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Shakespeare’s Macbeth was influenced by the gunpowder plot of 1605. The equivocation that was inspired by this event played an important role in the play. The general theme of Macbeth reflects the mood of society at the time that it was written. This relationship is a direct reflection of the mimetic theory. This paper will examine the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the role of equivocation in the subsequent prosecutions during the time that Shakespeare was writing Macbeth, and show how Macbeth was influenced by the event.

On the night of November 4, 1605, an important discovery was made in London: thirty-six barrels of highly explosive gunpowder, ready to blow a hole in the earth, were discovered directly below the House of Parliament in Westminster. Had the authorities not foiled this attempt, Parliament would have been destroyed, killing the members of Parliament as well as King James I of England (whose reign had only begun in 1603), and sending the English government into shambles. In modern day context, Garry Wills suggests that this event would be as if an atomic bomb was discovered under the United States Capitol Building during the heat of the Cold War:

How to suggest the scale of it? For a parallel we might imagine America in the 1950s, and suppose that a communist cell – made up of Americans acting under foreign direction – has planted a nuclear device under the United States Capitol. It is timed to go off when the President is addressing both houses of Congress. All Executive Officers will be there, as well as all justices of the Supreme Court. The three branches of Government will be wiped out. Every Constitutional successor to the President will die with him.1

One of the men behind this conspiracy was Guy Fawkes, a Roman Catholic who was motivated by England’s prohibition of the Catholic faith. Under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558 to 1603), the Church of England that was created by King Henry VIII (who reigned from 1509-1547) was the only tolerated religion in England. The Church of England held that the British Monarchy, rather than the Pope, was the leader of the church. The Catholic religion was forced underground.

Guy Fawkes was born a protestant but was surrounded by Catholics as he was growing up. He converted to Catholicism shortly before enlisting as a mercenary in the Spanish army in the Netherlands in 1593. There he was free to practice the Catholic Faith. By the time he was 21 Guy had sold his inheritance and had joined the Catholic forces fighting in the Low Countries. For twelve years he served as a military man in the Netherlands. He was trained as a miner, skilled with gunpowder and in the arts of tunneling.2

The prohibition of Catholicism and the persecution of all who practiced the faith led to a conspiracy to liberate Catholicism in England. When Guy Fawkes returned to England in May, 1604 he met with fellow conspirators. This group included:

This group developed a plan to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1605. To them, killing King James I and all of Parliament was vengeance for the persecution of Catholics. The plot did not conclude as planned by the conspirators. It was foiled on October 26, 1605, when an anonymous letter hinting a threat to the Parliament was discovered. The text of the letter read as follows:

My Lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have care of your preservation. Therefore I would like to advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse shift of your attendance at this Parliament; for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time. And think not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself into your country [county] where you may expect the event in safety. For though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament; and yet they shall not see who hurts them. This counsel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm; for the danger is passed as soon as you have burnt the letter. And I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you.4

Although the author of this letter is unknown, it was probably written by one of the conspirators. Many historians claim that it was written by Francis Tresham, while others argue that it was written by Lord Monteagle, who delivered the actual letter to Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury5 after having received it from his servant, who had received it from a stranger in the street. The letter was given to King James I by Robert Cecil. An investigation was launched and around midnight on November 4, Guy Fawkes was caught in a cellar below parliament, along with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder.

…A search party, headed by Sir Thomas Knevett, went back to the Westminster cellar. It was there … that a figure in a cloak and dark hat, booted and spurred as though for flight, was discovered skulking beneath the precincts of parliament. This ‘very tall and desperate fellow’ was immediately apprehended and bound fast. He gave his name as John Johnson…6

Fawkes was arrested as a prime suspect. Fawkes proudly admitted to the whole plot and the other involved conspirators fled London. English society was outraged by the incident. People became paranoid and wanted to know who was behind the plot and why.

