The Marlowe Society

Marlowe's Works

Marlowe's Works
Massacre Woodcut

The Massacre at Paris

The Massacre at Paris

History:

History:

Interpretation:

Interpretation:

Plot:

Plot:

References:

References:
  • King Henry:
  • Then come proud Guise and here disgorge thy breast,
  • Surcharg'd with surfeit of ambitious thoughts;
  • Breathe out that life wherein my death was hid,
  • And end thy endless treasons with thy death.
  • The Massacre at Paris, Scene XXI.24-27

The Massacre at Paris

The Massacre at Paris

Scene XXI

The Murder of the Guise

Location: A chamber in the Royal Chateau at Blois

Henry III now executes the plot hatched in Paris with Epernoun. The Duke of Guise attends the royal court at Blois, but three assassins hired by the King stab the Guise to death.1 To minimise the risk of revenge, Henry shows the body to the Duke's son who is then imprisoned, and also instigates the murder of the Duke's brothers. Convinced of his mother's complicity with the Guise faction, Henry only informs her after the act. Catherine is devastated at the death of "Sweet Guise".

Guise's Murder

The Duke of Guise has somehow been lured to the royal palace at Blois. At the behest of the King, the Captain of the Guard organises three paid murderers to hide in a chamber and wait for the Duke. The Captain obtains assurances that the assassins are "resolutely bent, / Hating the life and honour of the Guise" (XXI.1-2). All three express their resolution, but there are apparently still fears in the royal camp that the influence and power of the Guise might yet deter the would-be assassins, for the King immediately asks for similar assurances from the Captain when he enters to check on preparations: "But are they resolute and armed to kill?" (XXI.21).2

The King can hardly contain himself at the prospect of this imminent bloody resolution to all his problems. "Come Guise and see thy traitorous guile outreach'd, / And perish in the pit thou mad'st for me," (XXI.33-34) is his aside when the Duke arrives "crav[ing] access unto Your Highness" (XXI.31-32). Henry keeps his cool when goaded by Guise that "Your Majesty was scarcely pleas'd, / That in the Court I bear so great a train" (XXI.38-39), assuring the Duke that he could never be "suspicious of my dearest friends" (XXI.43).

Henry makes a swift exit, leaving the Duke suspicious by the behaviour around him at Blois: "sues the King for favour to the Guise, / And all his Minions stoop when I command" (XXI.48-49). He is moved to be on his guard, but cannot help remain supremely confident in his own power to overcome any threat: "As ancient Romans over their captive lords, / So will I triumph over this wanton King" (XXI.52-53). He is unfazed when the third assassin emerges nervously from his hiding place and admitting that "I am one of them that is set to murder you" (XXI.61-62). Two further assassins cannot dent his self-belief, for "Tut, they are peasants, I am Duke of Guise; / And princes with their looks engender fear" (XXI.69-70). But the murderers maintain their resolve as promised, and quickly stab the Guise.

Dying, Guise asks leave to speak, and is recommended to "pray to God, and ask forgiveness of the King" (XXI.76) but his arrogant pride won't allow that. He has "ne'er offended [God], / Nor will I ask forgiveness of the King" (XXI.77-78), but is most aggrieved "To die by Peasants, what a grief is this" (XXI.81). He calls on the Pope and the King of Spain to exact revenge, before comparing himself once more to Julius Caesar with his dying breath: "Thus Caesar did go forth, and thus he dies" (XXI.87).3

Henry's Justification For The Murder

Henry is beside himself with a mixture of elation and relief, and directs a torrent of angry righteousness at the dead Guise who is "surcharg'd with guilt of thousand massacres" (XXI.93), "the traitor that hath spent my gold, / In making foreign wars and cruel broils" (XXI.99-100), and whose corpse is a "sweet sight [that] is physic to my soul!" (XXI.91). Henry feels empowered again, exclaiming "I ne'er was King of France until this hour" (XXI.98),4 and subsequently concludes his catalogue of Guise-inspired woe with the rather over-dramatic claim that "Ne'er was there King of France so yoked as I" (XXI.115).

