Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Equivocation: Notes and Spoilers

yesterday and today: The Globe
These notes contain spoilers, but mostly they address questions that might be raised by seeing the play.

 Equivocation is so rich in characters, themes and resonance (too rich for some tastes) that to do much more than introduce the basic action, as I did in my review, would just be confusing.

The play is set in 1606, yet in style it's contemporary.  Previous productions in fact have been done in modern dress, as the playwright suggests.  Redwood Curtain chooses a modified period style.

"The Shakespeare Code"
Since at least Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, there have been a number of plays that use Shakespeare's stories with a twist, or in which Shakespeare himself appears, usually as a more or less contemporary person in historical circumstances--from Shakespeare in Love (Stoppard again) to a classic episode of David Tennant's Doctor Who ("The Shakespeare Code.")  Equivocation follows in this "tradition", and depends on what are now the conventions of it.  Especially that we aren't thrown off by people in 1606 talking a lot like 2006, minus contemporary references.

Yet the play purports to show the interplay of  English politics and William Shakespeare's theatre company in the early 17th century, and involves a famous historical event--the Gunpowder Plot, which is still the focus of holiday celebrations in the UK. (We mostly know it as Guy Fawkes Day, celebrating both the anarchic spirit and the survival of the British government, with bonfires and fireworks.)

 So the first question that might arise after seeing the play could be: how much of the history is made up?

Robert Cecil
Most if not all of the characters named are authentic historical figures.  The play begins with Robert Cecil commissioning Shakespeare to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot, based on a history written by King James himself.  Robert Cecil was indeed Secretary of State to both Queen Elizabeth and then James, and was widely regarded as James' spymaster.  James did write essays etc., though perhaps not this particular history.

Elizabeth's long reign had ended in 1603.  She died without children and without naming an heir.  Cecil was (as noted in this play) instrumental in having James installed as King.  James was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, and was ruling Scotland at the time.  By becoming King, he became head of the Church of England.

Since Henry VIII, the official religion in England was the Church of England, with the King as its head.  Previously England had been Roman Catholic (with the Pope as its head), and ever since Henry there had been religious and political conflict between outlawed adherents of "the old religion" and the official Protestant religion.

The Gunpowder Plot was ostensibly a conspiracy of various English gentlemen and perhaps clergy to overthrow the government and establish a new monarch (Mary's young daughter Elizabeth, with a Catholic regent acting on her behalf.)  The idea was to plant a large quantity of gunpowder beneath the room where Parliament had its opening ceremonies, with the King, his family and ministers attending.  (Wikipedia has an extensive entry on the topic.)
King James

The official version of these events--the letter that eventually alerted Robert Cecil to the plot, the arrests that foiled the plot--are as described in this play.  The conspirators were said to have dug a tunnel to a room under Parliament--Shakespeare has problems believing this in the play, and subsequent historians have found no evidence for a tunnel.  Such a room existed (and still does.) Oddly it was in private hands at the time and no such extreme measures as a tunnel were needed to store gunpowder in it.  If the gunpowder said to have been found in this room really was there, it was more than enough to demolish Parliament and kill everyone in the room (according to a British TV experiment.)


Two other historical figures and characters in the play are Thomas Wintour and the Jesuit priest Henry Garnet.  They were among those imprisoned, tortured and executed in the manner described in the play.  The play faithfully follows the version of his involvement that Garnet asserted--he knew only what had been said to another priest in confession.  He did in fact write a treatise on "equivocation," although he was not the only one or even the first to relate it to "mental reservation", a concept within Catholic and specifically Jesuit ethics, though it has earlier origins.

"Equivocation," as Garnet defines it in the play: "Don't answer the question they're asking. If a dishonest man has formed the question, there will be no honest answer. Answer the question beneath the question. The equivalent question. Answer the question really asked. And answer it with your life."

This play suggests that Robert Cecil himself was behind the gunpowder plot, or at least the story of it that he wanted told.  This was a suspicion of the time, and was developed as a theory by Father John Gerard in 1897.  Others refute these claims.  That Cecil learned of the plot and let it develop for awhile before exposing it is more credible, and more credible still is that he used it for his own political ends.

Cecil, by the way, was a hunchback as suggested in the play, and both his family's prior history he refers to, and its subsequent important history in British government he foresees into the 21st century (including a Nobel Peace Prize), are broadly accurate.

Besides Cecil and other figures involved in the gunpowder plot and its aftermath, Equivocation makes William Shakespeare a character, as well as depicting members of his theatrical troupe.

Shakespeare and all the King's Men

from Shakespeare in Love
 I could verify all the players in Shakespeare's troupe--the King's Men-- that this play names, except "Nate," but in an interview, Equivocation's playwright Bill Cain claimed that an actor by that name was in fact among them.  Richard Burbage was Shakespeare's lead actor.  Robert Armin played the clown roles and had an excellent singing voice.  He was a more verbal comic than Will Kempe, who he replaced.  Richard Sharpe was indeed a young member, who before he joined the company started out very young playing women's parts.

