Friday, November 1, 2019

The Fifth of November

The Fifth of November will soon once more be upon us, just in time for me to give my students a wickedly challenging short-essay test on Macbeth, chock-full of equivocal and deceptive language, just like the play. I always try to time our Macbeth discussions for this time of year, an appropriately scary season, what with Halloween being followed by the Day of the Dead and then the English holiday, Guy Fawkes Day. And, of course, the Fifth of November -- Guy Fawkes Day -- is particularly important to Shakespeare's play.

For those who don't know the story: November 5, 1605, was the date on which a group of English Catholic zealots planned to blow up the House of Lords, killing the Protestant King James and all of his Protestant ministers of state; and to begin the restoration of England to a Catholic monarchy. Various Catholic candidates were considered for the soon-to-be-empty throne. Only things never got to that point, because someone leaked, and the barrels of gunpowder were discovered in the parliamentary cellarage right on the eve of the planned massacre (scheduled to occur on Parliament's opening day, for maximal bloodshed). Guy Fawkes was not the head of the conspiracy. He was only the plotter unlucky enough to be found guarding the gunpowder. Presumably he'd been given the task of lighting the fuse. Instead, after a bout of Tower torture, he accepted the job of pinpointing the other conspirators, and for months thereafter, it was more dangerous than ever to be a Catholic in England.

What does this have to do with Macbeth? Well, it is widely agreed among scholars that this play, performed in 1606 and focused on Scottish king-killing (the new king of England, James I, was Scottish), was written in part to capitalize on the public's interest in recent events. More than that, the play's famous Witches, who utter the deceptive prophecies that lead king-killer Macbeth to his doom, are thought to have been a fanciful allusion to the Catholic priests who were in on the plot. In Shakespeare's time Catholic priests were banned from England's shores on pain of death, but priests sneaked in anyway, proselytizing, serving the needs of the faithful, and, in some cases, looking the other way when Catholic plotters came to them seeking absolution for planned acts of terrorism. Well-meant terrorism; that is. Terrorism in the long-term interests of England's collective soul.

When the Gunpowder Plotters so spectacularly failed, the climate became ripe for a play which exploited English fears of Catholic violence and reminded Londoners what a very bad thing it was to kill a king. We can imagine that King James, who was now Shakespeare's company's official patron, also liked to have this last message spread about. Was Shakespeare himself Catholic, as some (Catholic) Shakespeareans are so fond of arguing? Stranger things have turned out to be true, although Macbeth's anti-Catholicism is part of the mountain of evidence to the contrary that, to prove their contention, would need to be explained away. To me it seems that Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth included, tell us nothing about where he stood on the Catholic question. Macbeth does, however, confirm that he knew what an audience might like to see in 1606.

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot! There's really no reason that gunpowder treason should ever be forgot. In England, on what they also call "Bonfire Night," it is not forgot(ten). Nor is it in my classroom. I already have my Guy Fawkes mask ready.