Equivocation (play)

post-Festival runs in Seattle (in the fall) and off-Broadway in NY (next spring), there’s a chance a production will be coming soon to a venue near you.  If it does appear, check it out — this complex and intellectually interesting drama is rare in modern theater.

The premise:  Robert Cecil, chief councillor to King James, asks Shakespeare to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot.  Shakespeare agrees, but wants to interview the conspirators to get a sense of what happened.  What he finds disturb him — there was no tunnel, no gunpowder, maybe even no plot. So Will faces a dilemma — does he write the truth, and likely lose his life, or give Cecil the story he asks for, portraying the plotters as a group of religious terrorists?

The heart of the play is the imagined relationship between Shakespeare and the other members of his acting company — a “cooperative venture” of five men who want to make money producing successful plays, but who want to make art too.  We get amusing glimpses of the acting company rehearsing plays that were “works in progress” at the time; much scenery is chewed. We also see Shakespeare interacting with his daughter Judith, who was her father’s London housekeeper and who, it is suggested, had more than a little to do with rescuing some of Shakespeare’s better efforts from the garbage.  

The play is a tour de force for the actors, each of whom play several roles.  You never know whether an actor is playing, for example, the actual Lord Cecil or the actor playing Lord Cecil in rehearsals for the “Gunpowder Plot” play.  It keeps the audience on its toes.

Towards the end of the play, Shakespeare visits Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest implicated in the plot, in prison.  Garnet had written an essay on “equivocation,” or the art of telling the truth in difficult circumstances.  If you are harboring the king against a foreign enemy, and a soldier of that power comes to your door and asks you to swear that the king is not hiding there, how do you respond?  The answer to that dilemma, said Garnet, was to answer the question that was really being asked — in this case, “Can we come in and kill the king?”  Garnet used that reasoning to refuse to discuss what he knew of the plot, which he had learned under the seal of the confessional. This type of reasoning, predictably, enraged the English authorities of Shakespeare’s day (Garnet was tortured and ultimately executed for treason), but it makes more sense in a post-Rwanda world.

Shakespeare resolves his dilemma by giving Cecil what he really wants — a play about bringing a regicide to justice that will please King James.  That play, of course, is Macbeth. Ironically, comments about equivocation in that play (most of which appear in the comedic porter’s scene) are usually cut as incomprehensible to a modern audience.

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. (Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 3)

The playwright, Bill Cain, visited the Tower of London and was told that “no one was ever tortured for their religion in the Tower” — a nice piece of equivocation that he tries to rectify with this play.

Amusing historical footnote:  Several times in the play, King James refers to Cecil as “Beagle,” which I thought was an oblique reference to Karl Rove but apparently was historically accurate.  Apparently George W., Bush’s bullying nicknames have quite a historical pedigree.