Religious history is filled with fissures, schisms, and outright breaks, with 16th century Europe arguably the most eventful and fervent period of Christian splintering, given the rise of the Protestantism on the Continent and the Church of England. During the reign of Elizabeth I, the control of the Anglican Church over religious practices was precarious, with those in charge of running the empire for the queen—namely William Cecil (Lord Burghley) and later, his son, Robert Cecil—continuously embroiled in foiling plots and staging false-flag events to maintain independence from the papacy.

Amidst this climate of intrigue, came the Gunpowder Plot, "discovered" on November 5, 1605 (and still celebrated as Guy Fawkes Day), with various conspirators summarily executed, except for Father Henry Garnett, a Catholic priest, who stood trial for supposedly masterminding the event.

(Left to right) Michael Morgan as Shag and John Hutton as Father Henry Garnett
(L to R) Michael Morgan as Shag and
John Hutton as Father Henry Garnett
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinan
As the story—Bill Cain's Equivocation—goes, leading up to and during the time of the trial, Robert Cecil (Rodney Lizcano), now the Earl of Salisbury and King James I's chief minister, approaches Shag (Michael Morgan), the Stratford man and the presumed author of the Shakespearean canon in this tale, and asks him to write a play based on a book about the Gunpowder Plot, written by his majesty. Shag tries to resist this assignment, despite the substantial money being offered by Cecil.

This back and forth goes on for most of the play, while we see various iterations of Shag's new play (for which there is no historical record) in rehearsal, performed by Shag's theatrical "cooperative" (a term reiterated throughout the play, to differentiate the sensibilities of the theatre and Shag's mindset from the cutthroat world of power politics and Cecil's amoral modus operandi).

Rodney Lizcano as Robert Cecil
Rodney Lizcano as Robert Cecil
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinan
While the dynamic between Morgan and Lizcano is delicious—with Morgan crafting a sympathetic and well-tempered take on the Stratford man and Lizcano viscerally conjuring the evil, hunchbacked spymaster—the theatrical backstory, a mix of occassionally funny lines (drawn from the canon to stir our reverent feelings and draw our sympathies for this completely fabricated plotline) and Shag and company's endless arguments over the work, continues without producing much of any drama; or, to paraphrase what Shag says in the first act, upon learning that Cecil apparently manufactured the whole conspiracy, "There is no plot?"

The story finally gets interesting as Garnett's trial approaches (a moving performance by John Hutton as the priest) and Shag decides to stage his previously written but unperformed play, Macbeth, instead of following Cecil's directive. As this new twist unfolds—with fine performances by Drew Horwitz, Hunter Ringsmith, as well as Lizcano and Hutton, as the troupe—Cain would have us believe that the demented Macbeth is the playwright's stand-in for Cecil (who was indeed personified by the actual playwright as Richard III).

Hunter Ringsmith as Sharpe
Hunter Ringsmith as Sharpe
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinan
In the program guide, the dramaturg for the play, Heidi Schmidt, writes, "This history is strung together from letters, offical documents and confessions—all of which can be doubted under the right circumstances." So, let us ask, what are the right circumstances?

In Act 2, Scene 3, of Macbeth, a drunken Porter answers the the knocking at Macbeth's castle door with the line:

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!

(Left to right) Rodney Lizcano as Robert Cecil and Drew Horwitz as Armin
(L to R) Rodney Lizcano as Robert Cecil
and Drew Horwitz as Armin
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinan
In Cain's play, the use of the term equivocator is taken to be derived from Garnett's March 1606 trial, in which the priest cites the "Doctrine of Equivocation" in his own defense. In simple terms, the Doctrine provides a means for Catholics to evade telling the truth without committing a sin and going to hell, as a means of protecting themselves and others, who were being persecuted. The dating of the use of such an equivocation to post-1604 is an important part of Cain's argument, since one of the primary objectives of this play is to show that the playwright of the canon is the fellow from Stratford; or, as Schmidt puts it, "The ensuing public debate about the practice of equivocation is one of the primary factors scholars use to date this play (i.e., Macbeth) ..."

The five extant signatures of the man from Stratford
The five extant signatures
of the man from Stratford:
(1) 1612 May 11th, Record Office, London.
(2) 1613 March 10th, Guildhall, London.
(3) 1613 March 11th, British Museum.
(4) 1616 March 25th, Somerset House.
(5) 1616 March 25th, Somerset House.
In this effort to elevate Shag, our heartstrings are also to be tugged by his relationship with Judith (a luminescent Elise Collins), his daughter, and twin to Shag's only son, Hamnet, who died at age 11. As the story goes, we are led to believe the author never got over this death, and (apparently) wrote one of his masterpieces in homage to the boy, changing the spelling of the boy's name because, well, who knows? Because he couldn't spell? We have heard the argument, over and over, that because there were no dictionaries at the time, spellings varied, which is true, although not so much among the highly literate, as computer studies have shown. According to Joseph M. English, Jr, a documents examiner with the forensic-science laboratory at Georgetown University, these only known signatures of the ruthless grain dealer from Stratford are from a man not familiar with writing his own name; or, as Mark Twain called the pen strokes, "chipmunk tracks."

