The Marlowe Society

Marlowe's Works

Marlowe's Works
Massacre Woodcut

The Massacre at Paris

The Massacre at Paris

History:

History:

Interpretation:

Interpretation:

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References:

The Massacre at Paris

The Massacre at Paris

Critical History

The Massacre at Paris has generally not been well received by critics down the years. Early commentators wrote the play off as not only largely comprised of moderate verse, but also unstageable in its extant form, although most cited the corrupt text as the reason. Tucker-Brooke is typical of this view, describing the play "in its present state much the least meritorious" of all Marlowe's plays. The "text is shockingly garbled; it would seem to represent a theatrical abridgement, in which the poet's language and versification have been corrupted on nearly every page, while the very sense of the original can in several passages be only imperfectly preserved."1

Marlowe only began to interest literary critics in the early part of the nineteenth century, but whilst there was no doubt that The Massacre belonged in the Marlowe canon, the state of the text often meant it was largely overlooked. Collier, though, had some particular interest in the play given his supposed manuscript 'discovery'. But he is still not overly impressed. "We have it evidently only in a very mutilated state, and possibly it was at best a very hasty performance got up for a temporary purpose."2 But whilst his opinion is that "it has no pretensions to dramatic interest, and the incidents are confusedly treated," he does note that "some portions are, nevertheless, vigorously penned, and the character of the Duke of Guise is not ill-sustained."3

Collier also cast the accusation that the play was protestant propaganda and that in it Marlowe "appealed to vulgar prejudices"4, a claim that has been levelled by many critics since. Wilbur Sanders, as late as 1968, took a particularly harsh line in this regard, accusing Marlowe of being "a brutal, chauvinistic propagandist," and labelling the play a "prostitution of art" in a chapter entitled Dramatist as Jingoist.5

A detailed consideration by Julia Briggs challenges this view directly. She points out that Marlowe's use of [Varamund] as the only available source for the events of 1572 inevitably coloured Marlowe's portrayal, since it is "a work with a strong Protestant bias."6 She further goes on to demonstrate that for the later, almost contemporary, scenes where Marlowe has a range of source material available, his interpretation is far from a biased one. On the contrary, she believes that "the whole section of the play centring on the murder of the Guise is actually treated, not from the Huguenot viewpoint at all, but from the [Catholic] League viewpoint."

Briggs cites four aspects of Marlowe's dramatisation that have "the specific intention of swinging our sympathies away from Henry and towards the Guise and the murdered Cardinal, his brother."7 These are Henry III's hypocrisy in giving "treacherous reassurances" to the Guise immediately before the pre-planned murder; "the personal courage shown by Guise in the face death"; the "gratuitous" display of the body to Guise's son (a detail only reported in a pro-Catholic pamphlet); and "the mockery of the Cardinal of Lorraine before his strangulation."8 Judith Weil concurs by further citing the characterisation of Navarre as evidence against a pro-protestant bias: "if Marlowe had intended only to reassure and flatter a Protestant audience, he would surely have made Navarre a stronger figure".9

H.S. Bennett who edited an edition of the play (alongside The Jew of Malta) in 1931, just before Adams gave credence to the authenticity of the Collier Leaf, was not impressed: "Bad as the state of the text undoubtedly is, there is nothing about it that leads us to believe that, had we the perfect text, we should have a great play. The Massacre at Paris is one of the weakest plays of its day."10 F.P. Wilson was a little more lenient, regretting "a reported text so maimed in the reporting that criticism can only guess at Marlowe's intention and achievement."11 He was however impressed at Marlowe's brave choice of subject matter, "exceptional among the plays of that date in being based on contemporary European history. It is a kind of plot which Shakespeare did not touch."12

But even after the papers by Adams and Nosworthy, critics who tried to imagine Marlowe's original play based on the glimpse afforded by the Collier Leaf were still not especially impressed. J.B. Steane, for example, believes the additional material in the manuscript indicates that what has been lost to posterity is "the places where attitudes might have been shaped, and thought developed." However, his view is "that the additional twelve lines are [not] of remarkable quality. Another 200 or 400 of this sort would still not raise The Massacre to the level of the other works."13 Despite this, Steane still considers the Guise's soliloquy in Scene II as "one of Marlowe's great speeches."14

Oliver is impressed by aspects of Marlowe's "sophisticated theatrical technique" in presenting the massacre as "a series of murders of individuals in snapshot".15 And after considering a number of examples of Marlowe's versification, expression and imagery, he provides one of the more upbeat assessments of the play: "Perhaps there is evidence enough after all for hesitating to accept the common opinion that even in its original form the play can have had little to offer to a true admirer of Marlowe."16

 
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