Powder Treason

I had The Year of Lear for a Christmas present. This is James Shapiro’s extraordinary account of 1606, the year in which Shakespeare wrote Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. As he did in his earlier 1599, Shapiro puts the Bard in living context. I stress living in that the pressures, political, financial, religious and artistic that the critic discusses allow us to see Shakespeare as a working artist – as responsive to his times as say Miller was in writing The Crucible. The themes of the plays, the conflicts the playwright engages, in Hamlet’s words: “[hold] a mirror up to nature: to show...the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Shapiro takes us into the expectations faced by Shakespeare and his company, the King’s Men. The Royal demand for entertainments stretched the repertoire of the players. Shakespeare broke years of silence to pen Lear in the context of James’ push for union between England and Scotland, and he wrote Macbeth in part as a response to The Gunpowder Plot.  The latter event had the king, as Shapiro notes, deeply distressed and frightened of further armed rebellion. How was he to deal with the violent discontent of recusant Catholics and the excommunication issued by the Pope? What license did the Pope appear to be giving to his Catholic subjects? That the playwright should find a form of exploration in The Scottish Play says much – about James’ concern for possession by the Devil, the torments of conscience, and the brutality of a mind reduced to the will to destroy.

Shapiro devotes almost two chapters to a consideration of the Gunpowder Plot. I had paid little more attention to this event than as the occasion of Bonfire Night and the epigraph of Eliot’s The Hollow Men.” But in Shapiro’s clear presentation of the conspiracy I realized that had the Plot been successful, the King, his chief ministers, Lords spiritual and temporal, virtually all those responsible for running the state, and thousands of attending citizens (Shapiro tells us that contemporaries saw as many as 30,000 at risk.) would have perished in an effort to restore Catholicism to the country and establish James’ wife, a convert to Catholicism, on the throne.

I indulged in a reverie of counter-factual history [the what if?], when I caught myself virtually regretting that the plot had failed. The victory of the Church, the Re-clothing of the Altars! All in one extraordinary act. Of course the counter thrust was not long in coming: how could I countenance a terrorist plot involving a secret cell formed almost a year before, tons of gunpowder hidden stealthily in the cellars of Parliament, caches of weapons, and conspirators inspired by clergymen who believed in the absolute good of their cause? Indeed, this was a Catholic holy war, and the innocents who might have died were necessary victims in the hoped-for triumph of the One Church. This return to the old, true faith, and a monarch who would perhaps be again a Defensor Fidei was a “consummation devoutly to be wished.”

And there I stopped, paused by the ease with which I had begun to accept the force of absolute conviction and the actions that devolve. The relevance of these considerations is obvious; what jars is the historical analogue. And then the terrible question: mutatis mutandi, would I have subscribed to Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot four hundred years ago? Is this a salutary act of the historical imagination? Then Shapiro began his presentation of the Equivocation plea that many of the conspirators invoked. This of course is the lie spoken with the understanding that a mental reservation preserves the integrity of the speaker – again to serve the interests of the greater good. A defense such as this gave the malign connotation to the term “Jesuitical.” And there hang many tales – of drawing and quartering as well.

In any event, Shapiro’s book is as entertaining as a good novel, and as full of sharp commentary on the plays as one would expect of a man who has submitted himself to the burden of historical research that is witnessed in his bibliography. Under his tutelage you won’t read or see Shakespeare in the same way again – nor the words, "Remember, Remember the Fifth of November."

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Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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