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 www.britishmuseum.org/collection 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

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Filed under: Exhibitions, Shakespeare: staging the world

4 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Monika says:

    i agree

    Like

  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.

    Like

  3. hi says:

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

    Like

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It's time for Room 54 in our #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Anatolia and Urartu 7000–300 BC. Ancient Anatolia and Urartu form an important land link between Europe and Asia and lie where the modern Republic of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and north-west Iran are located today. Objects in Room 54 show different cultures from prehistoric to Hellenistic times.
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