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Macbeth and the Gunpowder Plot
By Caius Marcius

I just finished reading an interesting study of Macbeth, Garry Wills' 1995 Witches & Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth, that I don't believe I've seen previously mentioned on HLAS (the humanities.literature.authors.shakespeare Newsgroup, where this message first appeared in October last year).

Wills begins with the question: Why has Shakespeare's play Macbeth proven so consistently difficult to stage successfully? Why does it have the reputation of a "cursed" play? Wills believes the main reason is that the play is heavily "front-loaded" for modern audiences: that is, the excitement and intensity of the play's first half is not matched by its (seemingly) anticlimactic second half (an issue which came up for HLAS discussion last May). However, Wills maintains, the problems with Macbeth's second half is not due to an artistic failure on Shakespeare's part, but on our inability to properly interpret what Shakespeare was attempting to evoke: "It is not enough to read Macbeth in isolation. We have to know something else about what was said, sung and staged at the time. We have to be sensitive to language that bristled with the ideology of the period".

Wills sees the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 as the central inspiration for Macbeth (an interpretation advanced previously by A.L. Rowse and others, but not in as much depth as Wills). The Plot was an attempt by a cell of Catholic conspirators to assassinate the King along with the entire government of England. Through the late summer and early autumn of 1605, the conspirators smuggled barrels of gunpowder into a cellar beneath the Parliament, and planned to detonate the gunpowder on 5 November, 1605, as the King addressed Parliament. The King would be accompanied by the Prince and the rest of the royal government, who would have all been killed if the Plot had been successful. The Plot was discovered on 4 November, just hours before James' scheduled appearance before Parliament. The King's security forces intercepted a letter from one of the conspirators that warned a friend to stay away from Parliament on 5 November because of a "blow" that would be received. James had a "mysterious hunch" that the "blow" alluded to gunpowder (through which his father died), and ordered a search of Parliament. The explosive kegs were discovered in the vault of Parliament.

National reaction was strong, and it reverberated for decades (many years later, Milton would have Satan use gunpowder during the war in Heaven). There was relief that the plot was discovered, and panic that the conspirators were able to advance their schemes so far. As the conspirators were bought to trial, the Crown effectively orchestrated the national response (such as the creation of Guy Fawkes Day); national outrage was expressed through a number of channels both official (speeches by the King, Parliament, church and government officials), and unofficial, including pamphlets, poetry, and, most importantly for our purposes, several plays that premiered in the 1606-07 season -- including Barnabe Barnes' The Devil's Charter (the Borgia Pope Alexander VI contracts with the Devil to prevail against his opponents); Thomas Dekker's The Whore of Babylon (a papal plot against Queen Elizabeth); John Marston's Sophonisba, and Shakespeare's Macbeth. These plays all share a number of thematic elements: "witches, a necromancy scene, regicide attempted or completed, references to equivocation, scenes that test loyalty by use of deceptive language, and a character who sees through plots -- along with a vocabulary closely connected to the Plot in its immediate aftermath (words like "train", "blow" and "vault") and an ironic recoil of the Plot upon the Plotters".

Wills explores in considerable detail the symbolic significance of witches to the Gunpowder Plot. The sacrilege that the conspirators attempted against the head of Church and State was often compared to witchcraft, a link that the Gunpowder plays dramatically employ. Those who would explain away the witches as mere manifestations of Macbeth's inner ambitions are mistaken, and the usual omission of the Hecate scenes impairs the "internal logic" of the witches being part of a "larger demonic world". Wills' exploration of Elizabethan black magic makes it clear that Macbeth's scene with the witches in Act IV is no mere consultation; he is binding himself to the powers of evil as irrevocably as Marlowe's Faustus. Macbeth, has become, in effect a male witch, and like Faust is damned beyond redemption from this point on. The fact that the conspirators were Catholic linked them in the popular imagination with Jesuits. And the Jesuits themselves were often connected to witchcraft. Henry Garnet's A Treatise on Equivocation was found in the possession of one of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. This treatise, which was intended to address the question of how Catholics should answer authority if questioned upon their religion, lent itself to the usual claim that Jesuits were trying to "to lie like truth". The equivalence of opposites (fair is foul and foul is fair), double-dealing, deception, and of course "equivocation" itself figures prominently not only in Macbeth but in the other Gunpowder Plays as well.

    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:
    O, come in, equivocator. (II,iii)

Wills believes that Shakespeare's audience would have understood that it is Garnet himself that the porter is addressing in this famous scene (greeting him three times, as the witches hailed Macbeth under three titles). Wills, however, does not try to reduce Macbeth to simplistic propaganda. He notes for example that Shakespeare allows Malcolm to use "equivocation" (IV,iii) to test Macduff's loyalties. Wills states that performers must revitalize the role of Malcolm - who Wills sees as practicing a kind of "white magic" against Macbeth's "black magic" - playing upon his symbolic representation as the discerning King James. Unlike most works of literary criticism, Wills offers a number of specific suggestions on how particular scenes and actions might be staged. I'd be interested in hearing if anyone else has seen this book, or at least has heard these arguments.

Reproduced by permission of Caius Marcius. Originally posted to the humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare newsgroup on 15 October, 1997.


[1] Wills, Garry, "Witches & Jesuits", 1995

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