The ensemble cast of the Actors' Shakespeare Project performing "Equivocation" in Boston
As performed by the Actors' Shakespeare Project, the play "Equivocation" by Bill Cain is enough to make me rethink my customary reluctance to go to see 'new' plays that I know nothing about and haven't even read the reviews.It's a brilliant play. It's a play about the historical background that led Shakespeare to compose, and his company to stage, "Macbeth": the Scottish play, the play with the witches in it, the play where unbridled ambition murders a rightful king and puts an illegitimate ruler on a throne... and turns a country into, in period lingo, "Another Hell Above the Ground."
It's also a play about a word that struck fear into the English establishment in 1605 -- "equivocation."
But as the production's director notes, "Though the play is set in Jacobean England in 1606, it is about now -- both in language and character."
In the first years of a new century (the 1600s), and under a new ruler, Shakespeare's Company confronted challenges to its survival. Under Elizabeth's reign, the company was the "The Queen's Men" -- but, alas, the queen has died and a new monarch, James Stuart, king of Scotland, and now James I of England, sat on England's throne. Would the company still be fostered and protected by the country's monarch?
The company's issues of survival and direction were brought to a boil by the infamous "Gunpowder Plot." The plot to blow up Parliament and destroy the king and his family in one devastating coup d'etat was discovered late in 1605 when an armed man was found standing guard over a room filled with barrels of gunpowder (leaving a permanent imprint on the English calendar: Guy Fawkes Day). The discovery led to the uncovering of a plot by Catholic lords to destroy the government and return the country to the "old religion."
My knowledge of the Gunpowder Plot and its effect on Shakespeare, his company, and the play "Macbeth" (produced the following year) comes from James Shapiro's book, "The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606," which I read a couple of years ago. His chapters on these issues include a history of "equivocation" -- short definition: the doctrine of the religious justification for lying -- that so worried the English government that high officials claimed it threatened the fundamental basis of human society.
The Gunpowder Plot goes down as the last attempt to restore Roman Catholicism as the state religion of England. A look at the history of religious warfare in England and the rest of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries is likely to convince anyone that America's founders showed great wisdom in insisting on "no establishment of religion" in our Constitutional framework. Religious conflict caused a state of warfare between Protestant England and Spain during Queen Elizabeth's reign and the famous invasion attempt made by the Spanish Armada. Fears of Catholic plots or rebellion caused Elizabeth to have her half-sister Mary Stuart, a Catholic, executed.
And Mary's son, James, succeeded Elizabeth to the throne it was only after the English government was convinced that James was a bedrock Protestant. Both Elizabeth and James hunted down Catholic priests slipped into the country by England's enemies, France and Spain, to minister to the country's religious minority. That Catholic population did not significantly decline until the Gunpowder Plot discredited the Roman Catholic religion as the fixed enemy of the English state.
In fact, "Equivocation" raises the possibility that the 'plot' was a government conspiracy to achieve that very purpose, the way Hitler set fire to his country's Reichstag (parliament) to scapegoat German Communists.
The background of religious conflict and a new king on the throne throw light on the key elements in Shakespeare's "Macbeth" -- a Scottish king, a plot to murder a legitimate king, the role of duplicitous witches (an obsession of King James), and the murderous Macbeth and his Lady's reliance on secrecy and lies to carry out their conspiracy. And the 'hell on earth' that follows in a country ruled by murderous 'equivocators.'
After reading Shapiro's account of the contemporary conflicts that influence "Macbeth," I thought, 'ah, someone could write a really good story' about these connections, those troubled times, and Shakespeare's enduring masterpliece.'
Or, as it turns out, a good play.
Author Bill Cain wrote "Equivocation" about a decade ago, and the Actors Shakespeare Theater performed its production for a month in greater Boston, closing a week ago.
Here's the company's plot synopsis: "It is England,1605, and a terrorist plot to assassinate the King of England, James I, and blow up Parliament with barrels of gunpowder has been foiled. Prime Minister Robert Cecil commissions William Shakespeare to write a lasting history of the failed plot. King James wants a play and he wants witches. As Shakespeare wrestles with the dilemma of being a propagandist playwright in service to the Crown, his company of fellow actors at the Globe Theatre explore the new play and find the story might just be a political cover. Do the actors speak truth to power, the King and Cecil, and risk spending their lives in prison, or worse, lose their heads?"
In fact, the play not only dramatizes the 'historical' circumstances in a way that makes them feel completely 'modern' -- Robert Cecil is both a ruthless operator, conspirator and "spinner" of issues, he's a sophisticated literary critic and historical analyst; while Shakespeare and his actors weigh considerations of fame, artistic independence, 'selling out' to the propaganda needs of the state, and the need for cold cash -- it raises moral, political, and interpersonal issues at a challenging, verbally clever and fast-moving pace. What might well serve as 'major revelations' in today's all-day cable news world pop up every minute or so in Cain's brilliant script.
If you think you've missed something, you probably have. But let it go, because the next intellectual shocker is just around the corner.
