Heretic’s Foundation XIV: Mr. Shakespeare’s Gunpowder Plot

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Fawkes

By John Hudson
darkladyplayers@aol.com
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

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On Nov. 5, Manhattan Theater Source will stage a very English celebration in Washington Square Park. As a fundraiser for the MacDougal Street space, the venue will present Remember, Remember the Fifth of November, a festival of cabaret and theater recalling the Gunpowder Plot Conspiracy of 1605 to blow up the houses of Parliament. Tickets for the fundraiser are $100, $50 and $25; festivities include laying a gunpowder trail through the park (presumably not using real gunpowder), music, visual art, film, food, wine — and a performance of Nat Cassidy’s play The Reckoning of Kit and Little Boots, which I look forward to even if it isn’t a gunpowder-plot play. Yet such things do exist.

Perversely, the man who was to have set the explosives, Guy Fawkes, has become an icon of the American right-wing: a proponent of “blowing up” government. In 2007, supporters of Ron Paul, the GOP presidential candidate and libertarian, played on the tale of Fawkes to create a website, ThisNovember5th.com, that enabled Paul to raise more than $4 million in one day. Because popular memory has romanticized Guy Fawkes, some of the other folks associated with the plot have been forgotten. Although they appeared in literature of the period, they are rarely noticed today.

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Indeed, there are at least a half-dozen gunpowder plays. A play attributed to Shakespeare, The Fifth of November or The Gunpowder Plot, however, is unfortunately a forgery by George Ambrose Rhodes from the 1830s, as discussed in Mark Valentine’s article Shakespeare’s Last Purported Play. Genuine plays contemporary to Shakespeare that allude to the Gunpowder Plot include Macbeth, John Marston’s Sophonisba, Thomas Dekker’s The Whore of Babylon and Barnabe Barnes’s The Devil’s Charter. Only very recently has it been recognized that the category also includes Robert Burton’s Latin play Philosophaster, a comedy written in 1606 featuring a pseudo-scholar character that is one of the few stage Jesuits of the period. The character’s name is Polupragmaticus, meaning “being a busybody” who claims to be bilingual, ambidexterous, omniscient and, in fact, a Jesuit. It’s not much of a pretense since he also declares himself “a grammarian, a rhetorician, a geometrician, a painter, a wrestling coach, augur, rope walker, physician, magician. I know it all. Or if you prefer, I am a Jesuit. That sums it up.”

To make Polupragmaticus’ identity indisputable, his servant is called Aequivocus, a clear allusion to the Jesuit doctrine of equivocation, which allowed one to lie under oath. The rationale for equivocation was spelled out in the manuscript Treatise of Equivocation, written by a Jesuit named Henry Garnet. Garnet was the confessor to two of the Gunpowder plotters. His manuscript was also found in their possession, which led to Garnet being tried for treason and hung, drawn and quartered. Appreciating that, in the early 1600s, it wasn’t Guy Fawkes but Garnet who attracted literary attention in connection with the Gunpowder plot, gives new focus to Macbeth. Why? Because the idea of “double meaning” — or equivocation — is central to the Scottish play. The standard definition of “Equivocale” in Florio’s Dictionary is “of diverse significance, of double meaning.” In Cotgrave’s Dictionary, Equivoque is defined as “a double or divers sense of one word.”

Structurally, in Macbeth‘s witches’ scenes for example, it’s clear the knocking and the references to “double double” are paralleled by the knocking and references to equivocation during the Porter’s scene. Thus, the witches’ chant “double, double toil and trouble” (IV.i.9) is paralleled by the Porter’s line “here’s an equivocator…come in equivocator” (II.iii.9-11). In the Porter’s scene, the footnotes in the standard Arden edition explain that the characters the Porter admits to hellmouth are the equivocator (Garnet himself), his alias (Mr. Farmer), and the Tailor — who was associated with the image of Garnet’s face that supposedly appeared miraculously on a bundle of straw following his execution. The three apparitions in the witches’ scene — namely the head, the bloody child and the child holding a tree — appear derived from the imagery of Garnet’s portrait on that miraculous straw. In other words, the apparitions summoned by the witches suggest the 11th century Macbeth is in league with Garnet’s 17th century Jesuits.

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This is remarkable enough, but the multiple time tracks in Macbeth are even more complex. The “Temple” Macbeth destroys (II.iii. 67), accompanied by the extraordinary appearance of a dagger hanging in the air (II.i.33), strange noises, the earth that did shake (II.iii.59) and threats of dire combustion all correspond to another time-track: the destruction of Jerusalem in the 1st century. In Josephus’ The Jewish War, we are told that a star resembling a sword hung over the city (6,5,289), that Jerusalem’s citizens “felt a quaking and heard a great noise” (6,5,299) before the temple was burnt. In other words, the destruction of the “Temple” (as Duncan) is an allegory for that other Temple destroyed by Titus Caesar. By presenting these parallel time tracks, Macbeth offers us two different paradigms for interpreting the title character; it invites us to consider how they may be reconciled. And there is a way to do it.

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In the same way Antony and Cleopatra anticipated many filmic conventions — like very short takes — Shakespeare’s multiple, interrelated time tracks in Macbeth bear similarities to modern TV-storytelling conventions. These serve to change our understanding of the play significantly. Ironically, the shift of audiences away from theater to TV shows like Lost may be the very thing that teaches audiences the narrative conventions that may allow them to appreciate the real meaning of Shakespeare.

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John Hudson is a strategic consultant who specializes in new industry models and has helped create several telecoms and Internet companies. He has recently been consulting to a leading think tank on the future of the theater industry and is pioneering an innovative Shakespeare theory, as dramaturge to the Dark Lady Players. This fall he will be Artist in Residence at Eastern Connecticut State University. He has degrees in Theater and Shakespeare, in Management, and in Social Science.

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