Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Christopher Marlowe: The Massacre at Paris (c. 1592)

The St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, painting by the Huguenot François Dubois

[Image source: Wikipedia]

My friend, catching sight of the title, said, You're not reading about depressing news again, are you?

I'm saved the trouble (though it would really have been fun) to say much about the background to the play we are able to read, because of the outstandingly comprehensive on-line introduction by Mark Abbott for the Marlowe Society, downloadable as a 111-page PDF.

(I'm leaving the link here, but it no longer works as of March 2018)

Suffice to say, then, that when Marlowe died on 30th May 1593, the play had only been performed once or twice (the London playhouses were mostly closed from June 1592 - May 1594, because of outbreaks of plague). Less than two months after Marlowe's death, on 25th July 1593, his Protestant hero Navarre (Henri IV) recanted and became a Catholic, to the delight of most French people but to the disgust of the English. You might have expected this to kill the play stone dead, but that wasn't what happened. In fact The Massacre was a very popular play and was performed frequently through the rest of the 1590s and into the early 1600s. Navarre is not a very impressive figure in the play (Marlowe was not really interested in heroes), but the Protestant triumphalism of the final scene must have taken on some unintended ironies.

Unfortunately The Massacre is one of those plays, like Shakespeare's Pericles, that survives only as a ruin. The only text, apart from a single manuscript page that is usually but not quite securely accepted as genuine (the Folger leaf), is a thoroughly "bad quarto" (actually an octavo) that is a typical memorial reconstruction. It has no scene divisions (these were added by later editors). It's less than half the length of Marlowe's other chronicle play Edward II. Like other such texts it probably represents the action reasonably fully, but it must be missing hundreds of lines. Even the lines we do have are of suspect authenticity. The verse is rough and often unmetrical. The same expressions occur more than once (e.g., in the passages below, "set the street" and "Chief standard bearer to the Lutherans").  Expansive speeches were probably abbreviated to the bare essentials, and reflective speeches dropped altogether. When necessary, the compilers invented their own crudely functional text, or synthesized it by borrowing lines from elsewhere (3 Henry VI and several other plays). What we are reading, then, is only a shadow of the play performed with such success by Edward Alleyn and The Admiral's Men.


And yet, I like The Massacre very much indeed.

It's an Elizabethan play that deals with fairly contemporary news stories (the Paris massacre was in Aug 1572 but the events of the play's final scene took place as recently as 1589).

This is not quite unprecedented, for example Peele's The Battle of Alcazar (c. 1591) deals with the death of King Sebastian of Portugal in Morocco in 1578 (there were other plays about him, too), and the "domestic tragedy" genre often dramatized fairly recent events , e.g.  A Yorkshire Tragedy (c. 1608) deals with a murderer tried in 1605. Nevertheless it's particularly thrilling in Marlowe's play, where the dramatized events were of such vital significance to his London audience.

The opening is stirring and direct.

CHARLES. Prince of Navarre, my honourable brother,
   Prince Condé, and my good Lord Admiral,
   I wish this union and religious league,
   Knit in these hands, thus joined in nuptial rites,
   May not dissolve till death dissolve our lives;
   And that the native sparks of princely love,
   That kindled first this motion in our hearts,
   May still be fueled in our progeny.  

We eagerly and instantly understand that all does not bode well, that political marriages only portray the symbolically knit hands as in a painting, and that sparks are very easy things to stamp out.

The characters are like worn heads on coins. It's difficult to sense their personalities or even their motivations. Charles, whom we have just seen allying himself more closely with the Protestant Navarre, is soon being swept along by the Catholic reaction; who knows what he really thinks? In the same way Anjou who is so much part of the massacre in the early part of the play later turns increasingly toward the Protestant side, and we never really know why. Even the Guise himself, so purely a Macchiavil on his first appearance, subsequently fails to match that theatrical stereotype at all closely.

CATHERINE. My noble son, and princely Duke of Guise,
   Now have we got the fatal, straggling deer
   Within the compass of a deadly toil,
   And, as we late decreed, we may perform.
CHARLES. Madam, it will be noted through the world
   An action bloody and tyrannical;
   Chiefly, since under safety of our word
   They justly challenge their protection:
   Besides, my heart relents that noble men,
   Only corrupted in religion,
   Ladies of honour, knights, and gentlemen,
   Should, for their conscience, taste such ruthless ends.
ANJOU. Though gentle minds should pity others' pains,
   Yet will the wisest note their proper griefs,
   And rather seek to scourge their enemies
   Than be themselves base subjects to the whip.
GUISE. Methinks, my lord, Anjou hath well advised
   Your highness to consider of the thing,
   And rather choose to seek your country's good
   Than pity or relieve these upstart heretics.
CATHERINE. I hope these reasons may serve my princely son
   To have some care for fear of enemies.
CHARLES. Well, madam, I refer it to your majesty,
   And to my nephew here, the Duke of Guise:
   What you determine, I will ratify.
CATHERINE. Thanks to my princely son. - then tell me, Guise,
   What order will you set down for the massacre?
GUISE. Thus, madam.
   They that shall be actors in this massacre
   Shall wear white crosses on their burgonets,
   And tie white linen scarves about their arms;
   He that wants these, and is suspect of heresy,
   Shall die, be he king or emperor. Then I'll have
   A peal of ordnance shot from the tower, at which
   They all shall issue out, and set the streets.
   And then the watchword being given, a bell shall ring
   Which when they hear, they shall begin to kill,
   And never cease until that bell shall cease;
   Then breathe a while.

