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Friday, August 1, 2014

Shakespeare's Bloody Stage


On 1 August, 1589, King Henri III of France was stabbed by an assassin.

This event, and the events surrounding it, set the stage for Shakespeare's entire career as a playwright.


King Henri III of France


Henri had once been a candidate to marry Queen Elizabeth, in 1570, but the negotiations never resulted in a match.

The French Wars of Religion, which had begun in 1562, were tearing the country apart. Henri was a significant figure in these wars, and the blood of Protestant Huguenots was on his hands, perhaps including the thousands who were slaughtered in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572.


St. Bartholomew's Day Massace


He took the throne in 1574, and the fighting never stopped.

By 1588, he had become too moderate and indecisive as far as many Catholics were concerned. He was pushed out of Paris by the Catholic leader Henri I, Duke of Guise, nicknamed "Scarface."

In December 1588, Henri III invited the Duke to the Ch√Ęteau de Blois, to talk with him, and with the Duke's brother, the Cardinal de Guise.

Henri had his guards murder the Duke and his brother, the Cardinal. The Duke's son was put in prison.


Henry I, Duke of Guise


The public turned against Henri, and the French Parlement brought criminal charges against the king.

While Henri was just outside Paris with his army, and about to commence an invasion of the city, a Dominican monk came to visit Henri with some important papers. 

But this religious fanatic stabbed the king in the stomach, and was quickly killed himself by the guards.

Henri held on for one more day. He died the next morning, the same morning when his attack on Paris would have commenced.

At the same time, in August of 1589, William Shakespeare was in London, and probably enjoying the success of his Henry VI plays. He may have even premiered a new play, Hamlet.

The news would have travelled fast, and been a shock to every last person. But to the playwrights at the time, it was a ripped-from-the-headlines story that would feed their imagination, and fuel their plays for years to come.

Christopher Marlowe, arguably the greatest playwright in 1589, would soon write a play called the Massacre at Paris, dealing with the French Wars of Religion. This play is believed to have been performed several times in the decade to come, up to and including a revival in 1601.


Christopher Marlowe


When Marlowe died in 1593, Shakespeare would write several plays dealing with assassinations, murders, and threats to a royal throne. 

Even though he never wrote a play that directly referred to Henri's assassination, it is clear that it was in his plays throughout.

Is it just me, or does the murder of the Duke resemble the murder of King Duncan in Macbeth

Of course, you could say that Shakespeare wrote about these things because his audience wanted to see such stories. 

But why did they want to see such stories? Because such stories were real historical events that were occuring in their lifetimes.

Events like the assassination of Henri also must have fascinated Queen Elizabeth, and later King James -- both of whom faced assassination attempts.

Both Elizabeth and James probably spent a lot of time considering the possibility that they could be murdered at any moment. So, plays like Richard II, Richard III, and Macbeth, would have served as entertainment but also as reminders that they must be on their guard at all times.


The Assassination of King Henri IV of France


In fact, Henri's successor, King Henri IV was also assassinated, in 1610.

It was an age that was seeped in religious bloodshed, so it should come as no surprise that Shakespeare wrote some very bloody plays.

Shakespeare didn't have to look too far away, or too far back in history to find stories of death and assassination to enthrall his audiences and his monarchs.

Cheers,




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