The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0851 Tuesday, 3 May 2005
From: Al Magary <
Date: Monday, 02 May 2005 00:57:16 -0700
Subject: "Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot" at the Globe
Excerpt from Richard Morrison's column, "Remember, remember, the spin of
November..." today (May 2) at the Times Online:
..[T]his year marks the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. And the
first commemorative show has already opened. It is a stunning exhibition
at the Globe theatre in London called /Shakespeare and the Gunpowder
Plot/, which intriguingly involves the Metropolitan Police and forensic
scientists in a re-examination of the prosecution's murky case against
the 13 conspirators. And if you are wondering what on earth Shakespeare
had to do with those dark deeds in the cellar under Parliament, you
haven't been keeping up with modern research into this still hugely
It's one of those stories that "everybody knows" yet, it seems, nobody
really knows. The more that scholars delve into the official version of
what happened, the more holes appear. Did Catesby and his aristocratic
rebels ever start digging a tunnel? Unlikely. Was the unsigned
"Monteagle Letter", which betrayed the conspirators (and which is the
prize exhibit at the Globe), a genuine warning from a panicky Francis
Tresham to his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle? Improbable. Did Tresham,
the one conspirator not killed or executed, really die of a urinary
tract infection while imprisoned in the Tower? Implausible. Or was he
poisoned to stop him blabbing truths that would be awkward for James I's
sinister enforcer, Robert Cecil? Or smuggled to freedom, as a reward for
betraying his friends?
And what of Cecil, the Machiavellian head of state security? If he knew
of the plot in late October (as seems clear), why did he wait until the
last moment to raid the cellar? Was it a cynical ploy to magnify the
threat to the safety of the realm posed by Catholics, and thus to
maximise the sense of panic and the public backlash?
If that's true, he certainly succeeded. The official account of the
Gunpowder Plot, rushed out in something called /The King's Book/, was
brilliantly fabricated black propaganda, worthy of Goebbels. It gave
Cecil the chance to round up all of his most detested Jesuit priests.
Catholics were barred from important jobs for the next 200 years. And
enmity between Catholic and Protestant became so ingrained in the
British psyche that we still hear - and fear - its echoes in Northern
Ireland and Scotland today.
Some scholars go further. They surmise that Cecil was not the plot's
discoverer, but its covert instigator, rather as Hitler's henchmen burnt
the Reichstag and framed a Communist. According to this theory, Catesby
was duped by Cecil's /agents provocateurs/ into concocting an outrage
that would blacken the name of their Catholic faith for centuries.
It's fascinating stuff, not least because it is all so relevant today.
Four centuries on, and we are again being spooked by government
ministers and their security chiefs into having nightmares about
religious fanatics "in our midst" who may be about to blow up
Parliament, or smear ricin on door handles - or whatever the current
scare is. Except that the suspects are now Muslims, not Catholics.
And Shakespeare's connection? A few months after the Gunpowder
conspirators were hanged, drawn, castrated, burnt and quartered (not
necessarily in that order), the Bard produced a new tragedy which - if
Garry Wills's fascinating 1995 study, /Witches and Jesuits [subtitled
Shakespeare's Macbeth; Oxford Paperbacks, $17.95]/, is to be believed -
allegorised the whole incident. In this play, which is shot through with
references to "dire combustion" and warnings of how evil "mines"
goodness, a regicidal maniac also comes perilously close to
destabilising a state and seizing power. The maniac's name? Macbeth.
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