Monday 7 May 2012

A Question of Equivocation

I don’t watch a lot of television.  In fact I hardly watch it at all; I don’t even have a television set in my rooms at college.  When I’m in London or elsewhere there is just far too much to do, places to go, people to see, books to read, premiers to attend, parties and more parties!  Besides most of what’s broadcast is complete rubbish, a form of death by entertainment, the kind of mind-numbing real live life shows anticipated with stunning prescience in The Year of the Sex Olympics, a play I wrote about here a couple of years ago (The Live Life Show, 9 June, 2010.)

I do, however, use catch up services like BBC iPlayer, just to make sure I’ve not missed anything worthwhile.  My viewing tends to be a bit sporadic, though, depending very much on what else is happening in my life.  I had some time to spare at the weekend and decided to see what was on offer.  I’m so glad I did because each broadcast has a limited shelf-life. 

There was an excellent documentary by Professor Mary Beard on life in ancient Rome.  It’s not that I want to talk about, though.  Rather it’s The King and the Playwright: a Jacobean History, presented by Professor James Shapiro.  Hitherto I’d never heard of Schapiro, an American specialist in Shakespeare based at Columbia University

It was quite brilliant, an exploration of the way in which the transition from Tudor to Stuart rule impacted on Shakespeare’s drama.  In plays like Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens and King Lear Shapiro shows how the dramatist, now part of the King’s Men playing company, both flattered and subtly criticised James I, the new monarch. 

But it was in the second episode, touching on ‘equivocation’ that really opened my eyes.  In placing Macbeth, the Scottish play, in the context of English history, Professor Shapiro delivered a real wow-me effect.  He brought out contemporary nuances that I was completely unaware of, matters relating to the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot.  For an American professor of literature to alert me to a novel dimension of English history really is something! 

The key here is the word ‘equivocation’, which entered general usage during the early Jacobean period.  It acquired a particular resonance in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, when a nation was beset by uncertainty, by fear of terrorism and the even greater fear of potential terrorism. 

Even as the principle plotters were executed in January, 1606 the authorities continued to look for the mastermind behind a scheme that, if successful, would have killed not only the king but virtually the whole of the English establishment.  The man they alighted on was Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest, who had been charged with keeping the faith alive in England.  Now the Plot acquired a whole new dimension, implicating the Catholic community at large.

In the course of investigating Garnet’s alleged complicity a document was discovered, quite explosive, appropriately enough, on the question of equivocation – namely, the justifiable lie.  A Treatise of Equivocation was really just a guide for Catholics living in a hostile Protestant environment.  As Shapiro explains, it was a ‘how to guide’ for English Catholics, torn in their loyalties between the King and the Pope, on evading direct questions by subtle forms of dissimulation; lying, in other words, without lying.  The government had its mastermind. 

The trial of Garnet was a sensation.  He was accused of being involved in not just the Gunpowder Plot but other treasonable schemes going back some fifteen years.  Equivocation was used as a fundamental part of the prosecution’s case.  In parrying the accusations Garnet said that even Jesus himself had equivocated, which doubtless deepened the offence.  The jury took a mere fifteen minutes to reach a verdict.  As a contemporary said, Garnet would equivocate even so far as the gallows, but he will hang, without equivocation.

Shakespeare, in his brilliance, caught both the word and the national mood in his new play – Macbeth.  Those who know the play will immediately call to mind the supposedly comic devil porter scene.  It’s night.  To the gates of Macbeth’s castle comes an unknown visitor, who proceeds to knock loudly at the door. The porter arises and enters into a mood of devilish reverie, as if at the gates of hell;

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

Knocking within
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! 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
knock, knock! Who's there? Faith, here's an
English tailor come hither, for stealing out of
a French hose: come in, tailor; here you may
roast your goose. 
Knocking within
knock; never at quiet! What are you? But
this place is too cold for hell. I'll devil-porter
it no further: I had thought to have let in
some of all professions that go the primrose
way to the everlasting bonfire. 

The whole play, which centres on a regicide, had a tremendous topical relevance.  The porter is alert to treason and equivocation.  James himself would have recognised who the principle equivocator was, the traitor who could not equivocate his way to heaven. 

Macbeth is full of equivocation, of evasions in the face of the truth.  Macbeth equivocates, Lady Macbeth equivocates, dissimulation in multiple forms, high and low.  In the end Macbeth realises that he himself has been the victim of the witches’ equivocation;

I pull in resolution and begin
To doubt th' equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth.

