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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

King Henry IV of France and Shakespeare

King Henry IV of France was born 13 December 1553, only 9 years before Shakespeare.

For almost his entire life, Shakespeare -- like everyone else in England -- was terrified of the potential for a religious war like the one that was waged in France from 1562 to 1598, known as the Wars of Religion.

Henry was a key figure in those wars, and the path he took in his faith is a good example of how the Protestant Reformation turned the world upside down -- he was baptised a Catholic, he later became a Protestant, then converted back to being a Catholic.

Upon the occasion of his marriage in Paris, in 1572, thousands of Protestant supporters flocked to the city for the celebration. King Charles IX and his mother Catherine de Medici ordered the assassination of some of the Protestant leaders, and widespread violence ensued across the city and the country.

The death toll is estimated at upwards of 30,000 people.

Henry was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic in 1610, only a few years before Shakespeare died, in 1616.

Henry had been a hero to the Protestants and to the Catholics, and these changes in identity cost him his life.

Queen Elizabeth and King James must have both watched the wars in France with horror, and must have been deathly afraid of that kind of violence in England. When Henry was killed, King James must have seen how vulnerable even a monarch was.

Shakespeare knew that Elizabeth, and later James, feared such violence. He found a way to remind them of the threat they faced, in Hamlet and then later in Macbeth and King Lear.

One of the key figures in the French Wars of Religion is the Duke of Guise, Henry I, whose nickname was "Scarface" -- and who challenged Henry IV's legitimacy as king, and was opposed to Catherine de Medici. In the end, her son's bodyguards killed him.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex was executed for having led a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth. At his trial, he was compared to the Duke of Guise.

I am sure that when Elizabeth ordered him to be beheaded, she was terrified that violence might have occurred in London and England at large.

I have written about this before, and the connection between Essex and Hamlet.

For the entertainment of King James, Shakespeare may have been thinking of the conflict between the Duke of Guise and Henry IV when he created evil Edmund and righteous Edgar in King Lear.

Shakespeare must have been thinking of King Charles IX when he wrote Macbeth.

When Charles died, at the young age of 23, was so haunted by the violence that he had witnessed and condoned, he went insane and his body suffered terrible bloody hemorrhages.

It is interesting to note that King Charles IX was King James's godfather.


David B. Schajer

Related articles:

Henry IV of France on Wikipedia

King Charles IX of France on Wikipedia

A Toast for the Premiere of Hamlet

Hamlet and the Massacre at Paris
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