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Plotting as Subversion: Narrative and the Gunpowder Plot

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 38, Number 3, Fall 2008
pp. 295-316 | 10.1353/jnt.0.0018

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In an England where plotting against the monarchy was very much a reality, Shakespeare had Lord Bardolph, a supporter of Henry Percy’s1 claims to the English throne, play on the divergent meanings of the word plot:

   When we mean to build,
We first survey the plot, then draw the model,
And when we see the figure of the house,
Then must we rate the cost of the erection,
Which if we find outweighs ability,
What do we then but draw anew the model
In fewer offices, or at last desist
To build at all? Much more, in this great work—
Which is almost to pluck a kingdom down
And set another up—should we survey
The plot of situation and the model.

(2 Henry IV, 1, 3, 41–51)

The duality of plot and plotting employed in this discussion of fifteenth-century treason, as physical space and projected scheme, is readily apparent in the chronology offered in the Oxford English Dictionary where the meaning of the word “plot” is traced from the late old English “fairly small piece of ground,” to “map, plan, scheme” (1548), including the arrangement of narrative, and the slightly later “plan made in secret by a group of people, esp. to achieve an unlawful end; a conspiracy” (1550). As Peter Brooks has remarked, “Common to the original sense of the word is the idea of boundedness, demarcation, the drawing of lines to mark off and order . . . From the organized space, plot becomes the organizing line” (25). Following the logic of Bardolph’s speech, which recognises a certain divergence in both meaning and trajectory, witnessed in the shift from noun to verb, I argue here for a division of the term “plot” onto two planes—on the one side plot is the “organizing line” that Brooks finds to be bound up with “demarcation” and, perhaps more significantly, “order”. On the other side, the second plane, “plotting,” as it will be constructed here, is conceived as an attempt to subvert this ordering—this is plotting best conceived in terms of the verb that was, the OED tells us, first recorded in 1586 in the sense of “to lay plans for, scheme, esp. in secret,” a definition which attests to the forward-looking aspect of a plotting that promises both disorganization and transgression.

This narratological discussion becomes historiographical in that it takes place within the space of another discussion of plots and plotting, one which is apparently more concrete (in its historical location at least) but which in actuality proves just as elusive: namely the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. In this I follow the OED’s suggestion that plotting as scheming was “[probably] popularized in this sense in connection with the Gunpowder Plot of 5th Nov. 1605–8,” a remark that underscores not only the complicity of the narratives of the Gunpowder Plot in the deployment of the term but which also, crucially, includes subsequent accounts of the event, which otherwise might be said to have concluded on the third of May 1606 with the execution of Henry Garnet, as the event. Specifically then, my focus here is the subsequent entry of that (non)event into history in the outpouring of legal, political, historical, and literary narratives (as if those categories were not always already implicated by and for one another) that arose in its immediate aftermath. In considering these narratives it is my intention to interrogate the operation of the imaginary within the historical, in terms of both form (plotting) and content (the plotted) and to argue for the centrality of the imaginary, which will be figured here in terms of metaphor, in the development of a historical, political, real. This argument proceeds by way of two “strands” which remain, I hope, connected throughout: namely, an Aristotelian reading of history in relation to poetry and, more extensively, a reading of the integration of Trojan metaphors in narratives of the Gunpowder Plot that, through the parallels it shares with a narrativized history, exposes the mechanisms by which literature becomes a metaphor for the “unreal” of history.

In that my intention here is not to write a history of the acts of Catesby, Fawkes et al, nor those...