William Shakespeare, SJ: “Equivocation”

William Shakespeare, SJ: “Equivocation” November 7, 2017

So I commemorated the Fifth of November by attending a reading of Equivocation, Jesuit priest Bill Cain’s tragicall comedy about an alternate history in which James I commissioned Shakespeare (here “Shag,” whatever, we all know who this is) to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot. It’s not a perfect play; it does get preachy, and you can see contemporary Catholic obsessions and tics peeking out from amid the Jacobean trappings. E.g. the idea that destruction of community bonds are the destruction of “faith itself.” This is very Alan Bray and it’s very 2017 well-meaning US Catholics but it is not all that much like the words of Jesus, who came not to bring peace but a sword. We also get some of the contemporary obsession with Who Tells Your Story.

But if you love Shakespeare or have any interest in Reformation England’s repression of the Catholic faith, Equivocation offers plenty of toothsome lines and images. You could call it Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Damned. There’s literary criticism: “One thing follows another. That’s how people talk!” an exasperated player protests, even as the scene playing out around him suggests that people rarely have such coherent reasons for what they say and do.* There’s a lovely, strange description of how actors serve the audience, which culminates with: “Our bodies become their souls made visible.” There are jabs at Bardolatry, and even the occasional perfect Wildean line like, “I must say, I’m growing tired of the moral superiority of the criminal classes.” There’s a crown handled as if it were a suicide’s gun.

*I just realized this bit is a defense of the theory of equivocation itself! Lol this play outsmarts me on many levels.

There’s fun “woman is the irony of the community” stuff, as Judith Shakespeare gives the play’s only soliloquies, even though she hates soliloquies. The scenes about Shakespeare’s family life use his love of twin mixups and cross-dressing to express tragedy rather than creating comedy. There are unexpected, poignant moments, like Shakespeare’s penance–which is also one of the play’s many examples of double-meaning phrases. It’s a twisty play; it has its historical crackpot theories, the validity of which I am not fit to judge as this is not one of the Reformation things I know anything really about. Equivocation hits hard on the idea that the Gunpowder Plot is the real “end of the beginning” for modern, Protestant (/post-Protestant) England: the birth of a new country, after a long labor under Henry and Elizabeth. Equivocation often makes you feel the fear, the actual repression experienced in a country full of paid informers. It makes you feel the losses: One character laments, in re: Purgatory, “They closed it, the bastards.”

If you’ve spent too much time chasing the Swan of Avon you will truly thrill when you realize that this play has its own version of “The Mousetrap,” and when you figure out what they’re doing with the Porter. Judith’s speech about her father’s last four plays is simply lovely. There’s just so much good stuff here.

“I’m trying to write a play which isn’t about revenge,” Shakespeare says at one point. “It’s never been done!” Part of Equivocation‘s poignancy is that it is a play-as-revenge, a pretty blatant attempt to settle scores and right wrongs, to raise up the humiliated dead and cast down the mighty. (The roll call of Robert Cecil’s descendants is good miserable fun.) And yet it also expresses so well the longing for union, reconciliation, forgiveness, impossible miracles of restoration.

I enjoyed this immensely–I couldn’t keep a smile off my face–and I’ll definitely seek it out if I can see it performed. Very grateful to the Sheen Center for hosting this Bonfire Night entertainment. A toast to the players; and to our absent friends. May we all be one.

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