Shakespeare in fact did have a daughter named Judith, and she was the twin sister of his son Hamnet, who died at age 11.  But it does seem she was back with her sister in Stratford and not living with her father in London, as in this play.  The play also shows her reading and even editing Shakespeare's texts, but (according to Shakespeare biographer Peter Ackroyd) in fact she was probably illiterate.

There are many witty lines about Shakespeare and his present day status made by Cecil and others.  He's all things to all men, Cecil says, and adds later, "People will go to your plays as they used to go to church. Reverently. And they will leave exactly as they went in, unchanged but feeling somehow improved."

  It's also suggested that Shakespeare was a long-retired actor in his troupe, and not a very good one.  However it's probable that he stopped acting just a few years before, in 1603 or 04.  And there are those (including Orson Welles and Peter O'Toole) who looked at the parts he played and concluded he must have been one of the troupe's better actors.

This play shows the company rehearsing King Lear, and then performing Macbeth.  In fact Macbeth was performed for King James probably in the spring of 1606. King Lear was probably performed that December, so the earlier rehearsals aren't outlandish.

Equivocation begins with Shakespeare being given a commission to write a play based on the official version of the Gunpowder Plot, as written by King James.   Being named the King's Men was an honor but it also meant that the company performed many plays a year before the king and the court.  Still, there's no record of such a commission.

But the idea might have been inspired by a slightly earlier event, in which Shakespeare and his company may have been deliberately used as an adjunct to violent political plot, with potentially disastrous results.  In 1601, supporters of the Earl of Essex paid for a performance by Shakespeare's company of his play Richard II, which involves the deposing of the king.  Some of these were also conspiring with Essex to start a rebellion against the government.  It was alleged later that they were using the performance both as a cover for their activities that day, and as inspiration and justification for overthrowing the monarch.  But the revolt failed, and after some uncertainty, Shakespeare and players escaped punishment.
Orson Welles as Macbeth

Shakespeare, in this play and in reality, never wrote a play about the gunpowder plot, but as in this play, the next play he wrote and produced was Macbeth.  Scenes from it, with some theatrical additions, are the climax of Equivocation.

The relationships of Macbeth to James I, the gunpowder plot and the concept of equivocation drawn in this play are drawn elsewhere in the critical literature. From one point of view, Macbeth is about the consequences of killing a king.  It's the Scottish play, James was a Scot, and (according to Ackroyd) "King James had been greeted by three sibyls at the gates of an Oxford college and hailed as the true descendant of Banquo."  In Shakespeare's play, Banquo is declared the father of kings by three witches, and Macbeth murders him.  Shakespeare differs here from previous stories about Macbeth, in which Banquo is among the conspirators against the rightful king Duncan (who Macbeth also murders.)  This can be seen as illustrating of the charge Cecil makes in Equivocation, that Shakespeare, a master of equivocation, made sure to stay on the right side of the powerful.

In Equivocation, much is made of King James wish that there be witches in Shakespeare's play.  James was known for his interest in occult or malign spirits, and had written on the subject.

Judith Shakespeare
At the end of  Equivocation, Judith makes a powerful point about Shakespeare's last plays, and the father-daughter relationships within his general theme of family.  Peter Ackroyd makes much the same point in his biography of Shakespeare--in fact, since this book was published in 2005, it may have suggested this observation to playwright Cain.  "The essential bond is father and daughter. It may not be the pattern of his life," Ackroyd wrote, "but it clearly is the pattern of his imagination."

Contemporary Flavors

Equivocation was first produced up in Ashland at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009, so it's reasonable to assume Cain wrote it during the G.W. Bush administration.  There certainly are echoes of the Bush administration's use and justification of torture.  There's suggestion of the political exploitation of the plot that succeeded (9/11) as well as the plot that failed (the gunpowder plot.)

There's also some echo of today's polarized politics. In the play Robert Cecil admits that his political purpose is to keep the country sharply divided. "When a country is evenly divided - and plots can be so helpful for that - the slightest touch of a royal finger on the scale changes the balance."

But contemporary as well as historical relevance go beyond these specifics, at least in Cain's stated intent.  He'd visited the Tower of London, seen where prisoners had been tortured, and noticed that the Globe theatre was close by.  He said that this play is about "the relationship of the Tower and the theatre," and that Shakespeare's troupe "was the only functioning democracy anywhere in the world in 1605."


There are several witty comments on Shakespeare's dramaturgy, and the nature of plays in general that this play turns into elegant symmetries.

In Equivocation Shakespeare complains that the gunpowder plot can be made into a dramatic play because the explosion never happened--it's a story without an ending.  He tries various ways to write this play, but does not succeed.  Yet what is Equivocation itself about? A play that never gets written about an event that never takes place.

But this Shakespeare also wants to revolt against the strictures of what must be in a play. He tells Judith he yearns to write "A new kind of play. Not the clash of opposites, but their union. Not tearing; joining. Forgiveness, not blame." "A play that's not about revenge?" Judith retorts. "It can't be done."  But he does it in his later plays.

Several times Shakespeare also bemoans other conventions of the stage--histories end in battle, comedies in marriage and tragedies in death--and longs to write a play that defies these.  Arguably Shakespeare also did this in his later plays, but so does Bill Cain: Equivocation is a history and a comedy that ends in death (Shakespeare's.)

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