Sample Paper on The Gunpowder Plot of 1605

How did the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 Influence the Way William Shakespeare Wrote?


Macbeth is often considered as the most popular play written by Shakespeare. Like most of his plays, Macbeth was not an original story but a story founded on facts. In 1605, a small group of disgruntled Catholics was fed up with the persistent persecutions orchestrated by the protestant monarchy. This led to a decision to blow up the King and all the government officials. However, through an intercepted warning letter, King James 1 acquired information of the impending attack and ordered for a search of parliament buddings. This followed the arrest of the conspirators. Through deeper analysis of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, we not only can further understand the event itself, but also why Shakespeare was involved in the plot, and most importantly how the plot influences the storyline of Macbeth.

The Gunpowder plot of 1605

The main causes of the gunpowder Plot of 1605 can be traced to the politics of the time and the religious denominations, which divided different parts of England and Scotland. The Catholics in England were unhappy with the treatment they were receiving (Kashihara 35). About 8 decades before the gunpowder plot, King Henry VII broke ties with Rome because of the pope had declined to let him divorce his wife. When Queen Elizabeth 1 became the monarch in 1558, she engaged in relentless perception of Catholics for the fear that would side with her adversaries in Europe. In 1603 when Queen Elizabeth 1 died, King James VI of Scotland was appointed as the King of England because the Queen had no children and James was therefore her closest relative who could inherit the throne. He became James 1 and the Catholics in England hoped for tolerance during his rule (Kashihara 35). However, even in King James1 rule precautions were persistent.

There were Catholics who accepted the prevailing situation. However, a few disgruntled members of the religious denomination were determined to act in a way that would force change in England. Five most influential figures in the Gunpowder plot included Thomas Percy, John Wright, Thomas Wintour, Robert Catesby, and Guy Fawkes. Guy Fawkes was the most popular of all the conspirators (Malam 31). His popularity was in his knowledge on the use of gunpowder. Through a well-organized plan, the five members of the group were determined to blow up the King and ail the legislators at the official opening of parliament. The group rented a house near parliament and dug a tunnel. This plan was however abandoned after they could not penetrate the foundation of the Palace of Westminster. Through the efforts of Thomas Percy, the group acquired a cellar within parliament buildings and Fakes was installed as the caretaker. Within the cellar, the conspirators were successful in stacking 36 barrels of gunpowder (Malam 31).

Delays in opening of parliament led to the inclusion of more people in the conspiracy considering that after the death of the King the conspirators were planning a revolt and a takeover of the city. One of the conspirators, Francis Tresham, wrote a letter to his brother in-law Lord Monteagle warning him not to attend the parliamentary openings. Lord Monteagle reported the this issue to the king. On the night of the planned attacks, searches were made in the cellar beneath the parliamentary building where Fawkes was arrested and taken before the king for questioning. Other conspirators such as Catesby, Percy and wright were killed while other plotters were arrested and charged with treachery. Those charged were tried and finally executed. A year after the foiled gunpowder plot residents of London lit bonfires in marking the anniversary of the botched event. This was the beginning of a tradition, which is in existence to date (Mabillard 1).

National reaction towards this plot was strong because of the relief that the plot was discovered and the panic that the conspirators were able to escape all the security measures in advancing their schemes. As they were tried and later executed, the citizens in England expressed their outrage through both official and non-official channels (Marcius1). The main objective of these reactions was to demonstrate loyalty and allegiance to the king and his government. In addition, it was also a way through which the government of England and the residents wanted to communicate to all those in disagreement with the law to abstain form the possibility of planning such conspiracies because their plans would be thwarted through the leadership of King James 1 (Marcius 1).

Shakespeare and the gunpowder plot

Inasmuch as Shakespeare was not a participant in the gunpowder plot, he must have been aware of the plan. This is because some of the main conspirators of the plot had deep connection with Shakespeare and his family. For example, John Shakespeare, William Shakespeare’s father, who was a covert Catholic, was a close acquaintance of William Catesby (Mabillard 1). This was the father to the chief conspirator, Robert Catesby. John and William were friends who shared illegal catholic writing and expressed their discomfort with the continuous persecution of Catholics by the ruling protestant monarchs. An additional connection of Shakespeare to the plot was in his frequent visit to the Mermaid Traven in London, which was owned by one of his closest friends (Mabillard 1). The Mermaid Traven was a preferred meeting place for the unsatisfied Catholics. It is in this place that they developed a scheme on how to obliterate the Protestants. This means that it would be relatively impossible for Shakespeare to claim that he had no knowledge of the gunpowder plot (Mabillard 1). It is therefore possible to argue that after the foiled plot Shakespeare was probably tormented by doubts and fear concerning his safety. From a theoretical perspective, it is no coincidence that he decided to write a play focused on Scotland. This was a way of expressing his allegiance to the Sovereign King James 1 (Mabillard 1).

The relationship between Macbeth and the gunpowder plot

Macbeth, which was Shakespeare’s Scottish play, was written in 1606, there years after James 1 was crowed as the King of England following the death of Queen Elizabeth 1. This was also one year following the failed gunpowder plot of 1605 in which the Catholics planned to murder King James and all legislator and replace him with a catholic monarch (Kurttz 1). The play was first performed before King James 1. Like most of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth was not an original but it was based on facts. The storyline was familiar to the situation of James 1 who had inherited the Scottish power through the lineages Banquo. Shakespeare never allowed historical fact or assumption affect his story (Kurttz 1). In Macbeth, he changed different aspects of the original story as a way of intensifying his drama or ensuring some level of political correctness. In the play, Macbeth commits the greatest crime of killing the king and the consequences of his actions haunt him. The king was considered as a representative of God on earth and therefore by murdering, the king Macbeth was a rebel against God and his inhumane crimes were rightly punished by death (Kurttz 1).

