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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Shakespeare and the Birth of the Gunpowder Plot


On 20 May 1604, the five principal conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot met for the first time.

Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes aka Guido Fawkes, Thomas Wintour, John Wright and Thomas Percy all met in London, at the Duck and Drake Inn, off the Strand.



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.

Catesby is believed to have been born in Warwickshire. His family were prominent Catholics who violated the recusancy laws by practicing their faith in secret.

His father spent many years in prison for breaking the law, which included harboring the famous Jesuit priest Edmund Campion. His relative Sir Francis Throckmorton was executed for his part in the attempt to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and replace her with her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots.

At some point in Catesby’s life, probably after the death of his beloved wife Catherine, he became radicalized. 

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.


It is very likely that he met William Shakespeare at one point or another in those years.

Shakespeare was from Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire.

Shakespeare’s friend and patron was the Earl of Essex, who led the failed Essex Rebellion. It is entirely possible that Shakespeare met Catesby around the time that Catesby joined Essex’s conspiracy.

One of Catesby’s ancestors, Sir William Catesby, was one of Richard III’s councillors. Shakespeare included him as a character in his Richard III play. 



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 Catesby, as well as the other Gunpowder Plot conspirators, give us a look into the life of Shakespeare that has not been explored in detail.

Shakespeare knew many people in his years in London. In the years from 1593 to 1610, he was the most famous man in London.

He would have wanted to meet the rich, the powerful and the influential. They would have wanted to meet him. 

Some of these people were leading lives as recusant Catholics. Shakespeare may or may not have who was or was not a secret Catholic.

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.


Shakespeare’s life was bad enough with the threat of the plague, the occasional closing of the theatres, and deaths in his family.

He also had to worry about his reputation.

Shakespeare had to tread very cautiously in Elizabethan and Jacobean London. It was very risky if he was too close to anyone, whether they were rich and powerful or not.

He could never know if the man or woman he just met would turn out to be part of a plot against the state.

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.



Cheers,



David B. Schajer



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