What Lies Beneath...
By Amrita Ramanan, Literary Manager
Is altering the truth ever justified? Should we conceal our personal beliefs to save our necks in times of crisis or warfare, or will the truth set us free?
In preparation for Arena Stage’s presentation of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Equivocation, I came across an interesting article in OSF’s 2009 Illuminations magazine. In 2004 – right in the midst of America’s involvement with the war in Iraq and rumors of weapons of mass destruction inundating the media – playwright Bill Cain visited the Tower of London and came across a “rack,” a torture device from 16th-, 17th-century England. Next to it was a sign from the British government saying, “No prisoner was ever tortured in the Tower of London because of religion.”
“There is some technical sense in which that may be true,” Cain later noted in Illuminations magazine as the government’s stated reason for torturing prisoners was because of treason, not religion, “but it really interested me, because on the face of it, this is a lie. I went upstairs and went into the cells and saw the names that people had scratched into the walls with messages.” The dichotomy between the messages from the prisoners and the sign from the British government stirred in him something all too relevant with what he was witnessing in the world and inspired him to write Equivocation.
The first recognizable doctrine of equivocation dates back to 1595 during the trial of Father Robert Southwell in England. Southwell’s trial was just a small example of the religious upheaval that had plagued the nation since King Henry VIII’s reign nearly a century earlier. When seeking a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, a Catholic, to marry Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII splintered his realm by breaking his ties with the Roman Catholic Church. He claimed the title of Supreme Head of the Church of England, a ruling that allowed Henry and his parliament to uphold spiritual and political decisions in their country. After Henry’s death, his daughter Mary succeeded the throne as a fierce Catholic. Queen Mary persecuted followers of the Church of England routinely during her reign by burning them alive. As a result, she’s often referred to today by her legendary nickname, Bloody Mary. After Mary passed away, Elizabeth I restored the Church of England (now referred to as Protestantism). While she appeared more tolerant of Catholics than her predecessors, plots started to build against Elizabeth I from ardent Catholics to have her murdered. In turn, Elizabeth banned the practice of Catholicism throughout England and began a fervent investigation against the Church, exiling or killing devout Catholics and priests. That’s where Father Robert Southwell’s trial and equivocation come into play. By admitting he was a priest on trial, Southwell could be put to death, but saying that he wasn’t a priest would break against the Church’s doctrine of lying. Priests – and those who protected them – realized that they needed something to help them navigate through this complex moral dilemma. So Southwell and his contemporaries developed the doctrine of equivocation as a source of protection. In their minds, equivocation was not lying or misleading, but maintaining their beliefs in the eyes of God against a corrupt system. Derived from Latin with the literal translation “of equal voice,” equivocation was seen as a source of empowerment rather than deception.
Fast forward to ten years later in 1606. King James I ascends the throne and maintains that the English people should continue to follow the Church of England by publicly announcing his detestation of Catholicism and, in the vein of Elizabeth, ordering all Catholic priests to leave the country or face deadly consequences. Plots against him started to rise, leading to one of the most notable acts of rebellion in history for which Cain’s Equivocation is based on: the Gunpowder Plot.
It is said that the inspiration for the Gunpowder Plot came from Catholic loyalist Robert Catesby, who had previously been involved in conspiracies to overthrow Queen Elizabeth. Fed up with the trend in which the reigning Protestant monarch dictated the country’s religious allegiance, Catesby saw only one effective solution to restore Catholicism to the nation: kill James I and all of parliament in a colossal detonation. Over the next several months, Catesby organized a team of thirteen conspirators – Robert and Thomas Wintour, Christopher and John Wright, Thomas Percy, John Grant, Ambrose Rockwood, Robert Keyes, Francis Tresham, Sir Everard Digby, Guy Fawkes and Thomas Bates (Catesby’s servant). They devised a plan to construct a mine underneath the House of Parliament and fill it with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder. Conspirator Guy Fawkes was then responsible for igniting a slow fuse on Nov. 5, 1605 during the House of Lords meeting. However, the fated thirteen never enacted the plan they created. On Oct. 26 of the same year, a servant delivered a mysterious letter to reformed Catholic Lord Monteagle, warning him to stay away from the House of Parliament on Nov. 5. Monteagle immediately notified King James’ Secretary of State, Robert Cecil (also known as the Earl of Salisbury). Cecil and the King determined that in order to arrest the conspirators, they needed to catch them in the act and stationed guards underneath the House of Parliament at midnight on Nov. 4. The guards arrested Guy Fawkes – who referred to himself as “John Johnson” and claimed that he was working alone. However, after two days of questioning and torture, Fawkes revealed his actual name and the names of his fellow conspirators. One by one, the conspirators were caught and succumbed to horrific torture and executions. Many of them received the ultimate punishment in high treason of being “drawn and quartered,” with their bodies cut into four pieces, their entrails pulled out and burned in front of them and their heads cut off and mounted on pikes to ward off future divisions against the government.
Following the death of the conspirators, word broke out that priests in hiding had aided the conspirators in their Plot. Father Henry Garnet was named as one of the priests involved and brought to trial. During the trial, Garnet wrote A Treatise to Equivocation, which provided a more extensive guide on how to use the term in a similar format to Southwell’s doctrine. As Garnet conveys to Shagspeare in Equivocation, “Don’t answer the question they’re asking. If a dishonest man has formed the question, there will be no honest answer. Answer the question beneath the question.”
Since Garnet’s time, equivocation has mutated in theory and practice, often to possess more negative overtones of fallacy and corruption. The term continually surfaces as one smeared with controversy, from the likes of Benjamin Franklin, the Lincoln Assassination plot, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and a slew of modern-day equivocators showcased in the headlines. Perhaps playwright Bill Cain says it best when reflecting on equivocation today: “Attempting to tell the truth in difficult times.”
Tonight, as you transport to London 1606, Shagspeare’s predicament may seem less like a distant reflection of history and closer to the continuous battle between personal conviction and societal allegiance that we face today. What happens when our personal truth differs from the so-called official truth of the times? Through Equivocation, Cain evokes the universal intersection of truth, justice and politics in its many iterations.
Amrita Ramanan's dramaturgy credits include Trouble in Mind, Ruined, Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, and Crowns (Arena Stage); Skywriter (2009 Cap Fringe Festival); and Cymbeline (Great River Shakespeare Festival). She’s editor and regular contributor to Arena Stage’s blog, Stage Banter, and Sub/Text: Your Virtual Dramaturg.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.