Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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The University of Oxford's Bodleian Library & The Royal Shakespeare Company

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Friday, July 15, 2016

Shakespeare's Porter in Macbeth

King James, the main target of the Gunpowder Plot
painted in 1606, the year in which Macbeth was written

I want to share with you something I discovered, something I think may have been overlooked by Shakespeare scholars.

When Shakespeare wrote his Macbeth play, he created the character of a drunken Porter who acts as if he is the Porter at the gates of Hell, and he famously asks who’s knocking:

Knocking within. Enter a Porter

Here's a knocking indeed! If a
man were porter of hell-gate, he should have
old turning the key.

Knocking within

Knock, knock, knock! Who's there, i' the name of
Beelzebub? Here's a farmer, that hanged
himself on the expectation of plenty: come in
time; have napkins enow about you; here
you'll sweat for't.

Knocking within

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: O, come
in, equivocator.

Knocking within

The Porter goes on like this for a bit, but the point is that he is drunkenly having some fun.

Scholars have pointed out that when the Porter refers to the equivocator, Shakespeare is referring to Father Henry Garnet.

Henry Garnet

Garnet had been arrested, put on trial, and executed. The government accused him of being part of the Gunpowder Plot.

At Garnet’s trial he was accused of equivocating, of saying one thing and believing another. 

The matter of “equivocation” was discussed in great detail during the treason trial. The point was to prove that Garnet, and his fellow Catholics, were liars — they would say whatever they needed to say (“swear in both the scales”) to escape punishment, while secretly in their hearts they were traitors to the Crown.

Also, one of the names that Garnet used, as he traveled across England undercover, was Farmer. So when the Porter refers to a “farmer” it may be an additional reference to Garnet.

So, Shakespeare seems to have included this reference to equivocation in order to remind the audience about Garnet.

It is very convincing that Shakespeare would refer to Garnet.

But I discovered something else. One of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators was a man by the name of Everard Digby.

Everard Digby

After Digby had been captured, he wrote many letters in jail.

He also wrote a poem:
Who's that which knocks? Oh stay, my Lord, I come:
I know that call, since first it made me know
My self, which makes me now with joy to run,
Lest he be gone that can my duty show.
Iesu my Lord, I know thee by the Cross
Thou offer'st me, but not unto my loss.

Come in, my Lord, whose presence most I crave,
And shew thy will unto my longing mind.
From punishments of sin thy Servant save,
Though he hath been to thy deserts unkind.
Iesu forgive, and strengthen so my mind,
That rooted vertues thou in me maist find.

Stay still, my Lord, else will they fade away,
As Marigold that mourns for absent Sun:
Thou know'st thou plantest in a barren clay,
That choaks in Winter all that up is come.
I do not fear thy Summers wished heat,
My tears shall water where thy shine doth threat.

The first line of this poem is incredibly similar to what Shakespeare’s Porter says.

What the Porter asks seems like an inversion of what Digby asks. When Digby speaks of the Lord, the Porter speaks of Beelzebub, the Devil.

More importantly, Digby’s question “Who’s that which knocks?” would seem to have been what first inspired Shakespeare to create “Knock, knock! Who’s there?” in the first place.

Did Shakespeare read Digby’s poem in 1606?

Was Digby’s question the genesis of the Porter’s question?

There is no hard evidence to prove that Shakespeare read Digby’s poem and had the idea to make fun of it in in Macbeth

But on the face of it, when you compare Digby’s poem and Shakespeare’s Porter’s routine, it is hard to believe that Shakespeare did not use Digby’s poem.

Also, if Digby’s poem was well known at the time, then it would have been an odd coincidence that Shakespeare’s dialogue is so similar.

And if Shakespeare was already referring to Garnet in his Porter’s routine, then it is just as likely that Shakespeare was referring to another one of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, Digby.

The fact that Shakespeare was so interested in the events of the Gunpowder Plot should come as no surprise. It was a huge event in his life, and in the history of England.

What is more fascinating is why Shakespeare would make distinct references to Garnet, and clearly to Digby. 

It would be easy to assume that Shakespeare referred to them to mock them as the evil men they were.

It seems to me that Shakespeare was trying to find a way to introduce to his audience of fellow Englishmen the idea that the history of England was now divided into two periods: the period before the Gunpowder Plot and the period after the Gunpowder Plot.
The period before the Gunpowder Plot was a time of relative innocence and peace.

The period after the Gunpowder Plot would be a time of neverending fear of terrorism, and include monstrously evil terrorist acts.

Yes, there was violence, war, and targeted assassinations before 1605. the Gunpowder Plot. But the Gunpowder Plot was meant to kill King James, and many others almost indiscriminately.

Sadly for us today, if Shakespeare was indeed alerting us that, forever after 5 November 1605, the world in which we live would witness successive acts of terrorism, then it would seem that he was not far wrong.


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