Elise Collins as Judith and Michael Morgan as Shag
Elise Collins as Judith
and Michael Morgan as Shag
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinan
Yet, in the play, we see Shag effortlessly dashing off reams of script. More presposterous, we see Judith, which records indicate could only sign her name with an "X," reading Shag's plays, writing notes, and organizing scripts. In the program guide, Schmidt writes, "Equivocation is a history play. It's fiction, of course—excellently researched, but fiction nonetheless." Perhaps a better explanation is that Equivocation is filled with equivocations; that is, lies framed as truths to protect a particular point of view.1

For example, take the notion that equivocation was an idea that popped up after 1604. In fact, the equivocation doctrine had been around for a while before Garnett's infamous trial. In a 1583 tract, "A Declaration of the Favorable Dealing of Her Majesty's Commission Approved for the Examination of Certain Traitors and of Tortures Unjustly Reported To Be Done Upon Them For Matters of Religion," Lord Burghley, William Cecil, Robert's father, "mused over Catholics who, when tortured, used "hypocritical and sophistical speech" to evade the torturers questions." Additionally, "in 1584, a Spanish prelated named Martine Azpilcueta first formally laid out the Doctrine of Equivocation, which was disseminated across the Continent and into England." Finally, "a 1595 trial of the English Catholic martyr, Robert Southwell raised the issues central to Azpilcueta's thesis: that God-fearing papists could with clear conscience lie to Protestant inquisitors. While it is true that Garnett popularized the topic of equivoation in London in 1606, Macbeth makes no allusions to equivocation that can be tied to the Gunpowder Plot trial specifically."2

So, the basis for this story is speculation in its entirety, but with a point: It must occur after 1604, the year that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, died. The 1604 argument is an old saw with Stratfordians, who are quickly losing ground based on scholarship over the past two generations.

In a telling moment in the second act, Robert Cecil tells Shag that in the future his very existence will be questioned, then as the play concludes, Cecil claims victory, noting that history has forgotten his deviousness and that four of his direct relatives served as prime ministers, and one was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Most ironic, it is the power of the nobility that hid the authorship story and Cecil's moral vacuum.

The first publication of the Sonnets (1609)
The first edition of
the Sonnets (1609)
The man from Stratford was buried without a peep from anyone in literary circles, unlike other well-known writers of the day. It was not until years later, when it continued to serve the interests of de Vere's family, that the monument at the church in Stratford was remodeled to maintain the ruse of a nobleman who used numerous pen names and allonyms to cover his tracks, the foremost of which was William Shake-speare, the hyphenated spelling for which appears on a number of first editions. It's also worth noting that, in all the clerks’ rolls in England, there is not one listing of a hyphenated Shakespeare as a surname.

Hyphenated names were almost de rigueur for pen names, which were common in those days, as the nobility were always hiding truths in plain view, for example in emblem books. This practice of hyphenating pen-names continued for hundreds of years, and can even be found in "The Federalist Papers," which contain arguments by the Founding Fathers regarding the U.S. Constitution. It is also a definitive prescription for nobelmen, as noted in Baldassare Castiglione's "The Courtier (1528)," which says a nobleman who is also a writer must "Take care to keep them (his literary works) under cover ... and let him show them only to a friend who can be trusted."

The larger question concerning Equivocation is why we are still being fed this type of confabulation, but as anyone familiar with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (CSF) is aware, it is, among its many attributes, a factory for Stratfordian thought. On any given night, early arrivers to the outdoor theatre can hear a dramaturg or director or professor speculating, in a pre-performance background lecture, on the details of the story, all of which will be repeated in the program guide.

Next, we will see the results on stage, where, over the years, a surfeit of adaptations, supposedly based on the words themselves (for what else do Stratfordians have, given the absence of facts to support their beliefs), that are, in our view, successful 20 percent of the time. Why such a low percentage? Because without historical and biographical context, important sections of the text have little meaning for directors and actors.

This year, the CSF has taken their crusade one step further, with Equivocation, manufacturing history to support their cause. Despite the CSF's obvious prejudice, we are told by proponents that discussions of authorship are tiring. Apparently, they are unable to see that the assumptions underlying their research and performance, not to mention the university's classes, are all about authorship.

