The Marlowe Society

Marlowe's Works

Marlowe's Works
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The Massacre at Paris

The Massacre at Paris

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The Massacre at Paris

The Massacre at Paris

Themes in the Play

Once again, the reported and abridged nature of the [O] text makes it very difficult to see too far beyond the remaining action-packed romp to any more subtle themes that Marlowe might have worked into his last play. As F.P. Wilson notes, "the dialogue is stripped almost to the bare bones of the action,"1 and as such the characterisation inevitably suffers. A number of commentators have however considered some of the wider elements of the drama.

1. Violence

The alleged blood-lust of the Elizabethan theatre audience would most certainly have been sated by The Massacre at Paris. The play, in what we might presume to be approximately one half of its original length, still packs in a succession of shootings, poisonings, stabbings, plus a strangulation for good measure. "No film director hungry for sensation could reasonably complain about its ingredients," notes Steane, "twelve occasions for murder on stage (seventeen victims), a lustful duchess, a hint of perversion, religion . . . And all in an action-crammed script not half the length of Edward II."2

A number of modern commentators have questioned whether Marlowe's use of excessive and brutal violence was rather employed to make some more subtle thought-provoking point. Does the endless cycle of violence and subsequent calls for revenge by both sides not serve to underline the pointlessness of religious and state violence? As Sara Munson Deats notes, "the bloodshed and betrayal come full circle, and the audience experiences a sickening sensation of déjÓ-vu."3

Julia Briggs sees two possible theatre responses to the violence. The first is one where "the audience's reaction to the relished comic violence they witness will be one of disapproval, even of intense disgust - the thud of the Admiral's body as it falls from the upper stage, the gratuitous taunting and mocking of helpless victims, the preacher Seroune murdered before his wife's eyes - surely invite the pity of the victims' co-religionists, and the laughter and games thus appear as the sick-making self-deceptions they really are."4

The alternative, more traditional, view of an Elizabethan audience enjoying the on-stage gore is, Briggs suggested, perhaps even more subversive. "The Elizabethan audience may have reacted to the violence with excitement, as if they were watching real events, witnessing an execution or participating in a lynching; so that they laughed with the murderers, thus freeing themselves of responsibility and compassion, as the religious rioters themselves seem to have done. Even so, such a reaction would have forced a Protestant audience to see the massacre from a standpoint identical with that of the Catholic murderers, an insight which no other dramatist was to give them and which, in itself, is surely a refutation of the claim that the play is merely jingoist, a crude piece of Protestant propaganda"5

Judith Weil further finds an additional dramatic purpose here, wherein Marlowe "stresses hypocrisy by frequent conjunctions of ceremony and violence."6 She analyses a number of the main incidents in the play, and identifies associations with religious rites or ceremony that add an even darker undertone to the violence and murder. These include the initial wedding scene (where "the Queen Mother vows to dissolve 'this solemnity ... with blood and cruelty'" [I.24-25]), the preparations for the massacre and the murder of the Admiral, the coronation of Henry III (the cutting off of the cutpurse's ear), Henry's murder of the Guise, and the death of Henry III.7

Julia Briggs concurs, referencing an article by Professor Natalie Zemon Davis8 on the general connection between religious rites and violence during the Wars of Religion to back up this view. She also cites particular examples in the play where "objects, primarily those with religious significance, are commonly involved [in the violence], being mocked, broken, or ritually defiled, one underlying cause for this being the extent to which religious differences themselves centred on the significance and meaning of particular objects."9 One in particular that she picks out is Gonzago's words to Coligny before stabbing him, "Then pray unto our lady; kiss this cross" [V.28], the cross referred to being the shape made by the hilt of the dagger.

2. Machiavellian Characters

Even if it were not evident from the abridged text of The Massacre at Paris, Marlowe tells us himself that he viewed The Duke of Guise as a Machiavellian figure in his prologue to The Jew of Malta10:

Machevil: Albeit the world think Machiavel is dead,
Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps;
And, now the Guise is dead, is come from France,
To view this land, and frolic with his friends.

The Jew of Malta, Prologue 1-4

'Machevil' himself is narrating, and now that his work is done in France, he is coming to England to spread his influence. Such a fear existed in Marlowe's time. "The anonymous Huguenot who translated Gentillet11 into Latin in 1577 did so in order that Machiavelli's pernicious influence should not reach into England,12 and similarly Case13 described with horror the spread of Machiavellianism from Italy to France, and hoped it would not penetrate to England."14 Furthermore, as Oliver notes, "Gentillet did regard the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day as a prime example of the evil that occurred when the principles of Machiavelli - 'ce malheureux Athéiste' - were put into practice."15

But even without this clue from The Jew of Malta, the Guise's lengthy soliloquy in Scene II immediately and clearly establishes his Machiavellian credentials16, in essence his ambition to ascend to the throne of France by whatever means necessary. There are further similarities between the Machiavellian ideas expressed in both the prologue to The Jew and the Guise's soliloquy: the possibly atheist but certainly pragmatic idea of using religion for one's own ends,17 and the citing of Julius Caesar as an example both in terms of being hated18, but also in striving to claim a crown they were not necessarily entitled to.19

Through this soliloquy the Guise is the most overtly Machiavellian, but some of the other main characters in the play also exhibit similar tendencies. "Henry's shift from enjoying an active part in the massacre to accepting Huguenot aid against the unforgiving forces of the League looks opportunist, to say the least. If Protestant pamphlets viewed the Guise as a Machiavel, the League pamphlets, among them some Marlowe may have used to provide particular details of the Guise murders, saw Henry in the same light: an atheist and Machiavel, he wears alternately the mask of the fox and the lion."20 Henry's avowal to be an enemy of Catholicism21 just before his death is largely Marlowe's invention, perhaps to accentuate his 180 degree turn from a murderer of Huguenots in the Massacre. In fact, Henry maintained his Catholic faith to the end, holding a death-bed mass, and although he did indeed formally name Navarre his successor, he also urged him to convert to Catholicism.

