I went out to a Cornish Guy Fawkes, bonfire and fireworks party last night, organised for a local charity. The fire was well a-blaze by the time I got there, delayed by Yoda the cat, who insisted on “seconds”. If there’d been a “Guy”, he’d have been long gone but perhaps there hadn’t. The custom of burning his effigy has fallen out of custom in recent years, although one can easily imagine the effigies of a few latter-day Fawkes that might be ceremoniously sacrificed.Perhaps we could start a new custom of writing our victim’s names out on paper planes and launching them into the fiery furnace?
I placed a few pictures of the event on Facebook and an American friend responded immediately with the words, “Wish it was celebrated here.” She couldn’t quite remember the name of the song. “What is it?,” she texted, “Gunpowder, treason and… what?”
She said she couldn’t understand why the “Brits” would want to celebrate an attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament. I pointed out that it was an excuse to burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes, one of the plotters who were caught attempting it.
We British are a strange breed and when the Houses of Parliament actually did burn down in 1834, tens of thousands of London’s good citizens turned out to marvel and cheer at the event. Given the nature of recent scandal in the House, I’m sure there are those unkind enough to want to see the present buildings razed to the ground so we could all make a fresh start.
Some of the gunpowder plotters of 1605 were, as Shakespeare afficiandos know,distantly related to his Warwickshire family who, like so many people at that time were what we might now call “closet” Catholics. Although the Shakespeares were not proven to be directly implicated.
Often in his life, Shakespeare proved to be a slippery customer in what were dangerous times. But, by then, he was well established amongst the Elizabethan elite and protected by his patron, the Earl of Southampton and as my friend , writer Patricia Rogers has written, possibly by Queen Elizabeth’s love of the theatre and his plays.
An example of his slipperiness shows up during the events surrounding Lord Essex’s Rebellion in 1601. On the night before the event, Shakespeare’s Company were asked by some of the Essex supporters to perform Richard II, a play which deals with the deposition of a King, a very dangerous topic in Elizabeth’s lifetime. The relevent scenes had often been performed but never published. In fact when Elizabeth saw the play she remarked that it was really about her. One can almost hear the cries of, “Oh, no it’s not your Majesty.”
Essex’s ill-organised rebellion failed and he later paid with his life
Shakespeare’s Company were duly hauled up in front of the authorities and asked why they’d performed the play, given the nature of its content. They argued their way out of it by saying that they were poor players and could neither refuse the lords who asked them, nor the fee offered. They hadn’t played it for ages they said and even wondered whether they could remember all the words.One can almost imagine the phrase, “We wuz only following orders, guv,” escaping from their lips. Shakespeare didn’t put in an appearance at the hearing and, as far as we know,escaped public censure. But his patron, the Earl of Southampton spent a year in the Tower for his involvement in Essex’s rebellion.
The transcripts of the inquiry into the Richard II performance are preserved and still viewable. As, indeed, is much information from Elizabeth’s spys thanks, one imagines, to the thoroughness of the Queen’s spymaster and member of the dreaded Star Chamber, Sir Thomas Walsingham who was mainly responsible for turning the country into what we would call, “a police state”, rather like East Germany before the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall.
The outspoken writer, Ben Jonson a contemporary of Shakespeare’s did get into trouble for some of the views expressed in one of his plays and only escaped having his nose and ears slit ( a relatively minor Elizabethan punishment ) by the gallant intervention of his mother. They branded Jonson with the letter “T”, for the Tyburn gallows, on his thumb, to remind him where he’d probably be heading the next time.
Shakespeare was one of the few, some claim the only, play-wright of his period to escape some form of punishment. The definition of treasonous statements in those days was a broad remit.
Shakespeare slipped a crafty reference to the Cambridge University educated, homosexual playwright/”spy”, Christopher Marlowe into his play,”As you like it,” referring obliquely to Marlowe’s suspicious murder as, “A great reckoning in a little room.” Nothing came of it. From the pen of Ben Jonson it might have meant a trip on a tumbril.
To be openly homosexual, a playwright and more than likely, a spy, couldn’t have been easy. But then it’s never been easy to remain an un-masked spy at Cambridge as 20th century history tells us gay or otherwise.
A settled, ordered life was never going to be Marlowe’s lot.
Certainly, Shakespeare’s wasn’t. But, touchingly I find, the shepherd’s life was the one he portrayed often as the life to aspire to. Romantic memories, perhaps, of a bucolic Warwickshire childhood walking across the fields to visit his grandparents in Snitterfield?
He even puts that lovely speech about the simple life into a melancholic Henry VI in Pt 2 Act 2 Sc 5 which begins,”O God! methinks it were a happy life, to be no better than a homely swain.” He always wrote of his shepherds, young and old, with affection, love, respect and humor.
You could, as the saying goes, take the boy out of Warwickshire but you couldn’t take Warwickshire out of the boy. He even went home to die there, having become rich and famous enough to buy one of the biggest houses in Stratford-on-Avon and even acquire a coat of arms for a family brought low by a father’s disgrace.
Like his character,King Lear I hope he had moments when he felt free of all that Court intrigue and had time to laugh at the Court’s “gilded butterflies” and of “Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out.”
A million miles away from gunpowder, treason and plot.
P.S. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has, on display, the lantern being used by Guy Fawkes when he was caught.