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Monday, March 4, 2013

Shakespeare, The Massacre at Vassy and Othello

Almost exactly two years before Shakespeare was born, there was a terrible event in the history of the Protestant Reformation.

It did not happen in England, but news of this event would have traveled far and fast across all of Europe -- and it would have frightened every last man, woman and child.

Troubles between Catholics and Protestants had been brewing in France for years.

But on 1 March 1562 there was the first major incident in what would become known as the French Wars of Religion. These wars would last for 100 years.

Massacre at Vassy

In the Champagne-Ardenne region of France, in the commune of Vassy, many Protestant Huguenots gathered for Mass in a barn which was their church.

Francois, 2nd Duke of Guise wanted to attend the Mass. His guards argued with the Huguenots and the matter escalated into violence. Rocks were thrown. The Duke was hit.

He ordered the barn burned to the ground.

63 unarmed people died and over 100 were injured.

Francois, 2nd Duke of Guise

The Massacre at Vassy was a shocking incident. But sadly, the violence would get worse in years to come.

What does this mean for Shakespeare?

He wasn't born yet, but he would have heard about this story from his family. It would have been a cautionary tale.

Since Shakespeare would go on to tell some of the greatest stories in the English language, I think an incident like this would have filled his head and kept him awake at night.

By the way, it is curious that Shakespeare wrote of the Ardennes forest in his As You Like It.

One thing we should try to understand is that the fear of violence, especially religious violence like the Massacre at Vassy, was not a distant or abstract thought to Elizabethans like Shakespeare. It was a real fear, and it haunted them just as much as the fear of the plague.

When Shakespeare was 8 years old, in 1572, there was another incident in the French Wars of Religion -- the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Upwards of 30,000 people died.

St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre
as seen firsthand by artist Francois Dubois

This massacre would have further inflamed Shakespeare's fears of a religious violence and the memory of that fear, in 1572, must have stayed with him for his entire life.

It certainly stayed with King James of Scotland, who was 16 years old when the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre occurred.

He lived with that fear every single day. His father had been the victim of an attack by gunpowder, and was strangled to death, all while he may have been suffering from being poisoned.

James knew that anyone, especially a monarch, was a target for assassination.

King James

409 years ago, in early March 1604, Shakespeare received 4 yards of red cloth to wear for a ceremonial entry into London for King James.

This ceremony, full of pomp and circumstance and pageantry, had been delayed almost one full year.

James had become king immediately upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I on 24 March 1603, and he arrived in London not long after that.

Why the delay in the ceremonial entry?

Because of the plague, and probably because he knew that there were plots to have him assassinated.

There were two plots, the Bye plot and the Main plot, and both were foiled. Sir Walter Raleigh was implicated in plotting against King James, and was put on trial and sentenced to death.

Raleigh was not executed however until 13 years later, probably because King James knew that he would have exacerbated the problem had he killed Raleigh right away in 1603.

I think Shakespeare, as he was getting ready for the big event, was thinking about all of these things. They were filling his head and keeping him awake at night.

For by the end of the year he was writing Othello, and performing it for the king.

Othello has been misunderstood for a very long time, and it should be seen in the light of period in which it was written.

It was not a peaceful time, but rather a dangerous and violent time.

And Othello was written in the spirit of those times.


David B. Schajer

Related Articles:

Hamlet and the Massacre at Paris

Shakespeare's Hamlet, Macbeth and the Murder of Darnley

Othello is Otho is King James