London was left in a state of numbed confusion, with none of the nobles knowing who could still be trusted. An observer made the comment that ‘a general jealousy possessed them all.’ The emotive language of officialdom gave thanks for the saving of the King from death. Many English Catholics were genuinely appalled by the scale and ruthlessness of the attempt, and the Catholic Archpriest Father Blackwell publicly denounced the plot as ‘intolerable, uncharitable, scandalous and desperate’…7

In response to the plot, the Parliament of James I passed more legislation prohibiting Catholicism; "Catholic priests were flushed out of their priest holes, the hiding places ingeniously built into the walls of English recusants’ houses in the shires."8 In addition, these figures were tortured and killed: In the mood of anti-Catholic paranoia King James and his advisors were determined to implicate the Jesuits fully in the plot. Many priests and Father Garnet, head of the English Jesuits, were taken to the Tower and almost certainly the usual tortures were applied.9

Father Garnet and Father Oldcorne, another Jesuit priest, spent eight days in hiding after the discovery of the plot in a "priest hole" with hardly enough room to stand up. They were forced out of their hiding place by its uninhabitable living conditions. Soon thereafter these two Jesuit priests were caught:

As Father Garnet and Father Oldcorne were being captured, a show trial of the eight surviving conspirators was beginning at Westminster Hall. The King and Queen and Prince Henry, then aged eleven, watched avidly from a secret room. The eight condemned men were put to death in two patches, four on January 30, 1606, and four the next day. Coke had condemned them to the cruel death for traitors.10

The trial to prosecute Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators was led by Sir Edward Coke, the Attorney General prosecuting for James I. Guy Fawkes was convicted in January, 1606 and all of the fellow conspirators were convicted and executed by March, 1606. At the same time of all this upheaval with the Gunpowder Plot, Sir William Shakespeare was writing the play Macbeth.

One of the general themes of Macbeth was equivocation:

It has been well recognized that equivocation is a major theme in the play, both in the narrow sense of common duplicity and in the larger sense of a blur between appearance and reality.11

Equivocation is saying one thing, but meaning another. Often it is used when one word has two meanings, and the meaning less assumed to be the intended meaning is actually the intended meaning.

What has gone wrong – "nothing" is used in two different senses in the premises. In the first premise, "nothing" means something like "nothing to eat at all," while in the second premise "nothing" means something like "no possible food choice on the planet." It is the slippage from the one sense to the second that allows for the peculiar conclusion - but this slippage rests on equivocation in the meaning of "nothing."12

Equivocation is used in many ways in Macbeth. In Act one, scene three, Banquo says the following about the witches:

Banquo is warning Macbeth that the witches use equivocation to lure people into evil. At the time it was believed that witches had supernatural powers and could deceive people into being possessed by the devil. Banquo says "to win us our harm" meaning to convince Macbeth into doing evil deeds, the "instruments of darkness" meaning the witches, "tell us truths." In other words, the witches tell lies and make them seem like the truth in order to take advantage of people, hence the equivocation.

Equivocation was also used in the trials of the Gunpowder Plot. Guy Fawkes used equivocation through his use of the alias "John Johnson." When one of the conspirators, Francis Tresham, was arrested he had in his possession a book titled A Treatise of Equivocation. This book told Catholics that they had to equivocate in order to be faithful Catholics and avoid prosecution under English law:

…to tell other Catholics how to deal with dangerous questions from Protestant inquisitors. If the Catholics admitted that they were Catholics, they would be in serious trouble with the Protestants. On the other hand, it was a sin against God to lie under oath. The solution to the problem was equivocation. A Catholic equivocator could lie and tell the Protestants what they wanted to hear, but God would know that what the Catholic said was really the truth in another sense.13

Father Henry Garnet had written handwritten notes in the book. Prosecutor Edward Coke "used the work to demonstrate that the philosophy of Equivocation demonstrated that Jesuits used lying to further their cause."14

In Act two, scene three, of Macbeth, after the discovery of Duncan’s death, the Porter makes a reference to Father Garnet, one of the conspirators involved in the Gunpowder Plot. He says:

The Porter is saying that Garnet equivocated by saying that the Gunpowder Plot was justified because it would have liberated the Catholics living in England.

At the time that Macbeth was written the mood of society was one of oppression. Catholics were persecuted for no reason other then being Catholic. Catholicism was prohibited under the rule of the King James I. This force the religion underground much like it was in the Roman Empire before the Edict of Milan in 313 AD. To avoid persecution, Catholics in England bended the truth about their faith when they were in public. When they were asked the "bloody question" about if they were or were not Catholic, they responded without lying, but not admitting to being Catholic. This bending of the truth, also called equivocation, is one of the key themes in Macbeth.

