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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Shakespeare and the Assassination of King Henry IV of France


On 14 May 1610, King Henry IV of France was assassinated.


Assassination of Henri IV and the arrest of Ravaillac, by Charles-Gustave Housez

It was not the first time that an assassin had tried to kill him. He survived attempts on his life in 1572, 1593 and 1594.

But on this day in 1601, he was stabbed to death, when his carriage stopped on the Rue de la Ferronerie in Paris, by a Catholic fanatic.

Henry was one of France’s most popular monarchs ever, and was famous for the economic reconstruction of the country which would benefit every Frenchman.


King Henry IV, a recent model reconstruction

He was baptised as a Catholic, became a Protestant and then later returned to being a Catholic.


This reflected the religious winds of change in France, which had been suffering from Wars of Religion for decades.

His management in France was watched closely by all of Europe. 

King James of England and Scotland would have kept a keen eye on Henry IV’s reign. England was fortunate not to have its own wars of religion, but James was aware that his country could very well turn violent at any moment.

James in England would try to emulate the relative peace and harmony the Henry had brought to France.

There had been a serious attempt on the life of King James with the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, but in the years after, there had been no real threat.

When Henry was assassinated, it must have sent a shock through all of Europe.

I think King James would have been especially frightened that the violence might spread to England.

For William Shakespeare, who was 46 years old in 1610, these were the last weeks and months of his career.

I think he would have been very upset when Henry was assassinated.

He had lived his whole life caught in an era of great religious turmoil and violence.

From the time he was born he had faced the very real fear of arrest, imprisonment, torture, riots, revolts, and royal assassinations.

In all of England, there was a general state of terror.


All of this had tragically derived from King Henry VIII’s tumultuous break from the Catholic Church in the 1530's.


The English Reformation had a profound effect on every last man, woman and child.

The effect on Shakespeare is interesting. I think on the one had he lamented the fact that life in England was so difficult. 

But on the other hand he could not have ignored the fact that the religious tempest he lived in had in fact benefitted him. It gave him the opportunity to become the man and the artist he was.

I imagine that as soon as Shakespeare heard the news of the assassination, he would not lock himself indoors, shutter the windows and wait until this new tempest had passed.

He had to work, and he was likely still busy at the Globe every single day.

He would have worked like any other day, but he probably was just a little more eager to entertain the crowd, make them feel at home and enjoy the performance.

Shakespeare, probably more than any man at that time, understood that as long as the theatres were open and doing a brisk business, then the public at large was happier, enjoyed the simple pleasure of being with other people, drinking some alcohol and perhaps smoke some tobacco -- and were less likely to commit acts of violence.

There was not much more that Shakespeare could do. 


What plays would he have chosen for the days immediately after the assassination?


Probably some lighter and funnier plays from the past -- like Twelfth Night or Comedy of Errors.


Shakespeare, the master sorcerer of the stage, would have wanted to conjure laughter and dispel their fears.


Cheers,


David B. Schajer


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