Several of the conspirators in the Catholic Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Protestant English Houses of Parliament in 1605 not only came from the Midlands, where Shakespeare and his Catholic family lived, but were related to the playwright – many of them his cousins.
So how much might Shakespeare have known of the plot?
Shakespeare's Catholic familyRobert Catesby, born in 1572, was the lead conspirator of the plot. He was William's cousin through his mother, Mary Arden. Mary was the daughter of Sir Thomas Tresham, and came from a well-known Roman Catholic family. She was second cousin to the father, William Arden, of Edward Arden, who in 1583 was sentenced for his part in another Catholic plot against Elizabeth I.
Edward was uncle to Catesby and Francis Tresham, another Gunpowder Plotter; both these plotters shared Catesby grandparents, Francis on the maternal side.
Robert Catesby recruited more of his cousins: Robert Wintour (born 1568), his brother Thomas (born three years later) and their half brother John. De facto, they were, too, cousins of William Shakespeare.
Robert Catesby was married to a niece of Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, whom many biographers believe was William Shakespeare's first aristocratic patron.
His next patron, Henry Wriosthesley, Earl of Southampton, was arrested in the Essex Rebellion of 1601 (of which more below) along with co-plotters Catesby and Tresham.
It gets thicker, and the likelihood that the conspirators and Shakespeare knew each other greater.
William Shakespeare's daughter Judith married, and her brother-in-law Adrian Quiney was himself married to Eleanor Bushell, whose aunt Elizabeth Winter was the aunt of the three Winter brothers.
Furthermore, their sister Dorothea was married to another plotter, John Grant, who was the grandson of William Shakespeare's father John's business partner Edward Grant.
Monteagle was 'turned' by Robert Cecil, the King's (and Queen Elizabeth's before him) head of security as Secretary of State, and was rewarded handsomely for his troubles. There is strong evidence for suspecting that Monteagle was not just a double agent, pretending to be a member of the conspirators while relaying everything back to Cecil so he could coordinate the sitting of Parliament and the 'discovery' of the plot to maximum effect, but also an agent provocateur who helped to buy the conspirators time when it took longer than expected to dig the tunnel, and obtain the gunpowder, which would have been very difficult to do otherwise since all gunpowder (a rare commodity) was held under licence by the government, and then get hold of the keys to the cellar beneath the Parliament hall when the plan to build the tunnel failed.
The context for the plot
Sir Francis Walsingham was made responsible by Queen Elizabeth for setting up the first Secret Service and a network of paid informers, who would regularly inform upon one another. His agents tortured victims and suspects, and brought him notice of suspected Catholic plots. He was succeeded in 1590 by Robert Cecil, who became the first Earl of Salisbury, and the most powerful man in England when he was appointed the leading minister in 1598. After Elizabeth's death he went on to serve King James, the Catholic in whom the conspirators put so much faith that was not rewarded – quite the opposite.
What happened to the gunpowder?Have you ever asked yourself why the gunpowder was not exhibited at the trial of the conspirators as evidence?
There was a minimum of 36 barrels, weighing 3,600 pounds or 1633kg – not a small amount. My theory is that it was because the government, which had a monopoly on gunpowder for its arsenal, had already had this precious commodity transported to Ireland to support their colonial programme.
The man who led this subjugation of Ireland was Sir Henry Bouncker, Monteagle's brother-in-law, followed by Henry's son and Monteagle's nephew – William.
The discovery of the plot occasioned a massive clampdown on Catholics everywhere, including seizure of their property, which enriched Cecil and his colleagues. Did you think it would be distributed to the poor?
Was Shakespeare aware of the plot?Of course, the population was not great at that time, families contained many children, and it would be common for somebody to have many cousins. So it would not be statistically unusual for Shakespeare to be related to many people in his same social class, in the same geographical area. But would he have known the conspirators? And if he did, would he have been sympathetic?
William's father was a Catholic recusant who paid a huge amount in fines. He kept a priest hidden in a bolthole in his home to take confession. His sister married Thomas Habington, also a Roman Catholic. Most of Shakespeare's family were Catholic, and William himself was brought up a Catholic.
There has been much discussion about whether Shakespeare himself continued to be a Catholic throughout his life. His father's gardener in Stratford was a priest, and Shakespeare himself never wrote a good Protestant churchman in any of his plays, while his Jesuit priests are upstanding citizens. There is also no record of Shakespeare attending a Protestant communion service if he could help it.
