The Massacre at Paris and the Danse Macabre

By Mackenzie, Clayton G. | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

The Massacre at Paris and the Danse Macabre


Mackenzie, Clayton G., Papers on Language & Literature


Written towards the end of Marlowe's brief life and career, The Massacre at Paris offers a fast moving train of on-stage brutality, leading Andrew M. Kirk to style the play as the re-creation of French history "as a series of meaningless violent acts" (193). In its typical homicide, a victim pleads for life or time or both, and in each case death follows as certainly as it has been promised. As a product of Marlowe's later career, the play seems to lack the introspective maturity and ideological complexity of Dr.Faustus or the Tamburlaine plays, both placed by the most recent scholarship within a year or two of its composition (Burnett xii). But while both Faustus and Tamburlaine focus on the fates of individuals venturing into an uncharted and unprecedented wilderness, The Massacre at Paris seeks to animate dramatically a very familiar iconic template--the danse macabre topos. In its way, this undertaking may be as adventurous as attempting to articulate the forfeiture of a human soul or the illusory deification of mortality.

The danse macabre, or dance of death, was originally a fourteenth-century species of theatre performed in churchyards in France and Germany. Actors representing the full spectrum of human life, from pauper to monarch, paraded before the audience with varying degrees of humility or vanity. In due course, Death figures dressed in black costumes with the human skeleton painted in yellow on their clothing would advance on

I am most grateful to The Hong Kong Research Grants Council, operating under the aegis of the University Grants Committee, which funded the research I undertook in writing this paper. the assembled host from nearby charnel houses, seizing each earthly representative in turn and dragging him or her off to the grave (Male 375-422; Aries 18-23). Kings, queens, cardinals, bishops, merchants, mendicants, nuns, courtesans, tricksters, dancers, the old and the young and many more--each in turn was grasped by the hand of jigging Death and led away. Though many would resist or argue or beg or cry for help, escape was impossible. On the journey to the grave, the Death figures would sometimes pause to scoff at a particular victim's worldly station or pretensions, reminding all present that mortality was the great leveler, favoring no one and sparing none.

By the sixteenth century the theatrical form of the danse macabre had largely disappeared, leaving behind two enduring legacies.The first was an explosion of artistic interest in the iconic image of cadaverous Death assailing living human beings. The celebrated 1424-25 mural in the Charnier et Cimetiere des Innocents in Paris, representing a series of vignettes from the danse macabre theatre, inspired artists for the century and a half that followed (Clark 7-36). Though demolished in the seventeenth century, the detail of the series was preserved in Guy Marchant's 1485 text La danse macabre, which ran to fourteen editions before 1500 (Herbruggen 646). The Innocents series was also seen by an English monk, John Lydgate, who copied its images and translated its written commentaries. His work is known to have inspired danse macabre tableaux in various English church and cathedral settings, including the series in the cloister of Pardon Churchyard, near St.Paul's Cathedral, which according to John Stow was demolished in 1549 on the orders of the Duke of Somerset (Stow 1000-1002).Images of skeletal Death figures erupted on the walls and bosses of churches across Europe, in the margins of books and pamphlets, on the lids of snuff boxes and the handles of ale tankards, on the silver spoons of rich houses and the marble columns of priories.Much of this was no more than studious reproduction, but some of it was art of the highest order, such as the late-medieval fresco in the Church of St. Mary at Beram in Croatia or the exquisite wood carvings in the misereres of the Drapers' Chapel at Coventry Cathedral in the West Midlands, sadly destroyed by fire in 1940. …

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