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Gunpowder Plot

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare
Mairi MacDonaldMairi MacDonald

Gunpowder Plot (1605), 

a conspiracy of certain younger Catholic gentry to remove King James from the throne of England, and restore Catholicism.

Before his accession to the throne of England in 1603, James VI of Scotland had been approached, as the heir of Mary, Queen of Scots, by the leading Catholics in England, to whom he made non-committal promises of toleration. The hopes thus raised were dashed when, in his first Parliament, he supported the enactment of increasingly harsh penal laws. Led by Robert Catesby, of Ashby St Legers, Northamptonshire, a group of young men determined to blow up Parliament when it met. Their plan was to kill the King and the Prince of Wales, and proclaim as queen the young Princess Elizabeth, who would be educated as a Catholic monarch. Most of the conspirators had Midland connections, the exception being Guy Fawkes, a Catholic mining expert recruited to supervise the digging of a tunnel under the Parliament House. Postponements in summoning Parliament delayed execution of the plot for ten months and it is certain that the government knew at least the broad outline, although it is impossible to determine whether Burghley orchestrated events to suit his purposes. In early November 1605 most of the conspirators were in Warwickshire, ready to seize Elizabeth from Combe Abbey, near Coventry, and, on the discovery of Fawkes in the cellars of Westminster on 5 November, fled north through the Midlands, being finally surrounded at Holbech House, Staffordshire, where Catesby and three others died. The rest were captured and either died in prison or were executed for treason.

Most English Catholics were appalled by news of the plot, realizing the slim chance of success, and that failure would lead to further repression. The peripheral involvement of the Jesuits gave the government the opportunity to invoke the severest penalties against Catholic clergy who, the evidence suggests, had been strongly against the plot.

References to the events of 1605 have been proposed in King Lear and Macbeth, both first performed around 1606. In September and October 1605 a double eclipse of the sun and moon was assumed to presage ill times. The events of the following months seemed to justify the foreboding and Shakespeare probably drew on this in King Lear 1.2.100–6, Gloucester remarking, ‘These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us … Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide; in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces treason.’ In Macbeth the references are more oblique but more numerous. Allusions to the plot occur most notably in the speech of the Porter whose remarks about equivocation appear to refer to the allegations that the Jesuits encouraged lying in the cause of religion (2.3.7–11). The analogy is possibly continued in the equivocal prophecies of the Weird Sisters, telling Macbeth that he would ‘never vanquished be until | Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill | Shall come against him’ (4.1.107–9) and further bolstering his confidence with the assurance that ‘none of woman born | Shall harm Macbeth’ (4.1.96–7)

Mairi MacDonald


Fraser, Antonia, The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 (1996)Find this resource: