The Gunpowder Plot

Written by Thomas Gemmell

World Premiere November 2005

It is the 6th of November 1605.The Gunpowder Plot
The Gunpowder Plot has been uncovered, and Guy Fawkes has been captured and taken to the Tower of London.  A mysterious visitor arrives – a certain Mr William Shakespeare, writer, and sometime actor.  What has has to say about the plot, and the conspiracy will devastate Fawkes, and turn accepted history on it’s head.

But then, suddenly, King James appears…


This riveting drama traces three of the most famous men in British history to Traitor’s Gate in London when the “Powder Treason” was discovered, and through historical insight, wit and wordplay blends fact and fiction into a fiendishly twisting drama, which poses the question: Was the gunpowder plot just part of a larger conspiracy that has remained hidden for four centuries?

400 years after the event, it’s time for The Gunpowder Plot to be truly revealed.

VENUESThe Gunpowder Plot - Shakespeare Fawkes and King James for web_2

  • Paisley Arts Centre, New Street, Paisley, 1 November 2005 at 7.30pm, £7/£4, 0141 887 1010
  • The Macphail Theatre, Mill St, Ullapool, IV26 2UN, 3 November 2005 at 8pm, All tickets £5, 01854 613336
  • Craigmonie Centre, Glen Urquhart High School, Drumnadrochit, 4 November 2005 at 7.30pm, All tickets £5, 01456 459 224
  • East Kilbride Arts Centre, Old Coach Road, East Kilbride, 5 November 2005 at 8pm, £8/£6, 01355 261000


Writer  Thomas Gemmell  |  Director  Abigail Gemmell

Guy Fawkes  Colin Little  William Shakespeare  Andy Dow  |  King James  Bob Young


Extract: Traitors Gate

Mr Shakespeare.  What more do you want from me?  If you are researching a new play and wish to use my experiences as inspiration then I suggest you leave now and go and write it.  I’ll have no more of it.

Do you hear?  I refuse to be your toy.

Are you trying to write a play about the powder treason?

That’s the problem.  I already did.  Three years ago.


“strong performances”
“clever script.. continually wrong footed me”
“highly recommended”


The Gunpowder Plot set for web_2  The Gunpowder Plot - King James for web_2  The Gunpowder Plot - Shakespeare Fawkes King James for web_2  



Copyright Thomas Gemmell 2005



In March 1616, William Shakespeare, a very ill man, completed his will.  By April 26 he was dead.  The will is a business-like affair, as he makes provision for his family, leaving money to his daughters Susanna and Judith, and bequeathing various goods and belongings.  Interestingly, the will was first written in January of 1616, and some amendments were made in March.  But more of that later.

The Question of Authorship

For many years, the question of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays has caused much discussion and near frenzy in academic circles.  Whether you accept his authorship or not, it is clear that he did indeed co-author some plays:

Titus Andronicus, written with George Peele
Pericles, written with George Wilkins
The surviving text of Macbeth was adapted by Thomas Middleton
Timon of Athens, written with Thomas Middleton
Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen: with John Fletcher

The little known play Cardenio was recently reported to be another work co-authored by Shakespeare and John Fletcher and perhaps Thomas Middleton.

Why the Confusion?

Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre was rife with playwrights copying or stealing other work.  Shakespeare’s influences are transparent, and many of his plays are reworkings of older dramas.  Is it possible though, that some of his plays were reworkings – or rebranded versions – of plays by his contemporaries?

Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights wrote plays to be performed, not printed.  If not written down, then whole stories could be “lifted” by envious rivals.  We can therefore assume that work in progress manuscripts existed.

Also that there were many other plays that Shakespeare begun, and abandoned, wrote and decided not to perform; or wrote – and was never allowed to perform.  In the absence of a copyright law, it is easy to see how the authorship question can raise its ugly head.

Was was Shakespeare’s Will altered?

Shakespeare’s businesslike will was altered when his actor friends Heming, Burbage and Condell visited him in March 1616.  The amendment to the will showed that the three men were to be granted £1 6s 8d each.  But was that it?  The three men made a visit to Shakespeare just to get a little money?

