Shall Will Shakespeare equivocate or to his own self be true?

AthensWest Theatre Company’s production (directed by Jerre Dye) of “Equivocation” by Bill Cain opened February 9th, 2018, at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center in Lexington, Kentucky. “Equivocation” was first produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, in 2009. As soon as I saw the program notes, I realized that one of the principle characters in the play was Henry Garnet, the Superior of the Jesuits in England, who was executed by King James I for his association with the conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot 1605. I had included Garnet’s story in part III, titled “Henry Garnet—Or ‘Author, Author!?” in my rather lengthy study titled “Perjury: An Anthology,” 13 Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law 307, 313-317 (1996), where I introduced his story with a quote from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Knock,  knock! Who’s there, in th’ 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. ( Macbeth,  II.iii.7-11)

James VI of Scotland became James l of England in 1603, the year Elizabeth died. James was the son of Mary Queen of Scots. King James I was somewhat “alien,” and the Pope would not allow English Catholics to give their secular allegiance to him. James responded by banishing Catholic priests and fining anyone who failed to attend the services of his Established Church. This led to the Gunpowder Plot. A group of Catholic extremists hatched the infamous plan to fill up the cellars of Westminster and blow up James and the whole of Parliament. It is believed that one of the conspirators, Robert Catesby or Francis Tresham, warned a Tresham relative, William Parker Lord Monteagle, who was also a Catholic peer. As Lord Monteagle, Parker would have otherwise attended the opening of Parliament and been blown to pieces along with the rest. Whoever did warn Monteagle did not know that Monteagle was a creature of James’s spymaster, Robert Cecil. The plot was foiled at the last minute by Cecil and his troops, who rounded up Guy Fawkes and the others, including Garnet.

A True and Perfect Relation of the whole proceedings against the late most barbarous Traitors, Garnet, a Jesuit, and his confederates (1606) This book, printed by Robert Barker (Printer to the King) in 1606, contains official accounts of the Gunpowder Plot trials: That of the main plotters—including Guy Fawkes—in January, and Henry Garnet in March 1606 (Courtesy of the British Library)

In the play “Equivocation,” Cecil commissions William Shakespeare to write a play about the Gunpowder Treason. Ultimately a reluctant Shakespeare gets around the dangerous subject, which was obviously intended as political propaganda for King James I. Instead Shakespeare writes Macbeth, his Scottish play. In Macbeth Shakespeare courts favor with James by linking the good guys in the play to James’s family line. Macbeth also includes witches in the plot—James had written a treatise on witches and seems to have been fascinated by them.

Thos. W. Keene. Macbeth (c.1884) (Cleveland, Ohio: W.J. Morgan & Co. Lith.)

“Equivocation” tells of the role of Garnet, who certainly knew of the plot though the confessional, but denied such knowledge. Garnet was the author of a treatise on equivocation teaching Catholics how to avoid fully answering dangerous questions. Attorney General Coke went so far as to suggest that the conspirators might have turned away from the plot in 1604 had it not been for Garnet. The injunction that one must never lie was hard to reconcile with the plight of hard pressed Catholics. Resort to equivocation and mental reservation was a matter of life and death. “Equivocation” tends to go light on Garnet’s role, suggesting that the Gunpowder Plot was a fiction thought up by Cecil. The suggestion that the whole Powder Treason was an invention of the State is a common plea in cases of “terrorism”—even today! Bill Cain’s “Equivocation” is loaded with historical as well as literary allusions—and comic relief.  For example, “Equivocation” highlights the Porter’s rude jest in Macbeth about the equivocator (see quote from Macbeth above; there are additional references to equivocation in Macbeth). The play also injects a bit of humor about James’s bisexuality.

Bill Cain’s “Equivocation” is loaded with historical as well as literary allusions.  It is not just a damn good and smart play (by the way AthensWest Theatre Company’s production, including the directing and acting, is super); it is a work of scholarship. There are allusions to the probability that Shakespeare’s father, John, was a closet Catholic, and that John had shared banned Catholic tracts with William Catesby, the father of Robert Catesby. In other words, Shakespeare had personal as well as artistic reasons for avoiding the subject of the Gunpowder Plot, while producing something satisfactory to James. He did not want to be in the line going to the Tower.

I look forward to seeing more from Bill Cain and would enjoy sitting down with him for a Q&A as did Toby Zinman for the Inquirer (philly.com). AthensWest Theatre Company’s production of “Equivocation” by Bill Cain runs through February 25, 2018, at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center in Lexington, Kentucky. You can find out more about the play and how to purchase tickets here.

Further Reading

David E. Anderson, “Was Shakespeare Catholic?” (PBS: Apr. 25, 2008)

The Atlantic, “A Brief History of Catholic Claims to Shakespeare,” (Nov. 26, 2014)

BBC, “The Gunpowder Plot: Three years in the making”

Bloom, Harold, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, 526–529 (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998)

British Library, “Autograph Letter by Ben Jonson Concerning the Gunpowder Plot”

British Library, “The Trial of Henry Garnet, 1606”

Candace Chaney, “Shakespeare schemes to avoid writing boring propaganda in thrilling ‘Equivocation,” (Feb. 14, 2018)

Fraser, Antonia, The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996)

Ellie Kurttz, “The Gunpowder Plot and Shakespeare’s Macbeth,” (Nov. 3, 2010).

Richard Underwood, “Perjury: An Anthology,” 13 Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law 307, 313-317 (1996)

UK Parliament, “The Gunpowder Plot”

Wickham, Glynne, Shakespeare’s Dramatic Heritage: Collected Studies in Mediaeval, Tudor and Shakespearean Drama, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969) p.96

Disclosure: Shadelandhouse Modern Press, LLC, is a sponsor to AthensWest Theatre Company’s production of Equivocation by Bill Cain. I did not know until I entered the arts center and saw the program that Equivocation is the play that Shadelandhouse Modern Press, LLC is sponsoring this season.