- What art thou dead, sweet son? Speak to thy Mother.
- O no, his soul is fled from out his breast,
- And he nor hears, nor sees us what we do.
- My Lords, what resteth now for to be done?
- But that we presently despatch ambassadors
- To Poland, to call Henry back again,
- To wear his brothers crown and dignity.
- The Massacre at Paris, Scene XIII.16-22
The Massacre at Paris
The Death of King Charles IX
Location: The French Court in Paris
With the Massacre complete, events take a further turn in favour of the Catholics as the guilt-ridden King Charles IX dies. His mother shows little emotion, and in fact can hardly wait to whisk his younger brother Anjou back from Poland to inherit the French crown as Henry III. Navarre meanwhile immediately recognises the danger this represents for him, and makes plans to escape the French court.
Marlowe has once again rearranged the chronology of real-life events for his own dramatic continuity. Charles' steady physical and mental decline lasted for nearly two years after the Massacre until he died at the end of May 1574.1 Navarre did not flee Paris until February 1576, a whole year after Anjou was crowned as Henry III at Rheims, an event not dramatised by Marlowe until the following scene.
The scene opens with King Charles in some physical discomfort, as "a griping pain hath seiz'd upon my heart; a sudden pang, the messenger of death" (XIII.2-3). Despite reassurance from Navarre, Charles knows he is not long for this world. Whilst admitting he has "deserved a scourge" (XII.9) for his failure to stop the Massacre, he can only hope his "nearest friends" (XIII.12) have not been responsible for his own death. His symptoms ("my sight begins to fail, / My sinews shrink, my brain turns upside down, / My heart doth break, I faint and die" - XIII.13-15) may hint at poison, for they are very similar to those displayed by the old Queen of Navarre who perished by a poisoned glove ("My brain-pan breaks; / My heart doth faint; I die" - III.19-20). Marlowe's source [Varamund] did suggest Charles was poisoned,2 although the similarity in symptoms may just be down to the unreliable and repetitive nature of the reported text.
Marlowe had set Catherine de Medici up as prime suspect in an earlier scene, when she raged against Charles' feelings of guilt over the Massacre and his collusion with Navarre, predicting "so surely shall he die, / And Henry then shall wear the diadem" (XI.39-40). There is no explicit evidence in this scene that Catherine is directly responsible, although a later comment would certainly provide key evidence for the prosecution: "I'll despatch [Henry III] with his brother presently" (XIV.63).
Catherine is certainly not racked with grief. She offers fairly bland platitudes when Charles initially announces he is not well ("O say not so, thou kill'st thy mother's heart" - XIII.4) and after confirming he is dead ("O no, his soul is fled from out his breast / And he nor hears nor sees us what we do" - XIII.17-18) her thoughts turn immediately in the very next lines to arranging for the return of Anjou from Poland: "My Lords, what resteth now for to be done? / But that we presently despatch ambassadors / To Poland, to call Henry back again, / To wear his brother's crown and dignity" (XIII.19-22). Unfortunately we can never be quite sure that such a speedy turn of face might not be caused by original dialogue cut from, or forgotten in, the extant reported text, but it certainly seems quite likely that Marlowe is painting Catherine as a ruthless and unfeeling mother, a Machiavellian plotter whose first thought is how the situation can be turned to her advantage. The playwright, as is often his wont, may even have purposely left the cause of the King's death deliberately ambiguous.
Navarre is left with his follower Pleshé to ponder the increased danger he finds himself in following this dramatic and unfavourable turn of events. In reality he was effectively held captive in Paris for three and a half years following the Massacre. In the play, Navarre is under no illusion where the new King's sympathies lie. Anjou it was that instigated the murder of the Huguenot tutors, with Navarre's suspicions already aroused that he was "one that made this massacre" (IX.74). Now the man, who the audience have also watched kill Ramus in cold blood, is to ascend to the French throne and surely strengthen the Guise faction at Court even further. It is clear to Navarre that he must "steal from France and hie me to my home, / For here's no safety in the realm for me" (XIII.32-3). There he plans to "muster up an army secretly, / For fear that Guise join'd with the King of Spain" (XIII.36-7). Once again Navarre places his faith in a Protestant God "that always doth defend the right, / Will show his mercy and preserve us still" (XIII.40-1).
- Note 1: See the historical summary of the death of Charles IX and Navarre's escape from Paris. Back to Text
- Note 2: [Oliver] p.125. Charles' increasing ill-health over an extended period and severe symptoms that included coughing up blood and hemorrhages implies a condition such as tuberculosis rather than foul play. Back to Text