Marlowe adds a particularly English (and perhaps a personal) angle to this list of Henry's beefs, accusing the Guise of "draw[ing] a sort of English priests / From Douai to the seminary at Rheims, / To hatch forth treason 'gainst their natural Queen? / Did he not cause the King of Spain's huge fleet, / To threaten England and to menace me?" (XXI.101-105). The point about the seminaries is historically accurate,5 but might not have been too much of a grievance to the Catholic Henry. Marlowe, on the other hand, may well have spent some time at the seminary in Rheims as an English undercover agent a few years earlier. The evidence is contained in a letter that the privy council were moved to write to Cambridge University regarding allegations that the student had spent time in Rheims, assuring the University authorities of Marlowe's "faithful dealing", and that "he had done Her Majesty good service".6

Despite Henry's euphoria, he still acts quickly and decisively to cement his advantage and ensure that the murder does not trigger reprisals by the Guise faction. The King ruthlessly shows Guise's son7 his father's dead body as a threat that "I ... will slay thee too, [if] thou prove such a traitor" (XXI.119-120), before having the boy imprisoned. Orders are given to kill the Guise's brothers, with the Captain of the Guard dispatched to Orleans to arrange the death of the Duke Dumaine,8 and the three murderers are sent to "strangle the Cardinal" (XXI.130).9

Catherine Hears the News

At this point Catherine, enters dramatically, causing Epernoun to observe "see where she comes, as if she droop'd / To hear these news" (XXI.133-4). Henry is still too elated to worry about his mother, and boldly asks her "how like you this device of mine? / I slew the Guise, because I would be King" (XXI.136-7); beforehand Guise "was King and countermanded me" (XXI.140). But Catherine is distraught, and castigates her son whom she wishes she had murdered at birth, for now he has proven "Traitor to God, and to the realm of France" (XXI.147). Henry is unbowed, rejoicing that "the Guise is slain" (XXI.149), and "now I to arms" (XXI.150) against the Catholic League. Henry leaves to "let her grieve her heart out if she will" (XXI.151), taking Epernoun with him.

Catherine is left alone to amplify her true feelings and make clear to the audience that her loyalties were firmly with "Sweet Guise" (XXI.153) even above her own son. "To whom shall I bewray my secrets now, / Or who will help to build Religion?" (XXI.154-5) she complains. Her life's work is at risk in a future in which "the Protestants will glory", "Wicked Navarre will get the crown of France", and "all goes to wrack" (XXI.156-8). With the Guise dead, "sorrow seize upon my toiling soul" such that "I will not live" (XXI.160-1).10

  • Note 1: The Duke of Guise was murdered at Blois on 23 December 1588 - see a historical summary of the Guise's death. Back to Text
  • Note 2: The exact repetition of "Hating the life and honour of the Guise?" (XXI.2 and XXI.22) is surely down to a flaw in the reported text? Back to Text
  • Note 3: Not a direct quote, perhaps poorly remembered by the reporter. Back to Text
  • Note 4: In fact, a quote attributed to the real Henry that Marlowe must have been aware of, and cited by many historians. Back to Text
  • Note 5: [Oliver] notes: "When certain students were expelled from the seminary at Douai as a political measure, they did go to Rheims, under the patronage of Guise" - p.151-2. Back to Text
  • Note 6: PRO Privy Council Registers PC2/14/381. Back to Text
  • Note 7: The "boy" which Marlowe's Henry intimidates was in fact the 17 year old eldest son, Charles de Lorraine Guise (1571-1640), who became 4th Duke of Guise on his father's death, but was imprisoned until 1591. Back to Text
  • Note 8: The Duke of Mayenne was not killed at this time, as we see in Scene XXIII. He went on to lead the fight against Henry III and Navarre to the bitter end, dying aged 57 in 1611. Paul Kocher points out that Mayenne was probably in Lyons at this time, and that perhaps Marlowe misread his source as regards Orleans - [Kocher-Pamphlets]. Back to Text
  • Note 9: Louis II, Cardinal of Guise, also at Blois, was murdered the following day, 24 December 1588. Back to Text
  • Note 10: Indeed, as Marlowe knew, Catherine died within a fortnight of Guise's murder on 5 January 1589. L'Estoile claimed that "those close to her believed that her life had been shortened by displeasure over her son's deed." - [L'Estoile-Journal].
    Back to Text
 
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