Macbeth and equivocation

Remember a few days back when discussing the more witchy sources for Macbeth (this after discussing Holinshed’s contributions to the more human side of the story), and how I said there was one more text that might be considered an influence if not a source? And I said I’d discuss that later when I hit the Porter scene?

Well, today, I’m a-hittin’ it…

After the murder of Duncan by Macbeth, there’s a knocking at the gate, and the Porter goes to answer it. We get this bizarre soliloquy:

Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of hell gate, he should have old turning the key. (Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ th’ name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer that hanged himself on th’ expectation of plenty. Come in time! Have napkins enough about you; here you’ll sweat for ’t. (Knock.) Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’ other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator. (Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there? …Anon, anon! I pray you, remember the porter.
  • II.iii.1-12, 18-19

And later, when telling Macduff–who had been at the gate–what three things liquor provokes, the Porter says,

Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes. It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery. It makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him and disheartens him; makes him stand to and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep and, giving him the lie, leaves him.
  • II.iii.26-34

That’s five uses of the word equivocate/equivocator within a two-speech span. What’s the deal with equivocation?

The simple meaning of equivocator is “liar.” You can be a liar, but you can’t lie to heaven, the Porter says. But there’s more to it to that, equivocation is a lie that plays with words, giving you the impression of truth. Thus, the porter says drinking equivocates lust: it brings on lust, but too much of it kills the ability to perform the sexual act provoked by that lust. The porter himself plays with the word, saying that drink lies (“equivocates”) a man into a sleep, and thus having given him a lie (the hope of sex) leaves him altogether.

So equivocation is more than, different from, a lie?

Well, the answer to that lies (what I did there) in the confluence of history and religion.

Henry VIII, partially to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn (so he could father a son…allegedly), kicked the Catholic Church out of England, creating the Church of England with himself as its head. Catholicism had been outlawed in England since then (save for the five year reign of Mary I, Queen of England–Elizabeth’s predecessor–who restored the Church and executed so many Protestants that she more than earned her nickname “Bloody Mary”). Now, you can outlaw a faith, but you can’t make people stop believing. So the Jesuits sent clergy into England to minister to these closet Catholics. Since the faith was outlawed, this put into danger the lives of these Jesuits, and the people who housed them.

To save lives ostensibly (both theirs and those of their shelterers), the Jesuits employed equivocation, which was the use of carefully worded statements (seemingly ambiguous or with double-meanings) to tell officials the truth literally, but hiding another meaning. While the Protestants saw this as outright lying, the Jesuits saw that by saving lives this was a legitimate, and holy, strategy. So much so, that pamphlets were published defending (and even teaching) the practice. One such pamphlet was Henry Garnet’s “A Treatise of Equivocation” published in 1598.

Shakespeare uses the term only seven times in four speeches over the course of the entire Canon: three speeches in this play–we’ll get to that last one in a minute–and once in Hamlet. Each instance occurs in a play written after 1598; this has been taken as evidence that Shakespeare was aware of the pamphlet and that he was influenced by it.

Later in Macbeth, after hearing that Birnam Wood has been seen moving toward Dunsinane, Macbeth states, “I pull in resolution and begin // To doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend, // That lies like truth” (V.v.42-44). He now doubts the third “truth” that he heard from the witches. They said for him not to worry until Birnam Wood moved to Dunsinane, which sounds like a slam dunk for safety. Of course, that wasn’t the full message: it was accompanied by the apparition of a boy, in a crown, holding a tree. Malcolm, the prince, tells his army to pick up branches to hide their numbers. While the words give Macbeth the impression of safety, that image should have given him pause.

The second warning is just as equivocal: “Laugh to scorn // The pow’r of man, for none of woman born // Shall harm Macbeth” (IV.i.101-03). This is tricky on two levels. First, Macbeth puts his mental emphasis on “woman” in that middle line (which makes sense as it’s juxtaposed with “man”), and everyone has a mother. So Macbeth is safe, right? Yes, kinda, maybe; but the key word is actually “born” (and we get the apparition of the bloody child–as if delivered by Caesarian to support this). On another level, though, the statement is even truer (if that’s such a thing): you can laugh at the power of men, but don’t mess with the power of witches.

Their first warning is unequivocal: Beware Macduff. Simple. Straightforward. And because of that, it becomes equivocal, as it sets up the listener to believe that what follows is just as simple and true.

I said earlier that Shakespeare uses the term once in Hamlet, which was written some time between 1599 and 1602, after the publication of Garnet’s “Treatise.” But Shakespeare is now in 1606 when he floods Macbeth with the word. Why?

The hint is in the Porter’s use of the phrase “who committed treason enough for God’s sake.” Garnet, you see, had known about the Gunpowder Plot, the 1605 scheme to blow up Parliament and kill King James. He had learned about it through a confessional, which he felt meant he could not reveal it to secular leaders (he instead sent the message to Rome). He equivocated with the Privy Council when interrogated after his capture in early 1606. He was found guilty of treason, and executed by hanging, drawing and quartering in May of the same year.

Coincidence? I think not. And that’s why many critics place the composition of Macbeth in 1606.

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