The one question I would ask is how Shakespeare reacted to the event. What did he think of it?
Shakespeare had suffered some terrible tragedies in his life -- the death of his friend Christopher Marlowe in 1593, the death of his 11-year-old son Hamnet in 1596, the death of his father in 1601, and the Essex Rebellion in the same year.
But the Gunpowder Plot was arguably the worst thing that ever happened to Shakespeare. It shaped who he was, and everything he would write until the end of his career, about 6 years later.
|King James in 1606, by John de Critz|
King James had only been king for less than two years, and Shakespeare was a Groom of the Chamber, a King's Man -- writing and performing for the pleasure of the king.
I think that was a difficult time for Shakespeare. He was trying to figure out who James was -- how to best entertain him, and how to communicate to him what Shakespeare wanted him to hear.
I think Shakespeare tried, with Othello for example, to tell the king to take caution, and keep a careful eye on his councillors -- men like Robert Cecil, and especially Robert Cecil, his Lord Privy Seal, Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer.
Shakespeare was also concerned, like many people, that the king was not advancing religious toleration -- peace between the Catholic and Protestant interests in the country.
Shakespeare lived in a time of great danger and fear. He was no stranger to plots and rebellions. The Gunpowder Plot was just one in a long line of events, all of which Shakespeare was aware:
In 1536 there was the Lincolnshire Rising and the Pilgrimage of the Grace -- Catholic revolts against King Henry VIII, not long after he broke with Rome, and just after he began the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
In 1537 there was Bigod's Revolt and Cumberland Rising, for much the same reasons.
On 4 November 1569 there was the Rising of the North -- a Catholic revolt against Queen Elizabeth, in order to replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots whom they thought had a greater claim to the throne than Elizabeth.
One of the reasons these conspirators thought that Mary had a greater claim was because of the birth of her son, James -- who of course was the prime target of the Gunpowder Plot.
It is an interesting to note that one of Elizabeth's heroes in this Rising was Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex -- whose son Robert would lead the failed Essex Rebellion against Elizabeth in 1601.
|Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex|
One of the leaders of this plot, Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland had a nephew, also named Thomas, who would later be one of the leaders of the Gunpowder Plot.
By the way, is it mere coincidence that the Gunpowder Plot would fall so close in date to the Rising of the North? Was there perhaps some thought behind this on the part of the conspirators? I have found no evidence to support this notion, but it would seem to have some significance.
In 1583, there was the Throckmorton Plot -- another Catholic plot to kill Queen Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots.
This plot was led by Francis Throckmorton. He was related to Robert Catesby and Francis Tresham -- who would later lead the Gunpowder Plot.
Francis was also related to Elizabeth Throckmorton, who married Sir Walter Raleigh, who of course was arrested for his part in the Main Plot of 1603 against King James.
|Coughton Court, the home of the Throckmorton family, in Warwickshire.|
Two other plotters were John Somerville and Edward Arden. They were executed and beheaded.
They were related to Shakespeare, who would have been 19 years old at the time.
These plots would have shaped who Shakespeare was, and would have made him painfully aware that in every court, whether it was the court of Elizabeth or the court of James, there were those who were angry, disaffected, and prepared to fight, kill and die for their religious freedoms.
The fact that many of the Gunpowder plotters were from families in Warwickshire -- in the same area where Shakespeare was born, raised, and where his wife and daughters lived -- must have scared him to death. He must have been worried that in some way, he and his relatives might be suspected, interrogated perhaps, or worse.
I think Shakespeare would have taken even greater care in the court of King James after the Main and Bye plots of late 1603 -- only months after James had been crowned.
When the famous and popular Sir Walter Raleigh was put in prison, it must have sent shockwaves throughout Europe -- and the fact that he was kept there until 1616, only to be executed not long after, would have sent a chill down every spine.
Shakespeare only lived until 1616 -- so for the last years of his life, he knew that England was not as free a country as he would have liked.
The Gunpowder Plot must have broken Shakespeare's heart, and I think he never recovered from it.
He was born in a time of violence, danger and persecution. It lasted his entire life. As he was getting on in years and could see the end of his days coming, it would have been terribly sad that it was not getting better.
I think he would have had some hope for the future when James was crowned king, but after the terrible and nightmarish event on 5 November, his hopes for the future were all but gone.
As sad as his last years may have been, it would have been an even darker story had his plays not been published in 1623.
For that we are very fortunate. He may not have been free, but his plays and poetry have lived on, and will endure forever.
David B. Schajer
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