Catherine de Medici too is the very epitome of Machiavellianism. In the opening scene, Marlowe already has her plotting to "dissolve [her daughter's marriage to Navarre] with blood and cruelty" [I.25], despite the fact that she had instigated the match in real-life. The Queen Mother is prepared to go to any lengths to maintain her position as the power behind the throne of each successive son, hinting in turn that she is even prepared to murder both Charles [XI.39] and Henry [XIV.63-66] to usher in the next in line who she hopes will be more bending to her will. Contemporary propaganda on both sides of the religious divide quote her as telling Henry that he "will not remain long in Poland", and cite this as evidence that she did indeed poison Charles. In the play, she prefers instead an alliance with the Guise (seemingly also Marlowe's invention), which "seems natural enough since, according to the English view of her, Catherine was Machiavellism incarnate, having been born and bred in Florence and coming from a family indissolubly linked with that philosopher."22

Navarre is perhaps the most disappointing character in the extant play, but even some of his actions hint at a Machiavellian portrayal by Marlowe. On the face of it, Navarre is a one-dimensional Protestant mouth-piece, his character variously described as the "merest patchwork of Protestant commonplaces"23 and "a prig".24 But as Julia Briggs notes, "since what little he has to say is so unconvincingly sanctimonious ... it is tempting to interpret him as yet another political operator, exploiting religious fervour to bring him one step nearer the crown, in the manner of the Guise."25

Judith Weil goes further26, describing the characterisation of Navarre as the best example of "Marlowe's 'dark' treatment of righteous hypocrisy." "Why," she asks, "does Navarre abandon his tutors to the mercies of the Guise and Anjou?" When Charles dies, Navarre views the "broils" at court as an "opportunity ... to steal from France ... and muster up an army secretly" [XIII.30-32, 37]. He sees quite clearly that the Guise's "aspiring thoughts aim at the crown, / And takes his vantage on religion" [XX.22-23]. And of course, his play for a pact with Henry III (who has just sent an army against him at Coutras in Marlowe's telescoped timeline) is as opportunistic on his part, as it is on the King's.

Perhaps the playwright did in fact temper his desire to present all the protagonists as equally guilty of the same sins due to the likely partisanship of his audience. "Marlowe may have felt inhibited by Navarre's enormous popularity in this country where he was regarded as a hero from the outset; his nickname - 'the Great' - certainly survived his conversion to Catholicism in the year after Marlowe's death"27

3. Marlowe's Irony

A number of modern critics do find the remains of a more sophisticated and complex plot still evident in the extant text. Judith Weil finds "irony pervad[ing] The Massacre at Paris, an irony less dependent on 'hard' allusions, more upon dramatic structure and implicit ideas."28 She argues that the character of Guise is a "focus and symbol for evil in other characters," and further that "two other major characters, Henry King of France and Henry of Navarre, mirror the attitude of Guise."29

All the major characters in the play are motivated by revenge. Guise is motivated by King Henry's personal slight in relation to his being cuckolded, and dies wishing "Sixtus, be reveng'd upon the King," [XXI.82] and also that the Huguenots will perish [XXI.86]. Henry in turn dies urging Navarre to "revenge my death," imploring his followers to "whet thy sword on Sixtus' bones / That it may keenly slice the Catholics" (XXIV.95, 98-99). Navarre duly ends the play vowing yet more revenge [XXIV.108]. Contrary to the common accusations of partisanship, Marlowe is characteristically ambiguous when it comes to casting hero and villain. "With surprising objectivity, given his subject matter, he avoids imposing judgement."30

H.J. Oliver also sees "one of the main dramatic skills of the play is the irony with which characters and scenes are juxtaposed, as if to show the various forms of political ambition cancelling each other out... The wheel comes full circle for Guise when the one murder for which he had some 'justification', that of Mugeroun, leads to his own murder, ... for Catherine when she is invited to join her son in gloating over the murdered body of Guise, and ... for Henry the murderer when he in turn is over-confident and dies cursing the Catholic cause that he has been fostering."31

Other examples are identified by Sara Munson Deats. Like other commentators she notes, that "in two of the most vicious killings in the play, those of the Admiral and the Guise, both Charles and Henry visit their potential victims immediately before the assassinations and lull them into a false sense of complacency by their deceitful assurances of protection, and the deaths of both victims seems designed to invite audience sympathy."32 She finds similarities with the Guise and Henry III, the gratuitous murders committed by each, and the subsequent gloating over the dead bodies. All these examples demonstrate "how the ironic structural parallels and ambiguous character portraits of the play create an interrogative drama possessing a sufficient number of typically Marlovian traits to make it of interest to students of the playwright."33

But this view of a clever, topical satire should be balanced against the limited evidence from the extant text. As Weil herself warns, "By suggesting that Marlowe wrote [The Massacre at Paris] as an objective, satiric history, and that neither the play nor its intended audience were na´ve, I have risked over-rating both."34

 
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