Catholics in England did not respect the English law prohibiting Catholicism and they became rebellious. Certain ones, such as the conspirators involved in the Gunpowder Plot, were motivated to destroy the monarchy. They used equivocation as a means of hiding the truth behind their malicious plan. The equivocation that had originated amongst the conspirators became mainstream and was used in Macbeth.
Another example of how equivocation was used in Macbeth is a conversation with the drunk Porter and Macduff just before the discovery of Duncan’s murder:

In this excerpt the Porter calls alcohol an equivocator using sexual references. By saying it "provokes the desire," the Porter means that alcohol makes people become lustful, but at the same time, it "takes away the performance," by creating impotence. Thus, he concludes, "alcohol is an equivocator."

The idea of equivocation is again used by the Porter in Act II, Scene iii: "PORTER: … Faith, here’s an English tailor come hither / for stealing out of a French hose: come in, tailor, here you / may roast your goose." (II, iii, 11-13). This line creates a metaphor comparing an English tailor to a French hose. Theoretically "a tailor could cheat by skimping the amount of cloth he used."15

Equivocation is also used in Act IV, scene i of Macbeth. The uses of the apparitions give Macbeth a false sense perception, making his mind equivocate to him. The witches are involved in this scene and they create the apparitions. It is known that the witches used a great deal of equivocation in Macbeth: "The witches would equivocate as the Jesuits did, and for the same reason: that of asserting the higher power over the lower."16
The word "equivocation" is mentioned again near the end of the play when a messenger informs Macbeth that an invasion is coming:

In this excerpt Macbeth seems alarmed when the messenger tells him about the coming invasion. He warns the messenger that there will be trouble if he is lying. Then he "begins to doubt the equivocation of the fiend that likes the truth," meaning that he does not think that the message was a false alarm. The "fiend that likes the truth" is someone who would not lie, and Macbeth "doubts the equivocation" of this "fiend," meaning that he doubts the messenger is lying.

This excerpt also hints an indirect reference to the Gunpowder Plot. The message that was given to Macbeth, warning him of an incoming invasion, parallels the anonymous letter that Robert Cecil delivered to King James I, warning him of the attack on Parliament. When the King read the letter, he did not believe it at first and did not take it seriously, however he took it more seriously at a later time: "Salisbury handed him the letter without comment and let the King read it in silence. Having read the letter once, James took ‘a little pause’ then he re-read it all through."17 When the messenger informs Macbeth of what is about to happen, he is stubborn to believe the news at first, but then he believes the messenger. This parallel is another device that demonstrates how the Gunpowder Plot influenced Macbeth.

There are also other ways in which equivocation was used in the Gunpowder Plot:

Equivocation was clearly defined by Sir Edward Coke at the treason trial of Father Garnett, Superior of the Jesuits in England, on 28 March 1606…Coke said: "Their dissimulation appeareth out of their doctrine of equivocation seen and allowed by Garnett, and by Blackwell the archpriest; wherein under the pretext of the lawfulness of a mixt proposition to express one part of a man’s mind, and retain another, people are indeed taught, not only simple lying, but fearful and damnable blasphemy."18

Sir Edward Coke made it clear that the conspirators used equivocation in their plot. He stated that Father Henry Garnet had encouraged Catholics to equivocate about their faith. Coke also said that equivocation was worse than lying, that it was "fearful and damnable blasphemy." Father Garnet had also written notes in the book A Treatise of Equivocation, which was confiscated by English authorities after being found in the possession of Francis Tresham, one of the conspirators. This evidence was used to convict Father Garnet:
Father Garnett was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. In a letter dated 2 May 1606, Sir Dudley Carlton prophesied: "he will equivocate at the gallows; but he will be hanged without equivocation."19

By saying that he would be hanged without equivocation, Carleton indicated that there was no way for Father Garnet to escape death, with or without equivocation. Father Garnet’s last words before he was hanged once again referred to equivocation:

Although Garnet continued to deny his own guilt, he did take the opportunity to express once more his horror at the fact that Catholics had planned such an enterprise. In the future, he directed all Catholics to remain ‘quiet’, possessing their souls in peace: ‘And God will not be forgetful of them.’20

By telling Catholics to "remain quiet" about their souls, Father Garnet was further telling them to equivocate about their faith.

Equivocation is also mentioned in the transcript of the Trials of the Gunpowder Plot. Prosecutor Coke mentions the book A Treatise of Equivocation among other things: "Heretical, treasonable and damnable Books lately found out; one of Equivocation, and another, De officio Principis Christiani, of Francis Tresham's."21 Francis Tresham was in possession of the book at the time of his arrest.

