On equivocation: Macbeth in context.

In an earlier post I discussed at some length the Porter scene in Macbeth as a means of establishing a metaphorical hell on Earth: Porter scene

I will begin this discussion in the same place, but need to preface my thoughts with credit:  a far fuller and more detailed discussion of this area can be found in James Shapiro’s 1606: The Year of Lear, my source for much material here.  I advise all students to read it.  It is clear that Macbeth and Lear should both be read in conjunction with a detailed grasp of the context of events of the day. It is not enough simply to comment on a new Jacobean age or to focus on the neatness of a Scottish play at the time of a Scottish King.

November 1605 had seen the unmasking of a Catholic plot to kill the King and Parliament by Gunpowder.  This unprecedented act of slaughter and Regicide would affect all that was placed on stage in the coming years.  Already becoming more puritanical in its outlook, government in 1606 introduced acts of allegiance and an increasing control over the nature of language and representations of God on stage.  However, Shakespeare in Macbeth seems particularly interested in the concept of Equivocation as utilised by the defendants in the trial that followed the Gunpowder plot and, therefore, the manner in which the practice was proposed and utilised by the defendants.  One of these, “farmer” Garnet is referenced by the Porter as he opens the gate and his short scene – at face value comic entertainment to delay the discovery of the dead king – also contains further references of interest:

“Here’s an equivocator that could swear in both scales against the scale…” 2.3.7

“…it provokes the desire but takes away the performance.  Therefore much drink could be said to be an equivocator with lechery…”  2.3.22

One of the issues when teaching this scene is to match the humour against this figure who is so clearly changing the location of the play from Macbeth’s castle to a more literal Hell.  Where is  the humour in that?  Students ask. Maybe there is none, or maybe the outward humour is equivocating and hiding the reality form the audience…

The effect of the Gunpowder plot should not be downplayed when reading this play.  We must assume that every reference to the events of the day would resonate with an audience in 1606, even if less so today.  Possibly this is the reason that both Scottish Kings who die in this play are murdered or butchered off stage?  Was it simply no longer possible to put a monarch’s death on stage at this time? A look at “recent” plays such as Hamlet or Othello show Shakespeare to be no stranger to gruesome death on stage.  Moreover, the public nature of the search for the plotters and the focus on Equivocation at their trials surely provoked Shakespeare to explore this idea so thoroughly in this play.

Equivocation was a Catholic doctrine which would allow lying under oath and thus the avoidance of punishment in the after life for this action.  Broadly, there were 4 types of equivocation:

1: Ambiguity –  the reliance on words which could be interchanged in meaning such as “Lying”

2: Omission – of key facts or clarification

These two are familiar to generations of students who equivocate about missing homework, or to President Clinton who did “not have sexual relations with that woman…” after all, I am sure he simply omitted to clarify what constituted sexual relations…

3: Interplay of word and gesture such as a positive statement made with crossed fingers

4:  The big one… Mental Reservation.  In essence this licensed anything said as long as ones thoughts were clear, since God could see the purity of one’s thoughts at all times.  This was seen as a clear threat to the security of the state and the ending of all trust between interrogator and accused.

It s not surprising if a play riven with mistrust, murder, Regicide and a clear threat to the stability of the state should focus on this concept.  We must assume that the nature of Equivocation really was something being discussed throughout London at the time of first performance and that the references would probably have been far clearer to Shakespeare’s audiences that to a modern observer.

The Porter is letting equivocators into Hell… and therefore by extension we see Macbeth’s Scotland in the same light.


  • Omission:  “thou shalt be King hereafter” 1.3 50ff makes no mention of the murders and plotting required to achieve this result
  • “thou shalt get kings…” makes no mention of the fact that Banquo shall be dead and not see any of them.  We should notice that the end of the play, with MacDuff hailed as king has not brought about this effect.  There must be much more slaughter and bloodshed to come before Fleance and Banquo’s line can be established.
  • “fair is foul…” these inversions work well on their own as establishing the perverted nature of the setting, but omit the crucial idea that it is necessary to see through the facade of fairness to recognise the foul
  • By the time Macbeth sees the truth in the statements that “none of woman born” shall kill him and that “Great Birnam shall come” to Dunsinane he is clear that it is “th’ equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth”


  • Omission: In his letter to Lady Macbeth he makes no mention of Banquo’s half of the prophecy
  • He omits any mention of a 3rd murderer when instructing Banquo’s assassins
  • He urges Lady Macbeth to be “innocent of the knowledge” prior to the banquet, suggesting a need for equivocation throughout his behaviour
  • As he dies he sees clearly that he has been misled by Devilish Equivocation: “And be these juggling fiends no more believed/That palter with us in a double sense” 5.7.57


  • Her use of the word “well” is a case of an ambiguity which will return throughout the second half of the play.  When she is calming the nobles at the banquet, she states that Macbeth “will again be well”.  The same word is used by Ross who equivocates when trying to deliver news of his family to the absent Macduff.  It seems that “well” can be seen as a word ambiguous enough to be used when trying to deflect the listener from perceiving bad news.
  • We might see her behaviour when sleepwalking as a visual metaphor for equivocation – in sleep she can be seen to be tormented by her conscience and to be writing and reading a confession? Endlessly she is tormented until driven to suicide.  She has called on Devils throughout the play, but it is her inner truth which brings about her end.


  • Apart form the instance cited above, Macduff feels the need for a long equivocation when being questioned by Malcolm about his fitness to be King.  His first response is to equivocate and to paint such a negative picture that Malcolm is clearly shocked.  Macduff then seems to blame Macbeth for establishing this mode of behaviour in him before telling the truth about his saintliness.  It seems that equivocation has become an affectation required in order to survive at this time.
  • On hearing of the death of his children he responds to Malcolm’s urging for revenge with a neatly equivocal response: “he has no children” 4.3.214  Who is he talking about.  The director and actor need to decide, is this a comment on Macbeth and thus the futility of any move for revenge, or is it a comment on Malcolm who cannot empathise at this time?  Might it be an objective third person comment on his own state?   The ambiguity and omission remove clarity form the statement.  There is little dramatic reason for this and once again equivocation has become an action of habit.

Students should look through the play for more references to equivocation – there are plenty.  It is enough here to comment on Shakespeare’s own equivocation  at the end of the play.  I have already mentioned the off stage butchery, but consider the status quo of the final tableau.  The Weird Sisters promised the Banquo would “get kings”.  Here we so no offspring of Banquo. We can only assume much more bloodletting before this story be fully told.  With King James established in the Procession of Kings as a scion of Banquo, there is uncertainty in Shakespeare’s message.  It is as though Shakespeare is suggesting that a great deal more uncertainty will follow before James is fully established as a secure monarch.

Much has been written about Shakespeare’s Catholic sympathies and it is certain that he would have known some of the conspirators hunted down during 1605 and 1606.  Here he seems to be suggesting that equivocation belongs on the side of the Devil, yet his play is ambiguous and the ending does not answer any questions about the future of the regime.  When taken with the utter devastation of the kingdom seen in Lear, a play in which the ending is utterly ambiguous with the identity of the closing speaker not set in stone between the quarto and folio texts, the student needs to see the full ambiguity of the court playwright who shared some sympathy with the  plotters trying to restore the Catholic faith at a time of Puritanical Protestantism.