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Shakespeare & the Gunpowder Plot

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

Have you seen the movie ''V for Vendetta''? If so, you've probably heard of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. What you may not know is that William Shakespeare was closely connected with this plot! In this lesson, we'll learn about Shakespeare's involvement in this historic tale of high treason.

The Gunpowder Plot: Historical Context

''Remember, remember! / The fifth of November, / The Gunpowder treason and plot; / I know of no reason / Why the Gunpowder treason / Should ever be forgot!'' These are the first four lines of a centuries-old English folk poem famously quoted by Hugo Weaving in his role as V in the movie V for Vendetta, which references the Gunpowder Plot.

This conspiracy resulted from severe oppression of Catholics in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. The Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1603, passed anti-Catholic laws naming herself the secular and spiritual leader of England, to which Catholics naturally objected. Perceived traitors were beheaded, drawn and quartered (literally ripped apart), hanged, or a combination of these. Catholics had expected King James I, Elizabeth's successor, to be more lenient, but they were mistaken.

Painting of King James I sometime before 1650
Painting of King James I sometime before 1650

To stop the oppression, a small group of Catholic men plotted to blow up the House of Lords on November 5, 1605, when James and his administration would be inside, and replace them with a Catholic government. Led by Robert Catesby, they rented a house next to the Houses of Parliament and smuggled thirty-six barrels of gunpowder into the cellar of the House of Lords. The most famous conspirator and explosives expert, Guy Fawkes, went there to light the fuse. A warning letter exposed the plot, however, and he was caught before he could act. Fawkes was arrested and tortured until he gave the names of the other conspirators. All involved were executed in various ways.

Engraving of the Gunpowder Plotters by Crispijn van de Passe the Elder
Engraving of the Gunpowder Plotters by Crispijn van de Passe the Elder

To celebrate his survival of this assassination attempt, James declared November fifth an English holiday now known as Guy Fawkes Day, or Bonfire Night. It's traditionally celebrated with bonfires, fireworks, and burned effigies of the Pope and Fawkes.

A fiery, Bonfire Night-inspired abstract portrait of Guy Fawkes
A fiery, Bonfire Night-inspired abstract portrait of Guy Fawkes

Shakespeare's Connection to the Plot

Shakespeare wasn't guilty of conspiracy, but he had close ties with those who were. Shakespeare's mother was Catholic, and one of her relatives had earlier been executed for his supposed involvement with a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I. His father, John, was thought to be a covert Catholic and was also friends with William Catesby, Robert Catesby's father. Finally, Shakespeare's closest friend owned the Mermaid Tavern where the plotters met, and Shakespeare himself often visited the establishment.

A portrait of Shakespeare in 1609, a few years after the Gunpowder Plot and the completion of Macbeth
A portrait of Shakespeare in 1609, a few years after the Gunpowder Plot and the completion of Macbeth

Macbeth: Shakespeare's Political Halo

It's widely thought that Shakespeare wrote his play Macbeth to remove all suspicion of his involvement with the Gunpowder Plot. He references the conspiracy directly in the historically-based play, which deals with treason and murder. In it, King Duncan is killed by his army captain Macbeth, who believes he's destined for the throne. Duncan is modeled after James I; Banquo, Macbeth's fellow captain, represents Banquho, Thane of Lochquhaber, James's supposed ancestor. By making these allusions, Shakespeare depicts James's family, the House of Stuart, as worthy and legitimate rulers, and paints himself as a devoted and loyal subject. Some extra flattery helped: Macbeth describes Duncan as a thoroughly noble and heroic figure with ''silver skin'' and ''golden blood,'' which became James's favorite part of the play.

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