Where was Shakespeare when the Gunpowder Plot was foiled?
When the Gunpowder Plot was discovered in 1605, Shakespeare’s playing company, the King’s Men, were out of London on tour in the provinces. They had undertaken lengthy tours during outbreaks of the plague in London in the early 1600s, and in 1605 they were again on tour. Despite being absent from London, the Gunpowder Plot and the events that followed it clearly had an impact on Shakespeare. References to the characters and events of the plot are found in Macbeth, the play he was writing at the time. He includes a reference to the medallion James I had made to commemorate the failure of the plot. Lady Macbeth describes the image of a snake hiding amongst flowers, the image which was imprinted on the medallion, when says to her husband:
To beguile the time,
Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue. Look like th’ innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t.
In the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, England was gripped by the horror of the widespread destruction intended by the conspirators. It was a threat not only to the person of the king, but also to the national and international security of England. James I personally spoke about it as a battle between good and evil in which God had intervened. The natural and supernatural horrors which were imagined in the aftermath of the foiled plot are a reality in Macbeth. In this play, performed and published in 1606, Lennox reports that the murder of the lawful king had unleashed widespread disorder and chaos:
The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ the air, strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatched to the woeful time. The obscure bird
Clamoured the livelong night. Some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake.
(Act 2 Scene 3)
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