Macbeth is characterized by themes most of which resonate with the attempt to revolt. The main theme in this play is treason, which was an attempt to overthrow the king and the arrest and the subsequent downfall of the conspirators (Wickham 96). Furthermore, King James 1 is believed to be a descendant of Banquo. In the paly, Shakespeare’s Banquo is a friend who is deceived and killed by Macbeth (Kurttz 1). The witches in the paly prophesy that the ancestors of Banquo will be kings. This gives new meaning to the paly and its depiction of the reality in England and Scotland at the time of its writing. It is possible to associate the ancestral relationship between the Banquo reality had that referred to in the paly and affirm that James Stuart, the King of Scotland and England, plays an essential role in the play. Further analysis of the play suggest that the escape of Banquo’s son, Fieance from the murder plan by Macbeth echoes, the escape of James and the parliamentarians from the gunpowder plot (Kurttz 1). In addition, it is also a compliment to the House of Stuart as authentic and truly descended rulers. The authenticity of this house, from the understanding of the play, emanates from the wisdom that the king had in foiling the attack (Kurttz 1).

Further evidence can be drawn from Act 2 Scene 3 where porter is amusing himself by pretending that he is the gatekeeper of hell opening the gate for rivals. In this scene, Shakespeare insists on referring to equivocation. This alludes to the catholic priest, Henry Garnet, who was charged and executed for the role he played in the gunpowder plot (Kurttz 1). The priest was criticized by the English population for his equivocation. It is alleged that the priest had heard a confession from one of the conspirators, Robert Catesby, who revealed his intention to murder the king and the parliamentarians. Instead of communicating this conspiracy to the King and other authorities, the priest adhered to the Seal of the confessional by keeping this information a secret (Kurttz 1). During this period, the Jesuits, who were highly associated with Catholicism, were often associated with equivocation. This was a technique of a way of avoiding the possibility of lying through the implication of something untrue using ambiguous phrasing. The priest’s defense of equivocation was highly damaging to his trial and the lighthearted remarks made by the porter were a popular derision of the priest (Kurttz 1).

Furthermore, in the play, it was through equivocation that Macbeth met his downfall. The witches always told him that he would always be safe since it was impossible for him to vanish. The deception of the witches may have been well intended to give hope to Macbeth despite the impending challenges. These deceptions could be resonant with those of Garnet and Catholicism. The play, Macbeth, provides in-depth references to the sensational events of the events leading to the gunpowder plot. It is also an expression of Shakespeare’s typical and reserved technique of mentioning topical issues (Kurttz 1).

Through his mastery of details, Shakespeare wove direct references to the gunpowder plot into his play. As a way of commemorating the plot, King James 1 coined a medal imagining a snake walloping among the flowers. In the play, there is reference to the medal when one of the characters, Lady Macbeth tells her husband to not only look like an innocent flower but also the serpent that hides beneath the flowers. The medal owned by King James 1 was a sign of the traits that the king was to adopt to ensure that he establishes his authority in both England and Scotland. This was aimed at preventing the possibility of a revolt in the future (Mabillard 1).

In the rule of Queen Elizabeth 1, Shakespeare, through his acting company the Chamberlain Men performed plays as entertainment to the King. When King James 1 rose to power, the company changed its name to the King’s men as a way of paying tribute to the King. This when perceived in relation to the Gunpowder plot is an indication that those allied to the King could not plan atrocities against him (Wickham 96). In the play, Shakespeare demonstrates his allegiance to the king by flattering him in various ways. Macbeth who took over authority by killing the reigning king is shown to be losing everything. He, just like the conspirators, was demonized and hated by all his subjects. When he is shown events of the future, Banquo, the ancestors of Stuart are presented positively. The witches show Macbeth that the lineage of Banquo would be producing a lineage of kings in the future. This assertion, as presented by Shakespeare flatters the king due to the promise of a long-standing dynasty (Wickham 96). The promise of longstanding dynasty when perceived in relation to the Gunpowder plot of 1605 presents the assumption that it will be relatively difficult for the Catholics to oust the leadership of King James and his lineage because of the promise of a longer time in leadership. Furthermore, the capture of the conspirators and the foiled plot was also a demonstration of the success of the Banquo lineage. The enthusiasm with which Shakespeare presents the king can also be used in asserting that Shakespeare was attempting to please the king and eradicate any thought of his involvement in the gunpowder conspiracy (Kashihara 37).


One of the outstanding historical features of the gunpowder plot was that it was a plot that never took place. The conspiracy orchestrated by disgruntled Catholics against the ruling protestant monarch was an indication of the religious and political divide that had characterized governance in England. Macbeth is a play that Shakespeare wrote depicting the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Shakespeare mirrors the situation if a king was to be murdered. This play embodied the worries and fears among the people of England and curses all those who would orchestrate such an activity. Through deeper analysis of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, we not only can further understand the event itself, but also why Shakespeare was involved in the plot, and most importantly how the plot influences the storyline of Macbeth.


Works cited

Kashihara, Yoko. A Study of Fate and Man’s Choice in Macbeth- by the Irony of Fate. Kawasaki

Journal of Medical Welfare Vol. 16, No. 1, 2010 35-41

Kurttz, Ellie. The gunpowder plot and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Lana, Globe Research Team,

Globe Education. 2010.

Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot. Shakespeare Online. 14 Feb. 2016.>

Malam, John. The Gunpowder Plot. Slough: Cherrytree, 2008. Print.

Marcius, Caius. Macbeth and the Gunpowder Plot. Gunpowder Plot Society. Retrieved from

Wickham, Glynne, Shakespeare’s Dramatic Heritage: Collected Studies in Mediaeval, Tudor

and Shakespearean Drama, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969, p.96