How carefully Shakespeare walked here.  To deal with such sensitive issues with such directness carried potential dangers.  A play centring on regicide might have been fatal in less skilful hands.  But Shakespeare balances equivocation with flattery, holding up a mirror to the king when the play touches on the issue of the succession.  Now the witches stop equivocating.  Macbeth sees into the future; he sees James himself; his treachery has been fruitless; the rightful line will prevail.  There is no more equivocation. 


  1. It is well known that W. Shakespeare 'The Actor' didn't personally write all 'That Stuff' but the myth is tightly knit into the fabric of the English psyche. Religion inseparable from politics or the attempt to separate it from politics has been the cause of much conflict throughout history. 'Fear of Eternal Damnation' or such has been a useful tool in keeping society compliant.

    1. Anthony, so far as Shakespeare's authorship is concerned have a look at Will Power, published on 25 April, 2010. It's true that he collaborated with others on some of his later plays.

  2. Ana, I guess great minds think alike! (or watch the same shows? :-P )

    I was going to ask you about it after watching it online the other day, but couldn't think of any good way to weave it into a comment (I HATE making off-topic posts). I learned quite a bit, and saw (perhaps) why you decided to specialize in this complex historical period! I admit that I was a little worried how accurate an American historian's research and analysis might be - I'm glad to see you've given him the A F-B stamp of approval!

    It increased my admiration of Shakespeare even more - what a dangerous minefield his was tip-toeing through when he released MfM and ToA! Knowing that he was risking imprisonment or unpleasant death, but still writing and performing political plays just amazes me.

    I too enjoyed Prof Beard's documentaries about working-class Rome. I noted that not only was she from your Uni, but she also spoke with one of Cambridge's Dons (I forget his name - Wallace-Hadrill(?). Do you know them very well? Or do you Jacobean doctoral candidates not interact with those of the Classical mob?

    1. Thanks, CB. I've seen her in passing but we are separated by centuries. :-)

      Oh, incidentally, there is a response to your comment on my Discord in Concord article on Broowaha...from a Yankee. :-))

  3. Hi Ana, thank you for drawing my attention to Shapiro's new book. He is no flash in the pan. His 2005 book 1599: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE is one of the finest books I've ever read on Shakespeare. Shapiro blows away noisier, more famous Shakespeare scholars like Greenblatt and Bloom, and his research supercedes much of the work of the previous generation of Shakespeare scholars.

    From what you write in your post, it sounds like he has maintained his extraordinary standard in his latest book--I'll order it immediately.

    A propos of "equivocation", are you familiar with the sinister political connotations of the word "imagination" during the Elizabethan period? One of the main sources would be Conyers Read's biographies MR SECRETARY CECIL AND QUEEN ELIZABETH and LORD BURGHLEY AND QUEEN ELIZABETH . . .

    1. Chris, I love new discoveries and Shapiro's work is a new discovery for me. I ordered Contested Will. I'll now add 1599.

      No, I wasn't aware that there was a problem with 'imagination'. I shall have to add the Cecil also!!!

  4. Perhaps one should consider an alternative possibility: that King Jim or his minders might have had some direct influence on what Shakespeare's play should communicate to the standees and grandees? We are quite used to the idea of visual artist as executioner of works commissioned to enhance the image of a patron. Why not playwrights and poets? Would it be implausible to suggest Will wasn't the only plotter plotting plots?

    1. Not at all, Calvin. That's an intriguing conjecture.

  5. You will know more about the subject than I do Ana, but I remember watching an "In Search of..." program by Michael Wood a few years ago in which the presenter said that many in Shakespeare's wider family were Catholics, and he would have known how important it was to keep that quiet. I wish I could have seen this program, but the iPlayer isn't available in Hong Kong.

    1. Dennis, yes I suspect he knew about the need for 'equivocation' from personal experience.

      It's such a pity you can't see this. It really is a first class dissertation.

  6. Shapiro was also new to me. I started watching the program just because the review in Radio Times made it sound worthwhile and shortly into it had a "Hang On" moment and realised I had to watch this at another level instead of at the level where I'm watching iplayer and writing/reading at the same time. This program had my full attention and I was completely drawn into it. Some fascinating insights as you point you.