It’s London, 1606. William Shakespeare (in the play spelled Shagspeare, or Shag) has just been made an offer he can’t refuse: King James I wants him to write a play about the recently foiled Gunpowder Plot. Shagspeare is leery: it’s dangerous for playwrights to write about current events. Robert Cecil, the king’s ruthless chief advisor, gives Shag the sanitized version of events, telling him to just add some dialogue — and witches. The king wants witches. The rest of Equivocation is about Shagspeare’s struggle to write a play that will please — or at least not offend — the king.
Shagspeare, like any good writer, is working on more than one play at once — specifically Macbeth and King Lear. And, of course, the themes from those works can’t help but invade his commission for the king — as well as those of Equivocation. The word equivocation means, “A statement that is not literally false but that cleverly avoids an unpleasant truth” or, as Father Garnet says in the play, a way “to speak the truth in difficult times.”
Simply put, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a failed assassination attempt by a group of English Catholics against King James I. The plot intended to kill the king and most of the Protestant aristocracy by blowing up the Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605. But, as we all know too well, politics and history are never simple. Although Robert Catesby (who is a character in Equivocation) led the plot, there is another name that has gone down in history: Guido (aka Guy) Fawkes who was recruited to execute the plan due to his military background. He was caught while guarding the gun powder. More than 400 years later, British children still roam the streets in the days leading up to Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) carrying effigies known as “Guys” and asking passers-by for a “penny for the guy.” Also known as Bonfire Night, families gather to celebrate the defeat of Fawkes and his other conspirators with fireworks, childish rhymes (see below) and bonfires.
Remember, remember the Fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.
King James I was first King James VI of Scotland, rising to power at the ripe old age of 13 months. He became King of England and Ireland in 1603, succeeding Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors (like that HBO series). He then ruled the kingdom of England, Scotland, and Ireland for 22 years, often using the title King of Great Britain, until his death at the age of 58.
When Bill Cain began writing Equivocation in 2004, he steeped himself in 16th and 17th century England, but contemporary concerns couldn’t help but creep in—the search for WMDs, Abu Ghraib, and the two wars. “There are many, many questions [from 17th-century England] identical to the invasion of Iraq,” recalls Cain. “And that was a big motive for writing the play. It was about seeing this stuff and going, ‘Wait a minute. We’ve got plenty of people dying over there and we’re killing people by the tens of thousands, based upon what was a lie.’”
Used with permission from Seattle Repertory Theatre