This book, printed by Robert Barker (printer to the King) in 1606, contains official accounts of the Gunpowder Plot trials: that of the main plotters – including Guy Fawkes – in January, and Henry Garnet in March 1606.
Garnet was an English priest of the Catholic Jesuit order. The Jesuits were banished from England in 1585 so Garnet and other Jesuits ministered and worshipped in secret. Several Jesuit priests were executed in the 1590s.
Although he refused to comply with England’s religious laws, Garnet was not a rebellious man. He had approved of disclosing a previous Catholic plot against the King and preached against violent rebellion.
Garnet was approached for advice by Father Oswald Tesimond, to whom Robert Catesby (a lead conspirator) had told of the Gunpowder Plot in confession. Garnet believed that because it was given in confession, this information could not be divulged to the authorities. Instead he wrote to Rome, asking the Catholic Church to warn England. He also claimed to have urged Catesby against the plot.
The English authorities however, believed that Garnet and the Jesuits were involved in the conspiracy and likely even to be its ringleaders. Garnet spent weeks in hiding but was eventually arrested, tried and executed.
At Garnet’s trial, a major complaint repeatedly brought by the prosecution was about his practice and support of equivocation. Equivocation was a Jesuit logic that allowed Catholics – who may have needed to lie under oath in order to preserve their lives or those of other Catholics – to avoid incriminating themselves or others, without lying in the eyes of God. This included techniques such as only speaking part of a sentence out loud and finishing it or adding a qualification silently in one’s head, so as to mislead the auditor. The English authorities were intensely distrustful of equivocation. They saw it as lying and as a sinful attack on language and meaning itself.
In Act 2, Scene 3 of Macbeth, the Porter makes mocking references to Garnet and his trial. Amongst his imagined guests are an equivocator (i.e. Garnet) and a ‘farmer’ who hanged himself (2.3.4, Garnet again – Farmer was one of his pseudonyms). There are also possible references to relics from Garnet’s execution in the talk of ‘napkins’ (2.3.6, i.e. handkerchiefs), which were used by Catholic spectators at executions to mop up the blood of martyrs, and the ‘tailor’ (2.3.15), which possibly refers to a tailor examined in November 1606 for being in possession of ‘Garnet’s Straw’ (a stalk of grain onto which Garnet’s blood was supposed to have miraculously splashed in an image of his face).
When Macbeth finally sees Birnam wood advancing toward Dunsinane and understands the trick of the witches’ prophecy, he says ‘I … begin / To doubt th’equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth.’ (5.5.41–43) The play abounds with equivocation. It is filled with doubled language and ambiguous, equivocal realities: a day that is ‘foul and fair’ (1.3.38), witches who seem to be both male and female (1.3.45–47), and generally a reality where ‘nothing is / But what is not’ (1.3.141).
There are numerous references to the Gunpowder Plot in Macbeth, including the references to Garnet and equivocation. Throughout the play are also 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.