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The Gunpowder Plot and Shakespeare's Macbeth

  We touch on some of the connections associated between The Scottish Play and the failed attempt to assassinate King James I

4 minute read

Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish Play’ was probably written in 1606, just three years after King  James I (VI of Scotland) was crowned as Elizabeth I’s successor, and so undoubtedly seems to be paying homage to the succession of the Scottish King to the English throne.

But within that time, in November 1605, the Gunpowder Plot had been discovered: the plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament, kill James, and replace him with a Catholic monarch failed, and the plotters were tortured and horribly executed. The impact of the event was so dramatic, we still remember it today on Bonfire Night (‘Remember, Remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot’, goes the traditional rhyme…), so we can only imagine the enormity of the event for Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Illustration of the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot

The conspirators behind the 1605 Gunpowder Plot via Wikimedia Commons.

It is often said Macbeth is a comment on the Gunpowder Plot, so why, and how are the two connected? Firstly, many of Macbeth’s themes resonate with the attempted revolt: it’s a play about treason, the overthrow of a King, and the downfall of his murderers. Even more importantly, King James was commonly believed to be descended from Banquho the thane of Lochquhaber, the historical counterpart of Shakespeare’s Banquo, the friend who Macbeth betrays and has murdered. With this in mind the witches’ prophesy that Banquo’s descendants will be kings takes on a new meaning: it is referring to Banquo’s descendant James Stuart, King of Scotland and England. By extension, it has been suggested that the escape of Fleance, Banquo’s son, from Macbeth’s murder plot is designed to echo James’s own escape from the Gunpowder Plot and to subtly compliment the House of Stuart as legitimate and truly-descended rulers.

Painting of King James I of England.

Portrait of James I attributed to John de Critz, c. 1605, via Wikimedia Commons.

At the beginning of Act 2, Scene 3, the Porter amuses himself by pretending he is the gatekeeper of hell, letting in new arrivals. He exclaims:

Knock, knock! Who’s there, in the 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. Oh, come in, equivocator.

The insistent reference to equivocation seems to be alluding to the Catholic priest Henry Garnet, who was hung, drawn and quartered for his role in the Gunpowder Plot and was deeply criticised for equivocating. Allegedly, Garnet had heard confession from Robert Catesby, one of the plotters, which revealed his intention to kill the King, but obeyed the Seal of the Confessional by keeping it secret. Jesuits were particularly associated with equivocation, which is a way of avoiding the sin of lying by implying something untrue through ambiguous phrasing. Garnet’s defence of equivocation was extremely damaging in his trial, and the Porter’s light-hearted remarks seem to be playing on popular derision of the priest.

A crowd of standing audience members are covered in a black sheet, whilst an actor wearing red robes and bloody grimaces on stage.

It is also through equivocation that Macbeth is tricked to his downfall: the Witches’ prophecies are ambiguous and lull Macbeth into a false sense of security. Photographer: Ellie Kurttz.

Interestingly, it is also through equivocation that Macbeth is tricked to his downfall: when the Witches tell him he

shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him

and ‘none of woman born/ Shall harm Macbeth’ they imply that he will always be safe, as both ideas seem impossible. The Witches’ deception may well be intended to be resonant of the deceptions of Catholicism and Garnet: when Macbeth is told that the wood is moving he realises he must ‘begin/ To doubt the equivocation of the fiend,/ That lies like truth’.

Macbeth’s allusions to the sensational events of the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath are typical of Shakespeare’s often reserved way of referring to topical issues, but leave a fascinating insight into a contemporary dramatist’s response to the momentous event.


Further reading:

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

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

Wickham, Glynne, ‘From Tragedy to Tragi-comedy: ‘King Lear’ as Prologue’ in Shakespeare Survey 26, edited by Kenneth Muir, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973)