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The Traumatic Realism of Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris
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The massacre at paris (c. 1592) has the dubious distinction of being considered Christopher Marlowe’s worst play, a poorly written and poorly structured piece of Protestant propaganda surviving only in what evidence suggests is a memorial reconstruction. As Kristen Poole documents, until recently the play has been almost unanimously condemned by critics and editors alike. John Bakeless’s verdict is representative of the many others that Poole quotes: “The play ‘is a blood-sodden piece of hack work’ ” (Poole 2). Among other more recent critics, Frank Ardolino asserts that “Marlowe’s treatment of the Paris massacre is a sensationalistic depiction of murderous historical events” (245). Editors no less than critics judge the play negatively: “The major difficulty with a critical response to Massacre,” comments Edward J. Esche, one of the play’s latest editors, “is the corrupt state of the text, and one must preface any discussion with the proviso that, by any standard, the play as we have it is a very inferior piece of art because of the excessive corruption caused by memorial reconstruction” (309). The critical consensus is that the play is textually corrupt, poetically impoverished, and formally broken-backed, tacking together two temporally distant incidents in French history—the Paris massacre and the assassinations of the Duke of Guise and Henri III—with little concern for their integral unity. Recent criticism, however, including Poole’s, has called for a re-evaluation of the play. The case being made is not so much one of facts as one of the values implicit in the aesthetic criteria by which the play has been measured. It may not, in fact, be the case that the play is an “inferior work of art” by “any standard.” The play’s “aesthetic” or “dramatic” flaws might be more intelligible within critical frameworks that do not privilege the conventionally valourized aesthetic qualities of wholeness and sense over brokenness, silence, and nonsense. Contemporary trauma theory provides just this sort of critical framework, one particularly apposite to the analysis of a play whose title event is the massacre of thousands of French Protestants in Paris and other French towns in the waning days of the summer of 1572, beginning on 24 August, St Bartholomew’s Day, and concluding 27 August.

The massacre was the most notorious event in a period of early modern French history full of violence, the Wars of Religion that pitted Protestant against Catholic for roughly the last half of the sixteenth century. “Madam, it will be noted through the world / An action bloody and tyrannical” (4.5–6), the French king Charles declares before giving his consent to the massacre, and he is right. The event created an uproar throughout the European community and generated numerous pamphlet accounts, including Marlowe’s major source for the dramatization of the massacre, François Hotman’s A True and Plain Report of the Furious Outrages of France (1574). Hotman provides a detailed, supposedly eyewitness account of the massacre, which he sums up as “This butcherly slaughter of Paris” (271). If Hotman’s pamphlet emphasizes the event’s bloodiness, then one of the earliest collections of massacre accounts, Simon Goulart’s Mémoires de l’estat de France sous Charles IX (1576), emphasizes its tyranny, suggesting, as Robert Kingdon puts it, that “these massacres had been caused by a government become so authoritarian that it had gone berserk and become a tyranny ruthlessly intent on extinguishing traditional rights of individuals” (5). The massacre was still fresh in English memories in 1586, when George Whetstone in The English Myrror (1586) asked

where was there a more sauage crueltie euer committed, then the massacre of Paris, where by the traine of amitie, and the celebration of a marriage, betweene the king of Navarre, and the Kinges sister: which in outward appearaunce, promised much peace and honour to the long afflicted realme: the peeres of bloud, and nobilitie of the religion, to honour that wished accorde, repaired unto the Court, where the good Admirall was slaine, and by that stratageme or rather deuice of the Deuill, many a thousand innocent and fearelesse Protestants in Paris and other cities of Fraunce, were cruelly murthered, which monstrous massacre...


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