The Future of History

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Shakespeare in Terror

How interesting!!

On the Leeds City Council website, an advertisement for a production of "Shakespeare in Terror" this November.

It's a new play, written by Helen Shay, and here's what the blurb has to say:

You've seen him in love, but what about terror?

A quick soliloquy with a skull is not always the answer, as our hapless bard - dumbstruck by writer's block - discovers in a chance meeting with a certain 'Guido Fawkes', arguably the first home-grown terrorist.  Historically possible, this brief encounter raises questions of whether words do speak louder than action - or even gunpowder.  Laced with dark magic and even darker lust (not to mention three untraditionally-glamorous witchy 'midnight hags'), this comedy-drama brings an extra bang to the firework season.

I like it!  If I could, I'd go and see it.  It sounds like a lot of fun.

And, maybe, more than fun.  Because most of my work on Who Killed William Shakespeare? started with The Scottish Play and the Gunpowder Plot.

I don't know whether or not Will Shakespeare ever met Guy Fawkes.  It doesn't really matter: Shakespeare was familiar with some of the other gunpowder plotters.  Fawkes was a professional soldier, and his role seems to have been as an adviser and someone who could light the fuse.  He wasn't the main plotter - not by any stretch of the imagination.

However, for one reason or another, Fawkes became the "face" of the Gunpowder Plot.  And he's more popular than ever.  Take the Guy Fawkes mask made famous in the V for Vendetta movie and now the public face of the Anonymous movement.  Fawkes didn't actually look like that - he wasn't quite so inscrutable, in an Asiatic sort of way, and his hair was auburn, not black - but he is, for better or for worse, the face of discontent and incipient revolution.

Shakespeare's connections with the Gunpowder Plot became the springboard for my book.  Frankly, I believe that most of the Plot was made up by the government - in particular, the utterly loathsome and creepy Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury (so it's satisfying to see that Cecil plays a role in the forthcoming comedy-drama Shakespeare in Terror).  It is not quite true to call Guy Fawkes "the first home-grown terrorist", because he came at the end of a twenty-year period of plots and conspiracies against the English State, most of which were made up by the English State and its agents simply to discredit Catholics and to justify the horrific persecution of said Catholics.

The tendency amongst historians has been to treat the Gunpowder Plot as if it were genuine, and to accept the government line that a small bunch of fanatics, led by the diabolical Fawkes, really did plan to blow the parliament sky high, using far more gunpowder than was actually necessary.  But study the records and you'll find that (a) there was no agreement at the time as to how much gunpowder was involved, and (b) the gunpowder itself was "decayed" (i.e. useless).

So, in fact, the Gunpowder Plot is very similar to the Shakespeare story.  What we're told, and what really happened, are two different things.  The historians who are happy to repeat the propaganda put out by Robert Cecil and his ilk are just as eager to misrepresent Shakespeare.  It's all part of the rich tapestry of English history - rich, and wrong.

For a better idea of what the Gunpowder Plot was all about, and how it affected Will Shakespeare (particularly his Timon of Athens, Macbeth and Coriolanus), please read Who Killed William Shakespeare?

And if you're in the Leeds area, maybe check out Shakespeare in Terror - and let me know what you think of it.  Those "untraditionally-glamourous witchy 'midnight hags'" sound good!

Except, of course, that in Shakespeare's Macbeth, the witches have beards.  They are men.  Three very powerful men, in fact.

It's all in the book.

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