Prosecutor Coke did not like equivocation. During the trial he was motivated by his anger of equivocation:
…most of Coke’s anger is directed at the Jesuit’s perversion of the nature of language. Equivocation, as an attack on meaning itself, is a more fiendish instrument than gunfire for overthrowing kings. This makes the Jesuits apocalyptic bringers of "confusion" (the work of the devil).22

Prosecutor Coke viewed equivocation as a form of lying to a more severe extent. While lying was one thing, Coke thought that equivocation was just as bad as blasphemy. Coke said the following about the Jesuits’ use of equivocation:

…Equivocating, abetted, allowed, and justified by the Jesuits, not only simply to conceal or deny an open Truth, but religiously to aver, to protest upon Salvation, to swear that which themselves know to be most false; and all this, by reserving a secret and private Sense inwardly to themselves; whereby they are, by their ghostly Fathers, persuaded, That they may safely and lawfully elude any Question whatsoever.23

This whole mindset of Coke gave the prosecution an advantage in convicting the conspirators, who had clearly equivocated their way through their attempt to blow up Parliament. Catholics who were practicing their faith behind closed doors saw nothing wrong with equivocation. They did not consider it lying so therefore it was not a sin.

The best printed defense of equivocation is that published by Robert Parsons, S.J. in 1602 and again in 1607; its title, A Treatise tending to Mitigation towards the Catholike Subjects in England [against Bishop Thomas Morton’s two slanderous grounds of rebellion and equivocation.] Parsons begins the second part, on equivocation, by distinguishing between equivocation and lying: God hates a lie. Next he insists that the doctrine has been used by Christians for over 400 years, by St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventura, St. Antoninus of Florence, St Francis of Assisi; it has been carefully defined and defended by Navarrus Paludanus, Cajeton, Joannes Maior, Fumus, and Sylvester. Thirdly, he counsels discretion in its use: only when an individual is placed in a real dilemma between lying and the whole truth is he forced to equivocate.24

This book discussed the "famous bloody question" by saying:

Suppose our gracious Queen were being sought out by brigands and coming upon you, Thomas Morton Bishop of Durham, they ask, "where is the Queen? We are sent to murder her." If you tell a lie, you offend God. If you tell the truth, you become an accessory to the murder of your sovereign. You must equivocate by saying … "I know not…" your equivocation saves the Queens life and incidentally your own soul.25

In this pretext, equivocation is not considered lying. This became a dispute of opinion in English Society at the time. Many people, mostly underground Catholics, did not think equivocation was wrong or sinful, while other people believed the opposite. Given the fact that equivocation was such a hot topic at the time that William Shakespeare was writing Macbeth, it is no wonder that equivocation played such an important role in the play.

There are several other relationships that can be seen between Macbeth and the Gunpowder Plot that demonstrate the influences that the conspiracy had on Macbeth. In the historical events of the Gunpowder Plot, Guy Fawkes and his group of conspirators tried to blow up Parliament. Had they succeeded in their attempt they would have destroyed the monarchy and overthrown the government. In Macbeth, Macbeth also made a successful attempt to overthrow the King by murdering Duncan. In this case literature finished a story that real life could not – rebelliously overthrowing the government.

Macbeth is a study of the human potential for evil; it illustrates – though not in a religious context – the Judeo-Christian concept of the Fall, humanity’s loss of God’s grace. We see the triumph of evil in a man with many good qualities.26

In this circumstance the actions of Macbeth represent a successful version of the conspirators’ unsuccessful attempt.

The relationship between Macbeth and the Gunpowder Plot and the influences that the event had on the play show a direct reflection of the mimetic theory. The mimetic theory states that literature reflects the society that produces it. Society has influences on literature that shapes the art to its audience. At the time that Macbeth was being written, the Gunpowder Plot was a hot topic in England. Insights to the Gunpowder Plot reveal influences in the development of Macbeth. The influences can be seen in the personalities of the characters, the use of equivocation, and the general theme of the play. Macbeth’s character in one sense represents the conspirators in their attempt to blow up Parliament and kill the King. The witches reflect the belief in superstition and magic that was present in English society at the time. Equivocation that was used in the Gunpowder Plot influenced one of the main themes of Macbeth to be equivocation. The general theme of Macbeth tells a story of the rise and fall of evil, reflecting the rise and fall of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators assembling and planning their attack on Parliament, but then being caught red handed and sentenced to death. Macbeth’s assassination at the end of the play represents the execution of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators.
The relationship between Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the Gunpowder Plot demonstrates how the development of Macbeth was influenced by the events and societal emotions of London in the early 1600’s. The most obvious relationship is the coinciding usage of equivocation, in both form and literary usage, in both the Gunpowder Plot conspiracy trials and the play. A very popular topic of discussion at the time is mimicked in Shakespeare’s Macbeth written during the same time period.


