Garry Wills is well known for his studies of U.S. history, which include Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (1970), Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home (1988), and, most notably,Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (1993), an analysis of the Gettysburg Address that received the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. Turning from the history of the United States to that of early modern England, Wills explores connections between Macbeth and the Gunpowder Plot. In 1605, a group of papists, who were believed to be directed by Jesuits who received their orders from Rome, conspired to blow up Parliament. The gunpowder was to be exploded during an address by the king to Parliament when the prince and all of the leading members of the court were present.
To suggest the degree to which this event affected the popular imagination, Wills offers as an analogous situation the reaction that would have occurred had a massive assassination plot been discovered during the Cold War. Suggestively, he questions what would have been the reaction in the 1950’s to the discovery that a communist cell had planted a nuclear device timed to explode when the president was addressing both houses of Congress. The seventeenth century Gunpowder Plot was discovered in time to prevent the explosion, but King James, the Privy Council, and the leading figures of court and Parliament were appalled by the fact that the conspirators had succeeded in planting the gunpowder. According to Wills, in the aftermath of the trials of the conspirators, King James launched a major propaganda campaign to be sure that the failure of the plot would be understood as evidence of God’s providential intervention to protect England from the machinations of papal Rome. The resulting sermons and proclamations contained language, Wills claims, that invested the text of Macbeth with topical meaning.
In addition, he maintains that readers’ appreciation of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy will be enhanced if they consider Macbeth as one of a group of plays that were produced within a year of each other and in direct response to the Gunpowder Plot. These plays include Thomas Dekker’s The Whore of Babylon, John Marston’s Sopho-nisba, and Barnabe Barnes’s The Devil’s Charter. Throughout his study, Wills draws parallels between these plays and Macbeth.
Wills is not the first critic to emphasize the importance of the Gunpowder Plot to an interpretation of Macbeth. H. N. Paul discussed the relevance of the Gunpowder Plot to Macbeth in The Royal Play of Macbeth (1950). In fact, the obviously topical allusions to equivocation in the porter’s speech repeatedly have been interpreted as references to the Jesuits who inspired the conspirators. Wills’s methodology, however, differs from that of Paul and other commentators. The deployment of his argument owes much to new historicism, an influential theoretical approach to the relationship between texts and the culture that produced them.
New historicist interpretation emerged as one of the most popular of modern literary theories after the publication of Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespearein 1980. In the heyday of new criticism, little attention was paid to the historical context; it was assumed that great works were those that had stood the test of time and that only those elements in the work that contributed to this timelessness were worthy of attention. Topical allusions were to be ignored because they forged relationships between a text and its context, and so detracted from the readability of a work.
New historicism has questioned these premises and insisted upon the relevance of focusing on documents and events external to the literary text in arriving at a satisfactory interpretation of a text. Rather than examining issues of causation and intention—what caused Shakespeare to weave allusions to the Gunpowder Plot into Macbeth—Wills, as is characteristic of a new historicist, offers documentary or historical analogies to events in the play. He is less concerned with what the play “means” than with the specific meanings and associations that it may have had for Shakespeare’s first audience.
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