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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hamlet and The Massacre at Paris

Christopher Marlowe's last play The Massacre at Paris was revived at the Rose Theatre from about 3 November 1601.

St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre

The first recorded performance was in 1593, not long before he was killed in Deptford, under suspicious circumstances.

Christopher Marlowe, 1585

There was an outbreak of the plague for over a year, which prevented the play from being performed until the middle of 1594, and then for only a few performances.

The play was again revived, and performed only a few times in 1598.

The play was revived again in late 1601, and it would seem that this run lasted into 1602. It was so successful that the theatre impresario Philip Henslowe bought the playbook, for about 2 pounds, which was not an insubstantial sum in those days.

He bought it from the famous actor Edward Alleyn, who had been performing it with The Admiral's Men at the Rose -- the company and theatre that was second only to Shakespeare with the Lord Chamberlain's Men at the Globe.

Why would the play attract so much attention in late 1601?

The full title of the play is The Massacre at Paris With the Death of the Duke of Guise. (the Marlowe Society has some fascinating research regarding this one play)

The play depicts events from the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in Paris, in 1572. 

Henri I, Duke of Guise

When the Catholic Henri I, Duke of Guise (nicknamed Scarface) tried to assassinate the most influential Protestant Huguenot Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, it set off a chain of events.

Upwards of 30,000 men, women and children were killed in the ensuing violence.

The Duke of Guise eventually got his comeuppance and was himself assassinated.

Marlowe's play is wall to wall violence and bloodshed -- a very gruesome spectacle that may have upset some and excited others in the audience.

Why would this play, centered around the Duke of Guise be revived all of a sudden, in November 1601?

In early 1601, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex led his failed rebellion against Queen Elizabeth and was executed.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

During the Essex trial, Sir Francis Bacon compared Essex to the Duke of Guise.

The point that Bacon was making, and a fear that he shared with many people (including the Queen perhaps) was that the Essex Rebellion could have set off a wave of violence similar to the one in Paris.

As I have written before, I think in the aftermath of the Essex Rebellion, the theatres would have been quiet for a time. There is reason to believe that acting companies left London to go on tour, until the tensions ended.

In my version of Hamlet, I depict how Shakespeare would have gone home to Stratford and while he was there, he wrote the version of Hamlet that we know today.

Hamlet was written in response to the Essex Rebellion and there are shades of Essex in the Hamlet character.

I think that Shakespeare wanted to honor Essex, his friend and patron, and his memory with this new Hamlet, and what better day to do so than Essex's birthday, 10 November 1601?

Was Hamlet first performed for Essex's birthday?

If Shakespeare had written Hamlet in order to remember Essex, then there is every reason to believe that others would have heard about it -- including Edward Alleyn and Philip Henslowe, his biggest competition in London.

There was a royal statute preventing playhouses from performing anything that depicted recent political history and heads of state. You could write plays about past Kings and Queens, but you couldn't write a play about Queen Elizabeth for example.

The only way that Shakespeare could address the Essex Rebellion was to represent the characters in an old myth of Amleth, which was ancient history, and therefore safe from the censors.

I think that after the Essex Rebellion, no playhouse or company wanted to touch the issue of Essex -- it was too dangerous, too controversial.

But if Shakespeare, the most popular and influential playwright, wrote about the Essex Rebellion -- then others could too.

Of course, I think that Shakespeare took a great risk. He could lose everything -- including his life. I wrote about the dangers he faced in writing the play, and what punishment he may have endured, in my version of Hamlet.

But the show did go on, and Shakespeare survived. That would have sent a message to others that they too could address the Essex Rebellion on stage.

In order to compete with Shakespeare it would make sense that Alleyn and Henslowe would want to stage a play that also remembered Essex.

Since Essex had publicly been compared to the Duke of Guise, then what better play could be stage than The Massacre at Paris?

I think that Shakespeare's Hamlet was a wild success, and audiences came not just to see a play but to pay tribute to the memory of Essex, who was a very popular figure.

I think audiences went to see Massacre at Paris for the very same reason.


David B. Schajer

Related article:

A Toast For The Premiere Of Hamlet

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