Real history is condensed into small phrases: for example, Catherine's "fear of enemies" represents the Catholic majority's fear at the presence of men such as Admiral Coligny in their midst, a fear that boiled over into pre-emptive violence. Here's how the massacre just outlined by Guise begins, with a huddle of men on a street corner.

GUISE. Anjou, Dumaine, Gonzago, Retes, swear
   By the argent crosses in your burgonets,
   To kill all that you suspect of heresy.
DUMAINE. I swear by this, to be unmerciful.
ANJOU. I am disguised, and none knows who I am,
   And therefore mean to murder all I meet.
GONZAGO. And so will I.
GUISE. Away, then! break into the Admiral's house.
RETES. Ay, let the Admiral be first dispatched.
GUISE. The Admiral,
   Chief standard bearer to the Lutherans,
   Shall in the entrance of this massacre
   Be murdered in his bed. Gonzago
   Conduct them thither, and then
   Beset his house, that not a man may live.
ANJOU. That charge is mine. - Switzers, keep you the streets,
   And at each corner shall the King's guard stand.
GONZAGO. Come, sirs, follow me.

   Exit Gonzago and others with him.

ANJOU. Cossin, the captain of the Admiral's guard,
   Placed by my brother, will betray his lord:
   Now, Guise, shall Catholics flourish once again;
   The head being off, the members cannot stand.
RETES. But look, my lord, there's some in the Admiral's house.

   Enter [Gonzago, etc] into the Admiral's house [The gallery at the back of the stage], and he in his bed.

ANJOU. [main stage] In lucky time! Come, let us keep this lane,
   And slay his servants that shall issue out.

GONZAGO. [gallery] Where is the Admiral?
ADMIRAL.[gallery] O, let me pray before I die!
GONZAGO. [gallery] Then pray unto our lady; kiss this cross.
   Stabs him.
ADMIRAL. [gallery] O God, forgive my sins!

GUISE. [main stage] Gonzago, what, is he dead?
GONZAGO.  [gallery] Ay, my lord.
GUISE.  [main stage] Then throw him down.

[The admiral's corpse is thrown down onto the stage.]

ANJOU. Now, cousin, view him well:
   It may be it is some other, and he escaped.
GUISE. Cousin, 'tis he; I know him by his look.
   See where my soldier shot him through the arm.
   He missed him near, but we have struck him now.
   Ah, base Chatillon and degenerate,
   Chief standard bearer to the Lutherans,
   Thus, in despite of thy religion,
   The Duke of Guise stamps on thy lifeless bulk!
ANJOU. Away with him! cut off his head and hands,
   And send them for a present to the Pope;
   And, when this just revenge is finished,
   Unto Mount Faucon will we drag his corpse;
   And he, that living hated so the cross,
   Shall, being dead, be hanged thereon in chains.
GUISE. Anjou, Gonzago, Retes, if that you three
   Will be as resolute as I and Dumaine,
   There shall not be a Huguenot breathe in France.
ANJOU. I swear by this cross, we'll not be partial,
   But slay as many as we can come near.
GUISE. Montsorrell, go shoot the ordnance off,
   That they, which have already set the street,
   May know their watchword; then toll the bell,
   And so let's forward to the massacre.

Marlowe may have invented the peal of ordinance himself (impressive in the theatre). Historians seem to agree that it was throwing the Admiral's corpse out of the window (as in the painting above), that triggered the savage wave of cleansing, first in Paris and then in other towns all across France.

Dumaine = the Duc du Mayenne, Guise's younger brother.

The Admiral's head was indeed sent to the Pope, who expressed his pleasure. Marlowe didn't need to make up any of the horrors he dramatizes.

In the play as we have it, nothing is said about the Guise's personal animus against Admiral Coligny,   regarded by the Guisians as ultimately responsible for the assassination of his father. The animus seems to be there when he stamps on the body. The violence here is indeed a dramatic performance (as in Gonzago's grim joke "Then pray unto our lady; kiss this cross" -- meaning his dagger) but we don't have much sense that the Guise is only playing a Macchiavil's part here.


We've become so used to spokespersons and politicians using euphemisms to refer to atrocities that it's rather noticeable that the Guise and his allies show no such squeamishness and are quite happy to use the word "massacre".

In English, the word was effectively a new one that came into general use directly as a result of the 1572 St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. In French ("Le massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy") the word had existed for a long time. Like "slaughter", its original meaning seems to have been connected with the butchery trade. There is a medieval Latin instance of mazacaria meaning a meat market, perhaps ultimately from classical Latin macellum meaning a provision market. (Info from the OED.)


Title page of the Octavo, naming Marlowe as author
[Image source:]

(I'm leaving the link here, but it no longer works as of March 2018)



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