Friday, April 1, 2016

Shakespeare and Gunpowder

What did Shakespeare think about gunpowder? Did you ever wonder? Did he ever blow anything up? Did he ever fire a gun? What would he have thought of our Second Amendment debates? Would he have joined the NRA?

Elizabethan and Jacobean legislators didn't get around to outlawing firearms, since it was such a novel thing to be able to carry one around rather than to have to wheel it onto the battlefield. The big social violence problem during Shakespeare's time was caused not by guns, but by swords, of the new super-sharp and supple Spanish and Italian varieties, with which young men were in the habit of challenging each other in taverns and alleyways
on the slightest provocation. Shakespeare's plays are full of actual or almost-swordfights between characters anxious to show off their special moves, or to evade the duel of honor because they're chicken. Hamlet and Laertes, Mercutio and Tybalt, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Viola/Cesario are just a few who fight or spend a lot of energy trying to get out of fighting. In As You Like It, Touchstone the clown explains the various ways of escaping a duel while still saving face, by claiming that you misunderstood the challenger's insult, or allowing him to back down: "If you said so, then I said so." He concludes, "Much virtue in 'if'." All the sudden swordfighting, or talk of it, in Shakespeare's plays reflects the reality of Elizabethan London, where legislation had to be passed outlawing private duelling. (It still went on.)

But what are we to make of the sword-happy character whom Shakespeare decided to name "Pistol"? Pistol's "cock is up, and flashing fire will follow." This is not only a dirty joke but Pistol's explicit self-comparison to the gun for which he was named. Yet Pistol has no gun. It's really not likely he would have walked around brandishing a fire-arm in the first decade of the fifteenth century, when his plays are set. It's a sword he waves around (and calls "sweetheart" when he lays it gently down). Even nearly two hundred years after the early fifteenth century, when Shakespeare created Pistol in his Henry IV plays, pistols, though they existed, were, as I said, not commonly wielded. We do not hear of people dying in the streets of gunshot wounds. Yet the fact that Shakespeare knew pistols well enough to use one metaphorically in a character's name suggests that around the turn of the seventeenth century, people -- or at least one playwright -- were beginning to imagine gunpowder, not on a battlefield or outside a walled city, but exploding in the London streets.

Read the Henry IV plays again. Gunpowder is everywhere, not just in Pistol's name and in descriptions of his behavior, but in the cannons on the battlefield of Holmedon in the north (where they historically weren't), in the king's messenger's oddly knowledgeable description of how gunpowder is made, and in the cowardly Falstaff's expressed fear of being "peppered" by gunshot, his description of his soldiers as "food for powder," and his claim to have a pistol on his person (he's lying. It's just a flask). Finally, gunpowder is present in the curious phrase Falstaff uses to describe the corpse of Henry Percy, the fallen hero known as Hotspur. "I am afraid of this gunpowder Percy," he says. "How if he should rise?" Strange, to compare the most chivalric of sword-wielding knights to an ignominious pistol-bearing soldier. Strange, also, to compare a dead body to gunpowder. Is it possible Shakespeare knew that one of the ingredients for gunpowder -- sulphur -- was sometimes obtained by mining decomposing corpses pulled from battlefields?

I'm guessing he knew. Gunpowder was in the air. And consider this. What was the effect of all this gunpowder talk on a few disaffected Catholic Englishmen, gentlemen with too much time on their hands, blocked in their ambitions because of their religion, seething with frustration, and drawn to the playhouses, where they saw heroic dramas featuring their Catholic ancestors locked in political or physical combat with treacherous monarchs?

In 1606, a cadre of Catholic conspirators would be hanged and disemboweled for their part in an attempt to blow up the Protestant King James and his House of Lords in the very heart of London. Their two ringleaders were shot down by their hunters before they came to trial. One of those plotters was named Catesby, and claimed kinship with William Catesby, a character in Shakespeare's Richard III. The other was named Thomas Percy, who fancied himself a descendant of Hotspur. My new novel, Gunpowder Percy, tells their story.

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