1Garry Wills. Witches & Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth. New York: Literary Research, Inc., 1995, p. 13

2Anonymous Author. Guy Fawkes and his day: Cast Of Characters. Internet WWW page, at URL: <> (version current as of April 8, 2000)

3Jeremy Boot. Guy Fawkes – Treason in 1605. Internet WWW page, at URL: <> (version current as of March 5, 2000

4Antonia Fraser. Faith and Treason: The story of the Gunpowder Plot. New York: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1996, p. 150

5Fiona MacCarthy. "Faith and Treason: The story of the Gunpowder Plot." New York Review of Books. Vol. 44 no. 8 (May 15, 1997), p.35

6Fraser, p. 169

7MacCarthy, p. 35

8MacCarthy, p. 36

9MacCarthy, p. 36

10MacCarthy, p. 36

11Frank L. Huntley. "Macbeth and the Background of Jesuitical Equivocation." Proceedings of the Modern Language Association. 79 (1964), p. 390

12Anonymous Author. Equivocation. Internet WWW page, at URL: <> (version current as of April 8, 2000)

13Philip Weller. Macbeth Navigator: Themes: Equivocation. Internet WWW page, at URL: <> (version current as of March 5, 2000)

14Greg Wuestenhagen. Guy Fawkes and his day. Part 5. Internet WWW page, at URL: <>(version current as of March 5, 2000)

15John Russell Brown. Textual Commentary of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. New York: Applause Books, 1996, p. 49
16Huntley, p. 397

17Fraser, p. 161

18Huntley, p. 390

19Huntley, p. 390

20Fraser, p. 265

21Phillip Allen. The Trials of ... Guy Fawkes [and the] Conspirators in the Gunpowder-Plot. 27 Jan. 1605. 3 Jac. 1. Internet WWW page, at URL: <> (version current as of April 9, 2000)

22Wills, p. 22

23Huntley, pp. 396-397

24Huntley, p. 392

25Huntley, pp. 392-393

26Charles Boyce and Roundtable Press, Inc. Shakespeare A to Z. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1990, p. 390


A. Books

Boyce, Charles and Roundtable Press, Inc. Shakespeare A to Z. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1990.

Fraser, Antonia. Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1996.

Hillegass, C. K. Cliff Notes on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Lincoln, Nebraska: Cliff Notes, Inc., 1979.

Swisher, Clarice. Readings on Macbeth. San Diego, California: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1999.

Wills, Garry. Witches & Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth. New York: Literary Research, Inc., 1995.

B. Journal Articles

Huntley, Frank L. "Macbeth and the Background of Jesuitical Equivocation." Proceedings of the Modern Language Association. Vol. 79 (1964), pp. 390-400.

MacCarthy, Fiona. "Faith and Treason: The story of the Gunpowder Plot." New York Review of Books. Vol. 44 no. 8 (May 15, 1997), pp.35-37.

C. Internet Articles

Allen, Phillip. The Trials of ... Guy Fawkes [and the] Conspirators in the Gunpowder-Plot. 27 Jan. 1605. 3 Jac. 1. Internet WWW page, at URL: <> (version current as of April 9, 2000)

Anonymous Author. Equivocation. Internet WWW page, at URL: <> (version current as of April 8, 2000)

Anonymous Author. Guy Fawkes and his day: Cast Of Characters. Internet WWW page, at URL: <> (version current as of April 8, 2000)

Boot, Jeremy. Guy Fawkes – Treason in 1605. Internet WWW page, at URL: <> (version current as of March 5, 2000)

Friedlander, Ed, M.D. Enjoying "Macbeth", by William Shakespeare. Internet WWW page, at URL: <> (version current as of March 5, 2000)

Vaidya, Suchit and Chris Harrison. Internet WWW page, at URL: <> (version current as of March 5, 2000)

Weller, Philip. Macbeth Navigator: Themes: Equivocation. Internet WWW page, at URL: <> (version current as of March 5, 2000)

Wuestenhagen, Greg. Guy Fawkes and his day. Internet WWW page, at URL: <> (version current as of March 5, 2000)