409 years ago, on 20 May 1604, the five principal conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot met for the first time.
|An Elizabethan-era Inn|
Catesby was in charge of the Plot, and it was his idea to blow up Parliament on its opening day. He wanted to kill King James and his family, and murder as many men in the government as possible.
He was involved in the failed Essex Rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in 1601, for which he was put in prison and forced to pay a crushing penalty.
|Brass rubbing of Sir William Catesby|
It is entirely likely that Catesby would have visited the theatre to see how Shakespeare depicted his ancestor on stage.
He may not have liked it, since his ancestor was called a "dull and unmindful villain" on a public London stage.
I am not suggesting that Shakespeare was a co-conspirator in the Essex Rebellion or in the Gunpowder Plot.
But he could not have been ignorant of the fact that any one of them could be a potential threat to the state. Any one of them could be a terrorist, or could be harboring potential terrorists, or could be funding terrorists.
The closest Shakespeare had come to being implicated in a plot was the Essex Rebellion.
In my version of Hamlet, I portray the events surrounding the Rebellion and Shakespeare's involvement with the Earl of Essex.
If Shakespeare had the even the slightest knowledge of the Essex Rebellion it could have cost him his life.
The famous playwright Thomas Kyd had been imprisoned and tortured for less. Ben Jonson had been imprisoned for less. Christopher Marlowe may have been murdered for far less.
I think Shakespeare paid a price for the Essex Rebellion, and I think he did in fact almost lose his life because of it.
In the years after, Shakespeare would have been more reluctant to associate with men like Essex, or Catesby.
But he knew they were out there.
When Catesby and the others met for the first time on 20 May 1604, it was a Sunday.
They swore an oath of secrecy on a prayer book.
Just after that, in another room, the Jesuit priest John Gerard celebrated an illegal Mass with them, and they took the Sacrament of the Holy Communion together.
|Father John Gerard|
Gerard later claimed that he had no knowledge of the Plot, despite the fact that he was friends with Catesby. I find this very hard to believe.
On that Sunday, Shakespeare would have attended church. The theatre was normally open on Sundays but there was a plague so bad in these early days of King James's reign that all theatres were closed.
It was a frightening time in the early days of King James's reign.
Shakespeare knew that before long, especially since King James was abusing his power and making the country suffer, it could get much worse.
Shakespeare would perform Othello for the first time in November 1604. He must have been already thinking about the play, and figuring out the plot and the characters.
Shakespeare wrote Othello for many reasons, one of which was to warn the King that he was not uniting the country, but in fact tearing the country apart, especially along religious lines.
Shakespeare may not have known that there were Catholics who were conspiring to kill King James at that very moment, probably not so far away from him, but it would not have surprised him in the least.
David B. Schajer
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