Despite no authentic version of the play extant, Christopher Marlowe’s play Massacre at Paris continues to be of importance. The play is heavily drawn from real historical events happening in French politics at the time of it being written. The Massacre at Paris that was unleashed by the Third Duke of Guise upon all his suspected enemies is both brutal and real. Marlowe portrays Guise as a thorough Machiavellian character who is bent upon usurping power through any means. The killing of his father Francis when he was just 13 is a key event in the development of Guise’ personality. Facing this calamity at a tender age impresses in his mind the motivations for revenge. This would later transpire into a more generic blood and power lust. His immediate ascension to throne after his father’s premature death forced Guise to mature very fast. His chief nemesis would be Henry of Navarre, who is an able and imaginative administrator.
Marlowe devotes so much more attention to fleshing out the character of Duke of Guise when compared to Henry of Navarre. This is attested by the greater share of dialogues and scenes given to Guise. The longest soliloquy (which is considered by scholars as an abridged version of Marlowe’s original) of the extant text is also spoken by Guise. The literary motivations for Marlowe perhaps lay in the fact that the play is a tragedy. The 16th century royal intrigues in France led to widespread suspicion, espionage, targeted assassinations, political vendetta, etc among contesting heirs to the throne, etc. In order to augment his power, the Duke of Guise aligned with the dominant religious institution of his time, namely, the Catholic Church. Born in 1550, the first child of the (Francis) 2nd Duke of Guise and Anna d’Este, he was christened Henry I. He would inherit his father’s dukedom and be titled the Third Duke of Guise in addition to continuing to wield significant influence in the French ruling council. Francis, the 2nd Duke of Guise got early training in military operations when he was defending Catholic factions in the infamous religious wars. This legacy made his son Henry I an automatic ally and leader in the perception of the Church. In equating religious influences behind the Third Duke of Guise’ ruthless revenge and murder agenda, Marlowe is showcasing a darker facet of religion. It is for this reason perhaps that he devotes more time in depicting the cunning and obsession of Guise when compared to his nemesis Navarre.
The Duke of Guise’ namesake and arch rival Henry of Navarre (later in life Henry IV of France) is shown by Marlowe as a good and efficient statesman, whose legacy is only somewhat reduced by his weakness for women. He was one of the prime targets in the 3rd Duke of Guise’ great massacre plan. Henry of Navarre was lucky enough to survive it and live in anonymous exile for a while. After the murder of Guise Navarre made a successful return to throne with the help of Henry III. They led a powerful attack on the Catholic League en route accession to the throne. It is ironic that a few years later Navarre would convert to Catholicism for maintaining political stability in his reign. Marlowe gives less coverage in the play to Navarre than to Guise so as to be able to present a sharp contrast in their characterization. The fairly ordinary human failings of Navarre are pitted against the obsessive and destructive traits of Guise.
Commentary on The Massacre at Paris, The Marlowe Society, retrieved from < http://www.marlowe-society.org/marlowe/work/massacre/intro.html> on25th November 2013