Now here's where the doctrine of "Equivocation" comes into play. While the word initially meant an 'ambiguous' expression, Shapiro tells us ("In the Year of Lear"): "By the time that Shakespeare used the word in the spring of 1606, familiarity with it was nearly universal... No longer neutral, it was now taken to mean concealing the truth by saying one thing while deceptively thinking another."
It's not just lying. It's sophisticated, doctrinally justified lying, in behalf of a cause believers argue is a highly moral purpose. It had become a newly debated religious doctrine for England's Catholic population, who faced government inquiries -- or witch-hunts -- at a time when practicing their religion was against the law, keeping banned religious articles could get you sent to prison or worse, and hiding a priest (routinely burned at the stake if discovered) would definitely get you executed.
So some followers of the 'old religion' were faced with cruel choices if the belief-police arrived at their door when they were concealing or otherwise secretly helping a priest. Either tell the truth and expose your co-religionists, and quite possibly yourself to torture, prison and execution. Or imperil your soul by lying.
The issues gives us an insight into the chasm between the 17th century world view and our own. All law, policing, and jurisdiction in Christian England (and elsewhere) was based on the belief that no one was likely to dare lying under oath. "On your oath," the custodian of the law demands, "were you at home last night?" Your life, let us say, would be much simpler if you could say with a straight face "I was right here with the goodwife" rather than tell the truth, that were down at the tavern participating in an unlicensed "bear-baiting" -- an admission that might you fined and the bear-baiters shut down and perhaps imprisoned.
But you simply can't lie "upon your oath," because to do so imperils your soul.
It's a mortal sin. You will go to hell and burn forever. (Both the Catholic and Protestant religions apparently agreed on this point.)
Then a few priests began teaching the doctrine that that if you withheld certain information for a good, morally pure reason, then God would understand. The sin of bearing false witness would be washed away. Therefore according to the doctrine of equivocation you might tell the real truth to God, while you told a more convenient version of the truth to the thought-police. This act of keeping back some of the truth was also called "mental reservation."
"Yes I was at home last night." Mental reservation: as soon as I got back from the bear-baiting.
Or, in a more pertinent vein: "No, there is no priest within my house."
Reservation: We knew you were coming and so got him out of the house and hid him somewhere else. When we're sure you guys get have left the neighborhood, we'll bring him back.
But Cain's play also makes the case for equivocation. One of the most appealing characters is the priest Henry Garnet, who under questioning (and likely torture) asks the inquisitors to consider a case: a foreign country has invaded your country and seeks to replace your king with their king. Your king seeks shelter in your house. The enemy pounds on the door and demands to know whether you are sheltering the king within. Would you 'lie' to protect him?
Of course not, his accusers reply. We never lie. Well, in that case, you see the problem...
In Cain's fiction, Shakespeare is given an opportunity to speak with Garnet, who explains that equivocation is more than mentally reserving part of the truth. What are the enemies of the king really asking? he says. Answer the real question.
In this case the real question is "will you help us find the king so we can take him away and kill him?"
In that case, the real, and justified answer, Garnet argues, is "No."
Here are a few other examples of the twists and turns from the first couple of scenes to give an idea of this play's intellectual energy.
When Cecil, the King's main man, presents Shakespeare with a commission to write a "true" play about the Gunpowder Plot, the playwright objects, "We don't do "current events," adding, pointedly, "Plays about current events have always been illegal."
"We do histories," he says. "True histories."
The scene deepens as Cecil confesses a left-handed admiration for Shakespeare. Your plays will last, he tells him. With any luck your plays will still be on the boards for, say, "fifty years."
As the scene develops the two men become increasingly more candid. Cecil:"You master Shagspeare have discovered how to be all things to all people. To do this you have made yourself a pure vessel. You have shat out of yourself any trace of personal belief."
This dialogue is clearly attuned to contemporary audiences, though traces of 17th century language remain.
Cecil then calls the opportunity to write about the Gunpowder Plot "your one chance at posterity."
When Shagspeare (as he's called here) returns to his playhouse, we find ourselves thrown into a high-pitched rehearsal of the famous 'storm scene' from "King Lear," in which the homeless King rages in the company of his fool and the apparent lunatic Tom O'Bedlam.
When the rehearsal falls apart amid quarrels, the actor playing the lunatic complains that the play calls for him to perform naked and "covered with shit." He wants a costume.
Shagspeare responds, "I'm asking you to go on stage without a costume to make a living breathing flesh and blood person."
A brief silence, as everyone registers this revolutionary notion.
When Shag gives them the news about the commission to write a play about the ongoing political crisis, his colleagues offer the same complaints he did. They all see the danger in getting involved with the life-and-death questions of contemporary politics.
Shag sums up the change this way: "Current events --with witches -- are now compulsory."
The king demands witches. From here, the play works its fast-paced moral and personal dynamics until, eventually, we get to "Macbeth." Will the king like it?
The play's run by the Boston-based Actors' Shakespeare Project, unfortunately, is over. If, however, you get a chance to see this play anywhere, take it. We're living in Shakespeare's posterity.