But authorship scholarship moves on. Consider Eugene O'Neill's attempt to embargo Long Day's Journey Into Night for 50 years, because of the sensitive autobiographical nature of its subject matter. Among the disparate facts that Equivocation gets right is that the author did indeed have Macbeth sitting on the shelf, but not for any reasons ennumerated by Cain.

More likely, the regicidal anxiety expressed in Macbeth stems from de Vere's role as a juror in the Star Chamber proceedings that condemned Mary, Queen of Scots, to death in 1586. De Vere's reluctance to produce the play is that it is a direct and powerful repudiation of Elizabeth and her decision, after numerous delays, to execute her cousin. As old nobility, de Vere shuddered at the thought of decapitating royalty. Further, the wider context of the play suggests that Burghley's 1583 treatise and Azpilcueta's 1584 formulation of the Doctrine of Equivocation were the more likely sources for the Porter's jestings.3 Burghley was de Vere's guardian and then, later, his father-in-law. (So, once again, we have a direct connection between the playwright's subject matter, in this case equivocation, and one of de Vere's immediate family members, just as de Vere helped his uncle, Arthur Golding, with the first English translation of Ovid's "Metamorphoses" [1567], which is why all 15 books of this classic masterpiece are referenced in the canon.) It's also worth noting in the context of church law that de Vere wrote anonymous homilies for the pulpit, and was intimately aware of all the contentious religious doctrinal arguments.

While there is no mention in Cain's play of the actual source for Macbeth, we do know that much of the story was derived from a manuscript in the possession of Margaret, countess of Lennox, which included accounts of the kings of Scotland. De Vere became aware of this document in 1574. The manuscript includes Macbeth's hallucinations and his paralysis at the sight of a forest marching forward, among its dozens of details.4 Most ironic is that one of Cain's (loosely interpreted) sources for this play is the work of the noted Jesuit historian Francis Edwards (director of the Roman Archives of the Society of Jesus, and a member of the Royal Historical Society and the Catholic Records Society), who put forth that the Gunpowder Plot was a "sting" stage-managed by Robert Cecil. Edwards was an ardent Oxfordian.

So, while Equivocation has it's moments of humor (and for Oxfordians, supreme irony5) and insight, and while the direction (Wendy Franz) and acting is first-rate, like the Gunpowder Plot upon which it is based, it fails to ignite.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's presentation of Equivocation runs through August 6th. For tickets:

Bob Bows

1 In de Vere's life, in contrast to Judith's illiteracy, we have Susan de Vere, the Earl's third daughter, who published the first folio via her husband and her brother-in-law, the earls of Montgomery and Pembroke. Another interesting biographic note regarding Susan: In 1591, the queen forced de Vere to give his ancestral estate, Castle Hedingham, to his three daughters, an episode that clearly reverberates in King Lear, in which one can also plainly see that his third daughter, Susan, the most literary inclined, would have been his favorite, as was Cordelia in the play.
2 Mark Anderson, 'Shakespeare' By Another Name, Gotham Books, New York, 2005, pp. 400-401.
3 Ibid, p. 401.
4 Ibid, p. 72.
5 My favorite (heh, heh, not hah, hah) moment is when Shag claims to have been a pretty good actor in his day. In real life, after the grain dealer came to London and began to get involved in the theatre scene, by stealing and selling scripts and the like (see Ben Jonson's "On Poet Ape"), he may or may not have acted. In either case, de Vere certainly enjoyed mocking Shag's ineptitude via characters such as Christopher Sly, Costard, Will, and Bottom.

Another misconception promulgated by Cain's script is the nature of the borrowings that the playwright incorporated from other sources. In resisting Cecil's pressure for writing a play based on the story of the Gunpowder Plot written by King James, Shag says he only does adaptations, inferring that to do what Cecil asks would be to follow someone else's plot without any leaway for poetic license; all this while we see various scenes in which Shag and the company re-work the material, which indicate that Shag IS doing an adaptation.

This oversimplification and misrepresentation of what adapation means in the Shakespearean canon is irresponsible at best. Given that most of the plays in the canon (excluding the histories, for which de Vere was specifically conscripted by the Queen to create propaganda for the public stage) were performed at court decades prior to their appearance in public venues, the adaptation of stories serve as a means to illuminate issues being considered by royalty and nobility, including the drama of the playwright's own life. Yes, of course de Vere improved the dramatic and literary quality of these stories, but historical research and context reveals that he did so much more with the material than the small-minded Stratford worldview is capable of imagining.

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