Clopton House was the seat of the gunpowder conspiracy. Adjoining it was the Welcombe land where Shakespeare had acquired a freehold estate. Sir Hugh Clopton built New Place – bought by William Shakespeare in 1597 and the grandest house in town at the time. It was situated opposite the Catholic Guild Hall. It is easy to imagine, given this, that Shakespeare could have met at least some of the conspirators.
Three years before the plot was 'discovered', Shakespeare was involved obliquely in the Earl of Essex Affair, a Catholic uprising. The writer himself played John of Gaunt in a performance of Richard II at the Globe Theatre, mocking the Queen's rule by implication.
His cousin Robert Catesby was so inspired by this that the following day he led the revolt in the Strand. William would have been heard to utter:
Thy deathbed is no lesser than thy land,Given what had happened to the members of his family, Shakespeare, a political animal to the last drop of his blood, would know better than most that it would be necessary, if he wanted to be successful at his prime passion, to conceal his Catholic leanings.
Wherein thou liest in reputation sick;
And thou, too careless patient as thou art,
Committest thy anointed body to the cure
Of those ‘physicians’ that first wounded thee.
After the Essex affair he was very careful to do so, while his contemporary rival, Ben Jonson, became a Catholic and consorted with the plotters. Theatre was, after all, traditionally Catholic with its mystery and morality plays, and the Puritans hated theatre, calling it "the chapel of Satan". The pressure to be seen to conform could hardly have been higher.
Robert Southwell, the poet, martyr and another cousin of Shakespeare's, urged Shakespeare to use his talents to good ends: "In fables are often figured moral truths that covertly uttered are to the common good which, without masks, would not find so free a passage."
If Catesby met ShakespeareI have made several attempts to turn the above research into a play or script. A play of mine with a title Plot! was performed by an amateur dramatic society in my then hometown of Machynlleth. This version interweaved the above story alongside another, of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, all set up by agents provocateurs, Catholics falsely imprisoned on terrorist charges. History repeats itself.
I still haven't arrived at a satisfactory draft, but in all versions I imagine a scene, perhaps on the border of the Welcombe and Clopton estates, in which Robert Catesby tries to persuade William Shakespeare to join their cause because he is aware of the power of theatre to motivate the crowds onto the conspirators' side, and because of Shakespeare's fame and influence.
In my imaginary conversation both Catesby and Shakespeare make their arguments for and against the plot using quotes from Shakespeare's own plays.
If such a conversation ever took place, William would have been far too canny to sympathise with Catesby's arguments. He knew the direction in which history was travelling, and he knew on which side his bread was buttered.
He might have responded to Catesby as follows:
SHAKESPEARE (as the Duke in Measure for Measure):
Thou knowest not what thou speak’st
Or else thou art suborn’d against his honour
In hateful practice...
...Someone hath set you on.
CATESBY: (Measure For Measure)
Be not so hot!
My business in this state
Made me a looker-on here in ... London ...
Where I have seen corruption boil and bubble
Till it o’errun the stew...
Your words fly up, your thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go!
CATESBY: (becoming angry: also Hamlet)
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action -
- with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature!
CATESBY: (from MacBeth, which Shakespeare actually wrote just after the plot was discovered)
Screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.
SHAKESPEARE: (MacBeth too)
The attempt, and not the deed...
will confound the land...
CATESBY: (mocking; back to Hamlet)
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their actions turn awry
And lose the name of action.
SHAKESPEARE: (sadly remembering his own father, whom this line is said to be about:)
...His beard was grizzled, no?
It was, as I have seen it in his life,
A sable silvered.
CATESBY: (seeking to capitalise on the emotion: Hamlet still)
Ay, murder most foul was it...
Your very father, - for his Faith... as mine -
That you, with wings as swift
As meditation, or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to his revenge.
Pause, while SHAKESPEARE recovers his wits.
SHAKESPEARE: (Softly: Merchant of Venice)
Mercy is above the sceptred sway...
It is an attribute of God himself
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
CATESBY: (contemptuously, last attempt: (Hamlet)
What a falling off is there!
What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed?
...A thought which, quartered, hath but one part
And ever three parts coward ...
Witness this army of such mass and charge
ranked now with us -
SHAKESPEARE: (Closing the discussion: Measure For Measure)
Might but my bending down
Reprieve us from our fate, it should proceed.
I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death;
No word to save thee.
SHAKESPEARE walks sadly off. CATESBY watches him go.