the plot itself.
Now, if we as historians a full 400 years away from the events themselves find ourselves casually suspicious at these facts, imagine what it must have been like in a country torn by religion, tense under the reign of a new King seeking to unify a divided nation, and primed to be paranoid at anything hinting of potential treason.
So I ask you: If you had the chance, in those circumstances, to prove your loyalty beyond a shadow of a doubt through a performance of a politically charged play before the King himself, would you?
“Guy Fawkes before King James” 1869-1870 Painting by Sir John Gilbert. Wikimedia Commons
Macbeth was staged in December of 1606, just one year after The Gunpowder Plot.
Not only is it The Scottish Play, but there are numerous connections to King James:
More specifically, the character of Banquo is a nod to King James personally. King James is said to have been descended from Banquo the thane of Lochquhaber, and actual historical figure whom many historians believe Shakesepare used as the basiss for the character of Banquo in his play.
Therefore, when the three witch sisters in the play prophesy that Banquo’s ancestors will be kings, followed by Banquo’s son escaping the murder plot, Shakespeare is making the statement (remember this play is performed in front of James I), that Banquo’s historical son, King James, also escaped a murder plot, and that his house, the House of Stuart, represent not only legitimate, but truly-descended rulers of England.
Shakespeare is using his performance to express his loyalty to the King.
King Mac Bethad mac Findláich c. 1005–August 15, 1057; Macbeth took the throne after killing his cousin, King Duncan I, in battle in 1040. According to historians, his character was largely embellished for Shakespeare’s version of his life, playing a role in a bigger plot than the story on stage for our favorite bard. Read the real story (and source for this image) of the historical Macbeth here.
Then later in the play when the Porter says:
Knock, knock! Who’s there, in the 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. Oh, come in, equivocator.
The use of the word equivocation was not just a common phrase or use of a modern word. At the time this play was staged, Equivocation was a controversial idea to say the least in England. The concept was a Jesuit belief that Catholics were allowed to lie in order to avoid incriminating themselves and it would not be considered lying in the sight of God. The practice was one that meant a priest, for example, could avoid the sin of lying if they used ambiguous words or phrases in their answers to authorities, even if their statements implied something that was untrue.
They say that he ‘shall never vanquish’d be until/ Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/ Shall come against him’ and that ‘none of woman born/ Shall harm Macbeth’ (4.1) Their implication is that he is not able to be harmed. So Macbeth acts as if that is true.
Later, he discovers, as Garnet did at his trial, that equivocal deceptions must be doubted. Macbeth discovers (too late) that he must ‘begin/ To doubt the equivocation of the fiend,/ That lies like truth’ (5.5).
“Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.”
That reference is specifically to King James’ creation of a medal commemorating the Gunpowder Plot. The medal pictures a snake hiding amongst the flowers.
“This silver medal was struck in Holland in 1605 to commemorate the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in England and the expulsion of the Jesuits (a Catholic ministry) from Holland. When Lady Macbeth urges Macbeth to ‘look like th’ innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t’ (1.5.65–66), she echoes the image of the medal – well known to Shakespeare’s audience – and associates their planned deception of Duncan with Jesuit treason and the Gunpowder Plot.” Source
Whether he was bodily on stage or not, it’s clear that the play, Macbeth, was masterfully designed, down to intricate detail, to declare and prove the loyalty of William Shakespeare to King James.
Had the Gunpowder Plot succeeded, it would have fully changed the entire course of European history forever. In watching Shakespeare’s depiction of a villain who greedily and lustily seeks power and to toss the balance of power in his favor, piling up murder after murder to do so, the court of King James must have been waiting on pins and needles to see what the monarch would say.
It’s a mark of Shakespeare’s personality, and a revealing aspect of his character that he chose to make his statement in this way, given that if his goal were merely to flatter the King, there were easier ways. Instead, Shakespeare chooses to make clear who he is, what he is about, and his position towards James I with an elaborate piece of impressive artwork intricately designed to tell not just Macbeth’s story, but Shakespeare’s as well.
The celebration of Bonfire Night is a marked event to burn Guy Fawkes in effigy, and to remember the 5th of November, celebrating the history of England. I would like to suggest that we also celebrate Macbeth, and the role the telling of this play and the legacy of William Shakespeare himself plays in the remembrance of the history of England.
So whether you are eating a slice of parkin, bobbing for apples, enjoying hot chocolate, or shooting off fireworks to commemorate the day, remember this 5th of November, the playwright whose reputation survives today intact, and in honor, is because of his masterful understanding of the power of telling a good story to the right audience.
And they told you art would never get you anywhere. 😉 Do your art, and may I suggest, today is a great day to see a performance of Macbeth, remembering that being good at what you’re good at just might one day save your life.
Monthly Activity Kits
History activity kits that work like science labs for Shakespeare history. Dive into the past and learn games, recipes and crafts from the life of William Shakespeare. Monthly activity kits come with video tutorials, supply lists, step by step instructions, and detailed history guides.