A logical fallacy in which the same word is used with multiple meanings. If this is done subtly, it can often convince the unwary.

Example: "It is too Free Software! It doesn't cost anything, so it's free!" The 'free' in "Free Software" is as in libre, while in the second sentence it is used as in gratis.

To prove the Equivocation, identify the word used and show that the definition in the first case is not appropriate for the second.

Father Henry Garnet: "You are the King's man, are you not? And you would always defend him?"
William Shakespeare: "Yes, of course I am!"
Garnet: "And if the King was at your home, and the army of a foreign king were to appear at your door, and a man asks 'Is the King inside your home?' what would he be asking?"
Shakespeare: "If the King is inside my home."
Garnet: "No! That's what he's saying, it's not what he's asking! What is he asking?"
Shakespeare: "If... the King... is inside... my home?"
Garnet: "You are a slow student..."
Shakespeare: "Well, you tell me! What is he asking?"
Garnet: "When a man says 'Is the King inside your home?' he is asking 'May I kill your guest?'"

Equivocation is a two-act play written by Bill Cain for production by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's troupe of actors. The play is a historic fictionalization in which King James I has commissioned a play from already famous playwright William Shakespeare - that play is to be a true history of the Powder Plot. After quelling initial resistance from the other actors within The Globe's cooperative troupe, Shakespeare sets to writing the dialogue for the thinly veiled propoganda piece the King's hand Robert Cecil has provided him with. Three drafts are discarded as Shakespeare and his troupe attempt to work past their own infighting to arrive at a performance which will not betray their hearts, their minds, nor (should the young Scottish King be displeased) their very lives.

Shakespeare: "I want to tell the truth, I just don't want to get caught at it!"

The entire play, as derives from its namesake, pivots around the concept of equivocation. Rather than the modern definition, which is closer to an abuse of homophones or a play on words, the play references an arcane definition by which there is an assumed fundamental question behind the question being stated. If asked in the court of law the question "Are you (this person)?" the fundamental question is "Do you accept responsibility for the legal, moral, and fiscal liabilities owed by (this person)?" During the trial of Jesuit Priest Henry Garnet rumors circulated that, owing to his knowing the conspirators of The Gunpowder Plot since childhood, he must have learnt of their conspiracy through some confession or another. While sworn under oath of the court to tell the truth to any question asked, but previously (and eternally) under oath to His Highest to keep all knowledge attained during confession as confidental, Father Garnet was questioned if he knew the plotters. He replies (in Equivocation, and perhaps in history) "No." The state's Prosecutor questions the validity of the response, to which Father Garnet expounds "I knew them, but I did not know them as plotters of treason." The point the Father illustrates is that while the Prosecutor said 'Do you know the plotters?' the fundamental question being asked was 'Did you assisst in the planning or execution of this treasonous attempt to destroy the Tower of London?' By manipulating the Prosecutor into asking for further explanation, Father Garnet was granted permission to separate the fundamental question from the question being asked.

A similar situation befalls Shakespeare. He is asked by Robert Cecil if The Globe will produce the true history of the Powder Plot - Robert Cecil's history of the Powder Plot. As Shakespeare pours over the official documents, loaned to him for the purpose of setting the plot points of this history, he is bothered by missing details. "If you get the little things right, {the audience} will ignore the big things you get wrong," explains Shakespeare to Cecil when interviewing the powerful man. The Globe's actors are hesitant to perform in the propoganda piece, and Shakespeare is half-heartedly trying to renege his contract to perform the play by claiming the details are wrong: specifically the matter of the dirt, river water, and lumber which would have been necessary to build such a tunnel, and generally how a man so well-informed as Cecil could not have known about such an industrious project beneath his very office. Cecil's answer to Shakespeare places the writer on the prongs of a dilemma, one which has him fearing the outcry against such a play only slightly less than the consequences for declining to write it.

Shakespeare: "You... you did not want to unify the nation at all..."
Robert Cecil: "It is fascinating. If the citizenry is split equally on any issue, it requires but a gentle pressure to tip the scales in favor of the outcome you desire."

I had the good fortune to attend the final dress rehersal of a local production of Equivocation, and the play was entirely wonderful. The actors slip in and out of multiple roles as quickly, and effortlessly, as their costumes. The language contains some adult passages, but for the tenor of the play it is entirely appropriate. What impressed me the most was they manner by which Bill Cain was able to pay homage to the Bard by mimicing Shakespeare's very style. In essence, Cain wrote a historical fiction (as were many of Shakespeare's most popular works) which had a metaphoric interpretation of current events (the two party political system of America and near 51% - 49% Presidential results from the three most recent elections). It struck me that the play was, in some small part, raising a tongue-in-cheek question: "Does a nation want to unite its citizenry?" As with many of the questions actually spoken during the performance of Equivocation there is a fundamental question behind this one, a fundamental question which answers itself by the conclusion of the performance.

Small text are the performed words of writer Bill Cain, as remembered by myself.

E*quiv`o*ca"tion (?), n.

The use of expressions susceptible of a double signification, with a purpose to mislead.

There being no room for equivocations, there is no need of distinctions. Locke.

Syn. -- Prevarication; ambiguity; shuffling; evasion; guibbling. See Equivocal, a., and Prevaricate, v. i.


© Webster 1913.

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