Violence, Revenge, and the Stakes of Writing during the French Civil Wars: Simon Belyard's le Guysien

By Meere, Michael | The Romanic Review, January-March 2013 | Go to article overview

Violence, Revenge, and the Stakes of Writing during the French Civil Wars: Simon Belyard's le Guysien


Meere, Michael, The Romanic Review


When Henri III had the Guise brothers killed, mutilated, and cremated and then disposed of their ashes in the River Loire, the factional violence of the French Civil Wars reached new heights. After the brothers' deaths, one a duke and the other a cardinal, the ultra-Catholic League was particularly vocal, calling for the king's excommunication and even assassination. (1) This hostile and frantic environment not only fueled violence and revenge between all echelons of society, but also inspired polemicists to use the pen and graphic images as weapons to fight against one another. One representative example is Le Guy sien by the vallegeois Leaguer and schoolteacher Simon Belyard (dates unknown). (2) This play stages the duke's assassination in an extremely explicit manner, placing the bloodshed on stage for all the spectators to see in a very graphic way. (3) The physicality of the murder scene is especially important since, although no trace of performance has (yet) been found, Belyard claims that a certain Monsieur Pajot "a fait representer [la tragedie], pour encourager le peuple bien affectionne de toujours persister de bien en mieux a maintenir l'Eglise, et la patrie contre 1'heretique" (Dedicatory Letter, A ii ro). The actors were probably students from Belyard's college, (4) and, though it is unknown when M. Pajot had the play performed, the play was likely put on before Henri Ill's death, and the staging of the duke's death would have inspired the audience to take revenge against their "heretical" king. (5)

In this article, then, the first step is to consider the performance aspect of the assassination as a cultural artifact of this turbulent time and to place this violent scene in the iconographical context after the duke's death. In this way, the play serves as a prism to interpret the proper dynamics of the live spectacle and measure what theater can do, as well as its (intended) impact on spectators and readers. From there, the article reads the final act of the play between the king and the duke's mother alongside and against the various political discourses about regicide that circulated in the late 1580s. The final section interprets the stakes of writing polemical theater. All three sections suggest how this play would have encouraged a sixteenth-century (Leaguer) spectator or reader to avenge her or his leader. I argue that the three parts are intricately linked, for the performance of the assassination and calls to avenge the duke's death mirror the self-performative aspect of writing this polemical tragedy. The act of taking up the pen, for Belyard, is a militant act, analogous to the act of taking up the sword, which his readers and spectators would (ideally) have done to avenge their leader's unjust death.

Staging the Assassination

It will be helpful to briefly summarize the plot up to the assassination scene in act four. The play opens with the fury of Alecto's eight-page monologue in which she graphically recounts the horrors of civil wars and sets up the action that will ensue; Madame de Nemours, the duke's mother, foresees her son's demise in act two; the king and his counselors devise a plan to assassinate the duke in act three. In this act, Henri is radically demonized, along with his right-hand man the due d'Epernon, and they devise the plan to kill the duke.

Guise, a perfect foil for the king, arrives on stage in act four with his mother. This scene is capital, for it is the first time the duke appears. His ethos is one of innocence and loyalty in stark contrast to the king's tyrannical nature, a character dynamic that Belyard's polemical text necessitates. The duke and his mother speak in stichomythic dialogue, exchanging moral commonplaces and debating whether the duke should follow the king's orders and meet him in his chambers. The use of stichomythia between a worried mother and her naive son also gives Guise a more human character than Henri III, for the latter has only spoken in relentless tirades. …

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