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:

The Massacre at Paris

The Massacre at Paris
La Saint-Barthélemy (ca 1572-74)
La Saint-Barthélemy
by François Dubois, 1572-4 (detail)

Introduction

The Massacre at Paris is without doubt the play of Marlowe's that has received least attention historically both from a staging and a critical perspective, and justifiably so. It is only extant in what is believed to be both an abridged and 'reported' text, a single undated Octavo version, published by Edward White almost certainly some time between 1594 and 1606. The result is a play text approximately half the length of Edward II, The Jew of Malta, and each part of Tamburlaine, mostly comprised of fast moving and bloody action, but lacking for the most part much depth of characterisation or good quality verse.

There is however much of historical interest here. The play is virtually unique in addressing contemporary European history, and indeed a sensitive political situation on England's own doorstep. The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, instigated by the French royal rulers and Catholic nobles (including the Duke of Guise) saw the systematic murder and execution of thousands of protestant Huguenots in the French capital in August 1572. Many of the Huguenot leadership were in Paris for the wedding of their leader, Henry of Navarre, to the French King's sister Margaret. With the notable exceptions of Navarre and the Prince of Condé, virtually all the Huguenot nobles present were exterminated along with a large number of ordinary protestants living in Paris, including scholars, preachers, clergymen, and all manner of ordinary men, women and children. It was a horrific act of mass murder that shocked the world, especially neighbouring protestant countries such as England and the Netherlands. The terror was more acute due to a good number of Englishmen in Paris who witnessed the butchery first hand, including the Queen's Ambassador Sir Francis Walsingham, and Sir Philip Sidney.

The massacre occupies the first half of the play, before Marlowe brings the story of the French Wars of Religion up to date through the reign of Henry III. Indeed the climax of this play, most likely written in 1592, covers some very recent history indeed: the murder of the Duke of Guise and his brother the Cardinal of Guise in December 1588, and the subsequent murder in turn of Henry III by a Dominican friar, Jacques Clément, in August 1589. This latest cycle of religious and political assassinations left Henry of Navarre as King Henry IV of France, although it would take another four years and the new King's conversion to Catholicism before he could be crowned.

To this close proximity in both geography and time is added the tantalising albeit silent appearance of an "English Agent" in the final scene, summoned by Henry III to take a message to Elizabeth, Queen of England. Marlowe's involvement, at least in a minor way, in the Elizabethan secret service is strongly suspected from various incidents documented in the records. He appears to have been in Rheims during his university days, and there is even a possible sighting of a 'Mr Marlin' carrying messages from the English forces in Rouen as late as March 1592. Could Marlowe's dramatisation of the English Agent be based on his own personal experience as a government agent?

Another intriguing artefact associated with this play is the so-called 'Collier Leaf', a single manuscript sheet on which is penned a part scene from the play where a soldier hired by Guise shoots Mugeroun with a musket. The manuscript provides a much fuller version of the play text, and, if genuine, offers a brief sight of Marlowe's original play. The manuscript was discovered in the mid 1820's by John Payne Collier, who unfortunately is notorious for a string of literary forgeries. Despite this, a number of eminent scholars have argued for its authenticity, which in turn raises an even more exciting question: is the manuscript in Marlowe's own hand?

This Marlowe Society overview of the play attempts to provide answers to those questions. It also offers a scene by scene synopsis of the play together with pen pictures of each character. Given the contemporary nature of the subject matter, the play is placed in context through an outline of the main events and protagonists in the French Wars of Religion. Consideration is given to the various contemporary sources that were available to Marlowe, as well as providing some views on how Marlowe might have adapted them when writing his play.

The history of the play itself is addressed in sections covering the dating and authorship, as well as the textual and stage history of the play. Our overview picks out some of the key themes in the play, and also includes a synopsis of the different critical reactions to the play since it was first written.

This Marlowe Society overview of the play is now available in full on the web site, as well as a downloadable PDF Document.