Were Heming, Burbage and Condell hoping to acquire Shakespeare’s blessing to collect his plays into a published volume?  What did they promise they would do with his plays?  Print them all – unedited?  That, on the surface is indeed what happened, when they published the First Folio in 1623, claiming they were given the honour and responsibility for doing so from Shakespeare himself.  This folio contains the plays we know today.

Yet could there be another motive behind their visit?  Did they journey to Stratford to acquire the “rights” to print his plays, not to ensure that they all were published, but rather to ensure that some weren’t published?

Did Shakespeare have something on his mind, perhaps wanting to relieve the burden of guilt before he died?  Could his dying impulse to reveal this secret have inspired his friend’s pilgrimage to his sick bed?

The Secret?

In the years after 1605, Shakespeare was a favourite of James I, the king and head of the state.  His plays were performed at court and well attended.  He was a sensation.  Is it possible that Shakespeare enjoyed this very privileged state for a reason?  Did he know something so crucial that the government would resolve to give him his way in all things theatrical?

Is it possible that the ongoing debate over the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays is due to the very different plays in the canon; plays that were written by a variety of writers, including Shakespeare?  Could it have been possible that the knowledge Shakespeare had gave him the ability to claim authorship of other writer’s plays?

Is this power what led to unpopularity with other writers, and predicated his retirement to the countryside again?  Is this power over other writers, granted by the state, what led Ben Jonson to write the apparently sarcastic introduction to the First Folio?


  1. Shakespeare knew something.  A secret so powerful that he was granted a certain amount of immunity from the powers of the state.

  2. Shakespeare was allowed to claim sole authorship for plays written by others.  This partly explains the continuing “did he, or didn’t he” arguments about authorship of the plays.

  3. This power did not make him friends amongst other writers.

  4. Shakespeare kept the secret.  He also pushed his luck with the authorities by writing a play that exposed the secret, yet this was never performed.  Denied this opportunity, he encoded clues to the secret in his later plays, particularly Macbeth.

  5. In 1616, the dying Shakespeare wanted to unburden his soul.  Heming, Burbage and Condell visited him and secured the “rights” to publish all available manuscripts.

  6. In April 1616 Shakespeare died.  Few mourned him.

  7. In 1623, the First Folio was produced.  The secret play was missing.  Of the remaining plays, some were co-authored, others were plays written by other writers, but authorship had been given to Shakespeare, granted by the authorities.  Does that explain Ben Jonson’s bitterness?

  8. Since then, controversy over the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays has raged.  However, this debate actually clouds the most fascinating mystery.  The secret knowledge that Shakespeare had.  The secret that ensured that William Shakespeare would be remembered as the greatest English writer.

The Gunpowder Plot, by Thomas Gemmell

The play is a fiction.   Yet it is based on certain verifiable facts:

  • Guy Fawkes was part of a conspiracy to kill the King.

  • Fawkes was interrogated by various officials – including the King himself.

  • Shakespeare, an actor and writer from a strong Catholic part of the country, a man associated with the conspirators, a man many suspect of working as an agent for the state during the “missing years” between his arrival in London and the beginning of his writing career, was in London on November 5th 1605.

  • Traitor’s Gate was, in 1605, still the place where traitors to the state spent their first moments in the Tower of London.


One final mystery – which cannot be proved, but is worthy of note.  When the gunpowder conspirators swore to commit to the plot, they had 13 swords forged of the finest Spanish steel, and engraved with the words “the Passion of Christ”.

After the conspirators were executed, only 12 swords were retrieved and destroyed.

In Shakespeare’s will, written over ten years later, he bequeaths a sword to the son of a friend.  This sword never found its home, and was subsequently housed in the Tower of  London where it is seldom seen.

When it is anonymously displayed, or being carefully preserved, or restored, it is always behind glass, suspended between the heaven and the earth, with the same side always facing the wall…

Enjoy the play.