Victor Hugo was the son of an officer in Napolean’s army and, like many an “army brat,” saw a little of the world while growing up at some of his father’s postings, including a formative year in Spain. His observations formed the basis for much of his literature and possibly no more so than in Ruy Blas. His knowledge of the politics of the European monarchies, particularly those involving royal successions, as well as his views of the corruption and incompetency endemic to some, influenced this play about a commoner and servant who, through the machinations of a vindictive and ruthless Don Salluste, a royal courtier who schemes to undermine the queen. Hugo’s play was also heavily influenced by his study of the thoroughly inept and corrosive reign of Charles II, an uneducated and physically and morally weak child-king who oversaw Spain’s vast diminishment as a European power. In short, Hugo’s play, Ruy Blas, was the product of the author’s ingrained contempt for the venality he saw at the heart of some of Europe’s elites, and for the incompetence he witnessed and about which he read.
When discussing the theme(s) of Ruy Blas, then, it is helpful to view Hugo’s play through the prism of 16th and 17th Century European monarchism, as the plot of this work takes place in a royal court anyway. The titular character is elevated to the position of prime minister in the queen’s court, and their mutual affection forms a bond that will survive the revelations at the heart of Don Salluste’s machinations. The ineptitude and moral vacuousness of Charles II left, as such autocratic rulers for whom these terms apply often does, ample opportunity for the political intrigues that characterize Don Salluste to take place. In a way, Don Salluste’s ill-considered manipulation of Ruy Blas can be considered a precursor to Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper,” the proletarian commoner suddenly thrust into a position of nearly-unquestioned power. While Twain’s Tom Canty, however, lacks the authoritarian inclinations and latitude to act as he sees fit, the “prince,” Edward, takes from his experience and observations the opportunity, once returned to his throne, to reform his kingdom. So Ruy Blas, when in a position of power and influence utilizes that power judiciously, implementing political and social reforms for the benefit of the commoners he knows so well.
Hugo’s theme for Ruy Blas, as in much of his work, lies in the nobility of the destitute masses and the inherent corruption of the ruling elites. He rarely idealizes the former, but he frequently denigrates the latter. The welfare of the people, however, is foremost in his mind.