British Museum blog

Guy Fawkes, Shakespeare and Occupy

Print portrait of Guy Fawkes, about 1606Sheila O’Connell, curator, British Museum

Members of the Occupy movement have recently taken to wearing Guy Fawkes masks. The face is distantly based on a print of the Gunpowder Plotters published in Germany early in 1606. Guy Fawkes’s grinning mask lends a playful air to political protest. We remember him because we enjoy bonfires and fireworks on 5 November, the anniversary of the day he was arrested in a storeroom beneath the House of Lords. But his contemporaries, including Shakespeare, would have seen nothing light-hearted in the plan to ignite 36 barrels of gunpowder under the chamber where parliament was due to be opened by the king.

A contemporary Guy Fawkes mask

A contemporary Guy Fawkes mask, complete with Halloween decorations

If the plot had succeeded, those killed, or at least seriously injured, would have included King James I, the entire government, senior members of all the leading families in the country, the queen and both the young princes, not to mention very many less eminent people. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth during the following months, when the plotters and their associates were being hung, drawn and quartered in the streets of London – some outside St Paul’s Cathedral at the very spot where the Occupy camp was set up earlier this year.

Group portrait of the eight Gunpowder plotters, all named, with title and text beneath. Etching, about 1606.

Group portrait of the eight Gunpowder plotters, all named, with title and text beneath. Etching, about 1606.

Macbeth’s story of the assassination (the first literary use of the word) of an ancient Scottish king has clear allusions to the Gunpowder Plot and to the terror it provoked. When Lennox arrives at Macbeth’s castle on the morning after the murder, he speaks of premonitions of disaster:

The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ the air; strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatch’d to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamour’d the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake.

Parallels with modern assassinations and politically- and religiously-inspired terrorist attacks are easy to make, and if the conspiracy had been successful the shock effect would have been comparable with that of 11 September 2001, the assassinations of John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Benazhir Bhutto. The outpouring of public grief at the tragic death of Princess Diana is some indication of how Britain would have reacted to the sudden violent death of members of the royal family.

The Gunpowder Plot was a horror on an unprecedented scale and, in the context of the continuing wars of the Reformation, conspiracy theories abounded. The Plot was not seen as the work of a small group of extremists, but as the latest in a succession of Roman Catholic threats to Britain. It was, after all, just 17 years since the Spanish Armada, when England only narrowly escaped invasion by the most powerful Catholic state of the day. Popular imagery linked the events of 1588 and 1605: the horseshoe-shaped fleet of Spanish ships and Guy Fawkes with his dark lantern approaching the vault beneath parliament.

Over the following centuries, the image of Guy Fawkes became shorthand for a threat to government and national security, see for more than 70 examples. The Occupy movement is just the latest element in a legacy lasting more than 400 years.

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Exhibitions, Shakespeare: staging the world

4 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Monika says:

    i agree


  2. james larkin says:

    I believe that Guy Fawkes was a good guy, not a monster. The monster was James 1, a sad and wicked little person who tortured Guy maliciously and illegally.


  3. hi says:

    yeah but he was just a Guy. It could have been anyone


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14,943 other followers


Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

You can now discover thousands of British Museum objects in partnership with @googleartproject at We’ve asked staff members to highlight their favourites and explain what makes them special. Chris Spring, Curator of Africa Collections, describes why he finds the ‘Throne of weapons’ so powerful. ‘This war memorial celebrates the ordinary people of Mozambique, many of them unarmed, who stood up to a culture of violence. It represents both a human tragedy and a human triumph. The Throne's essential humanity is suggested right away by its anthropomorphic qualities - it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face - actually two faces. My first reaction was that these faces are crying in pain, though they could also be seen as smiling faces finally freed from conflict. These anthropomorphic qualities also link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen as - and described as - human beings. The Throne has toured the world, taking its message of peace to schools, churches, shopping centres and even prisons – and of course, to museums and galleries.’ #MuseumOfTheWorld We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

#Michelangelo #art To celebrate our partnership with @googleartproject, we’ve asked members of British Museum staff to highlight their favourite objects and explain what makes them special. Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper of Britain, Europe & Prehistory, chose this stone chopping tool from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. ‘Holding this 2 million year old African tool in my hand I am reminded that whatever differences exist between people now, we are united by our common origin in Africa. The discovery of this piece by Louis Leakey in 1931 began to change our understanding of what makes us human. It illustrates the beginning of a transition from an ancestral ape that walked upright on two legs within the confines of a limited ecological niche to humans with more complex brains capable of changing and eventually dominating the world around us by making tools and weapons. This chopping tool is one of the seeds from which all human cultures and societies have grown.’ Discover the stories of thousands of objects in the Google Cultural Institute at

#MuseumOfTheWorld In Victorian England many people were fascinated by their past, and the ancient tribal leader Caratacus (also spelt Caractacus) was adopted as a symbol of national pride and independence. Like Boudica, Caratacus resisted the Roman invasion of Britain. Although he was eventually defeated, he earned a reputation as a noble and worthy foe. The Victorian sculptor J H Foley portrays him here standing triumphant, the embodiment of courageous English spirit. See this incredible #Movember moustache in our #Celts exhibition, until 31 January 2016.
J H Foley (1818–1874), Caractacus. Marble, 1856–1859. On loan from Guildhall Art Gallery/Mansion House, City of London. Some more #Movember inspiration! Here’s the Museum’s security team from 1902 photographed on the front steps. They include officers from the Metropolitan Police, and the London Fire Brigade (identified by their flat caps). We’re celebrating #Movember with Museum moustaches great and small. Here’s a #Movember fact: Peter the Great of Russia introduced a beard tax in 1698 and this token was given as proof of payment!

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,943 other followers

%d bloggers like this: