By Daniel Swift
“Remember, remember the fifth of November,” instructs the old nursery rhyme, and offers a useful summary: “Gunpowder, treason and plot.” But we have never been sure quite what, or how, we should be remembering.
On 5 November 1605 a small gang of Catholics and minor noblemen plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament, during the State Opening at which King James I would be present. One of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, was caught with the gunpowder before he set it off. The other plotters were soon caught, and all were executed.
By government decree, the date was soon declared a national day of thanksgiving and remembrance, but this was at first an anti-Catholic festival, and effigies of the Pope were burned. In the eighteenth century it became popularly known as Guy Fawkes night, and children collected pennies for an effigy called the “guy”; and then in the twentieth century, this became Fireworks Night. Fireworks are surely a tasteless way to commemorate an explosion that didn’t happen: if we enjoy the fireworks, surely we are also relishing precisely what Fawkes wished for? However, 5 November has always been an uneasy holiday, and a celebration, perhaps, of misdirected sympathy.
Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, written in late 1605 or early 1606, remembers the fifth of November not with fireworks but as a moment of terror. A copy of a manual of equivocation was found in the possession of one of the plotters: it advised English Catholics to “equivocate,” or to speak in ambiguous double statements under interrogation, thus both avoiding the sin of lying and also preserving their safety. The author of the pamphlet, Henry Garnet, was tried and executed for involvement in the plot, and in the second act of Macbeth the porter at the gate of the castle mocks this Catholic martyr. “Who’s there?” he asks, and continues: “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.” This is one of the very few decisive contemporary allusions in Shakespeare’s plays.
The subject was controversial. In 1603, King James of Scotland had inherited the throne of England, and two years later his subjects tried to assassinate him; shortly after, Shakespeare chose to write a play about the successful assassination of a Scottish monarch. He had every reason to tread carefully. Since James’ accession to the throne, Shakespeare’s company of players had been granted royal patronage, and performed under the official name of “The King’s Men”. They relied upon the king’s generosity, particularly when the commercial theatres were closed due to outbreaks of the plague and royal performances were a vital source of income. A modern analogy might be helpful here. Imagine, for example, that in the weeks after 11 September 2001, an American theatre company apply for public funds to stage a new play. They want to stage it in the White House, before the president and his invited guests. And the play will present a sympathetic view of a Muslim who hijacks a plane.
In controversy lies good drama; Shakespeare knew this. In courting danger, and in shocking the audience, his plays achieve their magic. They are never only of one side. But Shakespeare had, too, a more personal interest in the heated religious tensions of this specific moment. Immediately after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, new laws were passed which aimed to expose secret Catholics: church attendance was carefully watched, and on 5 May 1606 twenty-one people at Stratford upon Avon were charged with not having received Communion at church. Among them was Susannah, Shakespeare’s oldest daughter. We cannot know, now, if this suggests that she was Catholic, but we can know that she at this moment of political tension resisted going to church; that she felt, for a moment, on the side of those opposed to the king. This much Shakespeare knew, too, as he wrote a play at whose heart is the ambiguous, sympathetic portrayal of a man who kills a king and who is punished for it. 5 November, for us as for Shakespeare, is a reminder of what it might be to find oneself on the wrong side, or to be torn.
Daniel Swift is Senior Lecturer for English at the New College of the Humanities. His first book Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot’s War was long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award and the Samuel Johnson Prize. His latest work, Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Ageis scheduled for publication in the autumn. Read his OUPblog article about 15 August 1040: the day Macbeth killed King Duncan I of Scotland.
Image credits: The Gunpowder Conspirators, from a print published immediately after the discovery [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]; Guy Fawkes before King James By Sir John Gilbert [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons].