This silver medal was struck in Holland in 1605 to commemorate the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in England and the expulsion of the Jesuits (a Catholic ministry) from Holland.
The obverse or front face depicts a snake among lilies and roses, symbolising Jesuit intrigue and deception. The inscription reads ‘DETECTVS. QVI. LATVIT. S.C.’ (He, who concealed himself, is detected. By order of the Senate.) The reverse bears the tetragrammaton (the name of God in Hebrew) in a circle of thorns, with the inscription ‘NON DORMITASTI ANTISTES IACOBI’ (You (i.e. God), the keeper of James, have not slept), a paraphrase of Psalm 121.
Macbeth: flower and serpent
When Lady Macbeth urges Macbeth to ‘look like th’ innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t’ (1.5.65–66), she echoes the image of the medal – well known to Shakespeare’s audience – and associates their planned deception of Duncan with Jesuit treason and the Gunpowder Plot.
Late at night on 4 November 1605, Guy Fawkes was discovered and arrested with matches in his pocket near a large stash of gunpowder hidden under Parliament. An anonymous letter to Baron Monteagle advising him to avoid attending Parliament on 5 November and hinting at a ‘terrible blow’ from an unknown source, had tipped off the court. The letter was shown to King James who perceived a literal threat in the word ‘blow’ – his own father having been murdered in an explosion – and a search of the buildings was ordered.
Fawkes and his co-conspirators, led by Robert Catesby, were Catholics unhappy with the increasing persecution of their faith in England. They planned to blow up Parliament at the state opening, thus killing the King and a large swathe of the ruling elite, and to kidnap James’s daughter, installing her as a puppet Queen to restore Catholic rights to the country. The crown prosecution connected the conspiracy to the Jesuit order and Father Garnet – a Jesuit priest – was among those executed for treason.
The uncovering of such a violent plot to obliterate King and government rocked the nation. Some scholars have compared the effect of the Gunpowder Plot on 17th-century England to that of 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination on 20th-century USA.
Macbeth and the Gunpowder Plot
There are numerous references to the Gunpowder Plot in Macbeth. As well as Lady Macbeth’s reference to the medal, Father Garnet is the ‘equivocator’ mocked by the Porter, and throughout the play are words which held a particular significance in post-Plot England – ‘blow’, ‘vault’, ‘train’ – as well as a violent vocabulary of destruction that echoes literature on the imagined violence had the plot been successful. The play’s themes of secret plotting, usurpation and regicide would have been hugely resonant for the audience of the day.
Scholars disagree on the meaning of these references. Some think the play offers straightforward support for James’s absolutism and anti-Jesuit views; others think that Macbeth offers a more subtle critique of monarchy, for example by reducing the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of violence. It is also possible that the version(s) of Macbeth performed in the 1600s and 1610s were different to the surviving text of 1623, accommodating different reactions in the immediate aftermath of the plot and after some time had passed.
- Article by:
- Diane Purkiss
- Tragedies, Magic, illusion and the supernatural
Diane Purkiss discusses Renaissance beliefs about witches and shows how, in Macbeth, Shakespeare blurs the line between the witches and Lady Macbeth.
- Article by:
- Kiernan Ryan
- Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Tragedies
The tragedy of Macbeth revolves around the question of what it means to be a man, argues Kiernan Ryan.
- Article by:
- Andrew Dickson
- Power, politics and religion, Tragedies
Shortly after James I took the throne, he announced that he would be the new sponsor of Shakespeare's theatre company, which renamed itself the King's Men. Andrew Dickson explains how the royal sponsorship affected the company, and the ways in which the playwright's later works engage with his transition from an Elizabethan to a Jacobean subject.