Thursday, April 16, 2009

Equivocation-The Play

As a prequel to the 13th Annual Authorship Studies Conference to be held at Concordia College in Portland, Oregon (which I will hopefully blog about in the coming days), I have taken the opportunity to spend a few days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. However, since it is only the beginning of the season here, there is only one play by Shakespeare available to see (Macbeth) and, it being sold out and I not having time to stay longer, I didn't see. Actually I kind of sort of saw the play Macbeth (in a very loose sense) as you will see by reading further. I did enjoy the plays I saw however very much. They were The Music Man, Servant of Two Masters, Dead Man's Cell Phone and the subject of today's blog, Equivocation.

Equivocation is a new play (in fact, I was in the first audience ever to see it) by Bill Cain (founder and former artistic director of the Boston Shakespeare Company) and is one of the newest in the literary genre of writing fiction to flesh out the personality of William Shakespeare of Stratford. However the play is much more than that and, in fact, I got over my initial disgust of the idea and actually liked the play very much. In fact, the play is not really about William of Stratford per se, but about truth and lies told in theater and real life, particularly for political gains.

As you all probably know, the "standard line" on the play Macbeth is that it was written after 1605, refers to the Gunpowder Plot (November, 1605), and was written to please James I (who came to the throne in 1603) because it shows his supposed ancestor Banquo in a good light and has witches which were a fascintion for James. Of course, almost all of this seems to me (and other Oxfordians) to be nonsense.

To begin with, the only connection the play has to the Gunpowder Plot is that it mentions "equivocation" (particularly in the Porter scene) and the doctrine of equivocation was used as a defense in the trials of many of the conspirators in the plot. However, the doctrine of equivocation was known many years before this and in fact was an important part of previous trials of Jesuits (most notably that of Father Robert Southwell in 1595).  In fact, the word "equivocation" also occurs in Hamlet, "officially" written in 1598. Secondly, the "fascination" that James I had with witches is that he was extremely terrified of them. Thirdly, it seems to me that putting on a play where a Scottish king gets murdered is not one calculated to please James. In fact, along with many other facts that I don't have space to chronicle, it is obvious that Macbeth was written several years before the "official" date of 1605 (and not for James I).

Be that as it may, Bill Cain has taken the official line as to the writing of Macbeth as the spingboard or his new play (hence the title). The premise of the play is that Robert Cecil has commissioned Shagspeare (this is the way Bill Cain prefers to refer to him) to write a play to tell the "official story" of the Gunpowder Plot. Shagspeare agrees, but in his research (interviewing some of the conspirators before they are executed) he begins to doubt the "official story" and comes to see that the whole thing is a big political lie originated by that master manipulator Robert Cecil. He finds that he cannot really write the play the way that Cecil wants it. His compromise is to instead write Macbeth (at least it has witches in it). Luckily the king (James) loves it (oh really?) and everything is OK. Everyone sees that the play is in fact mocking Robert Cecil (actually this is true from the Oxfordian standpoint) who leaves the theater at the premiere of the work (a la Claudius in Hamlet).

The play is very well written and has many good insights into the use of truth and lies as propaganda. It also is about how a theater company functions with all the disagreements and petty jealousies that arise. Unfortunately, it does contain some of the attempts by scholars to try to construct parallels between the life of Shakespeare of Stratford with the plays, such as how he felt so bad about the death of his son Hamnet that he wrote the play Hamlet, and how the themes of the so-called late plays (a father throwing away a daughter only to be reconciled with her at the end) match William of Stratford's supposed regret at shunning his two daughters (even traditional scholars have difficulty with that one).

But this kind of nonsense (in my opinion of course) does not overwhelm the play and the picture it paints of the Machiavellian Robert Cecil and how he is caricatured in the plays of William Shakespeare is quite true (except that the William Shakespeare in question is the Earl of Oxford who knew Cecil very well as a brother-in-law).

I will have to see what kind of effect this new play has as it becomes more known.


Linda Theil said...

From Hyla Bolsta:

Thanks for your comments on Equivocation. I saw this play last week and loved it (except for the over acting that I found generally has spiced the plays I saw this season:Henry VIII, Macbeth, Don Quixote. Clifford Odet's Paradise Lost was the one exception.)

It did not bother me in the least that the B. Cain took liberties with history or theories or anything else. To me, the man wrote a brilliant play - serious, significant, pertinent to our times, intelligently humorous and captivating. I left the theater knowing more, and with wider lens and expanded thoughts than when I went in. I had a good experience at the same time. This was one play that bore fruit to chew on later - and it enhanced my little world, my individual life.

If each person who sees this play actually takes some kind of positive action in a sphere of interest that needs attention, we would live in a brighter more hopeful world. But as Cecil states at the end, the political leaders have followed his line, both figuratively and literally.

Here we are - so the question arises - is it possible to really do anything about corruption in power? Well, that's one question.
Meantime, thanks for your blog, sent to me by a friend.

Hyla Bolsta

Joseph said...

When an "in rem" proceeding concerning "the author's share of Hamlet" was held at The Supreme Court, Justice Stevens presiding, I talked with the expert witness for the Stratford guy, Professor Larry Danson of Princeton. He used the old Macbeth and Tempest dates in his argument. Over dessert and before the jury returned, I talked with him. He seemed to think that "equivocation" was first used at the Gunpowder Plot Trial and was ignorant of Father Robert Southwell's trial a decade before.