Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1022

George Chapman, an acquaintance of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, was a jack-of-all-trades among Elizabethan writers, turning out poetry and translations as well as plays. His reputation was first established as a poet with his The Shadow of Night (1594) and Ovid’s Banquet of Sense (1595), but his only poem much read today was begun by another man: When Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (1598) was left unfinished at his death, Chapman completed the poem by adding the final four books.

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By about 1595, Chapman had begun writing for the theater, supplying plays to Philip Henslowe’s company of actors, the Lord Admiral’s Men. Although a contemporary source cites Chapman as a tragic author, whatever works led to that opinion have been lost; some comedies, written by Chapman alone and in collaboration with John Marston and Ben Jonson, are all that survive of his early dramas. In 1599, he left the Lord Admiral’s company but continued to write for the stage until 1614. He made popular translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. He may have had financial troubles in his later years; he died in 1634.

Chapman wrote Bussy d’Ambois about 1604. Surprisingly, given the play’s subject, it was probably first acted by Paul’s Boys, a children’s company. Paul’s Boys was one of the then-popular groups of child actors, in this case an outgrowth of the choir school at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The play exists in two printed versions, one produced in 1607 and a later one, printed in 1641, that is noticeably different. Most critics believe the 1641 version derived from a revision of the play made by Chapman himself. The play was extremely successful: It continued to be performed until the closing of the theaters in 1642. After the Restoration of Charles II, the play was revived, and its last performance is recorded in 1691.

Chapman’s play is based on the career of Louis de Clermont, Sieur de Bussy d’Amboise, a minor courtier during the reign of Henry III of France. The historical Bussy was widely known in his time and seems to have been every bit the swaggering bravo who appears in Chapman’s play. Known for his dueling, his poetry, and his love affairs, Bussy was murdered by a jealous husband when he was about thirty years old. One might wonder how meaningful tragedy could be made from such unpromising material, but Bussy d’Amboise’s life furnished Chapman with a scarecrow on which to drape his philosophy.

In one respect, Bussy d’Ambois represents a decadent, rather cynical comment on the Renaissance individual whose ambition and self-confidence know no bounds. Having achieved status in a ruthless and utterly corrupt court, he offends at every hand and dallies with abandon in illicit love. What the quarto of 1607 refers to as Bussy d’Ambois: A Tragedy appears to be as much satire as tragedy. Even Bussy’s determination, after he has been shot, to die while he supports himself on his sword seems comic in its futility, considering the despicable nature of his antagonists and his mistress.

On the other hand, Bussy embodies the Renaissance ideal of the man who, by virtue of his physical, mental, and moral powers, is a law unto himself. In this sense, Bussy is a relative of the heroes found in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great (1587) and Doctor Faustus (1588). Although not bent on evil, Bussy resembles William Shakespeare’s Richard III, in that neither recognizes any moral force higher than himself, nor submits to anything but his own will. Just exactly what virtues Bussy possesses are not always clear. Indeed, what he calls his honor leads him to kill in a duel three men who have insulted him by snickering at the wrong time. That same honor does not prevent him from speaking bawdily to strange women at court or committing adultery when the opportunity presents itself. However, Bussy is steadfast in his belief that he owes obedience to no one, not even to the king, as he states to the king’s face in the scene in which he is pardoned for dueling.

Chapman often seems to sacrifice the plausibility of the plot to show his hero flouting society: Bussy’s lover succumbs to an overwhelming passion for him at first sight. This, in itself, is not so hard to believe, but that Bussy should have the same desire for her is harder to accept, because he ignores her a few scenes earlier at court. In the play’s least convincing moment, this adulterous passion is approved by a friar, who then consents to act as their go-between. Clearly, who the characters are and the reasons for their actions are of less interest to Chapman than are illustrations of Bussy’s independence of customary morality.

The play is skillfully constructed, the language at times poetic and compelling. The style of the play, however, is rhetorical in the extreme, with long passages of obscure philosophizing that often bring the action to a halt. When Chapman’s contemporaries accused him of obscurity, he defended himself by claiming that the language was appropriate to the gravity and nobility of the subject. In some speeches, however, the grammar breaks down entirely. In view of these and similar difficulties, the taste of the audiences that made the play so popular for so long a time might be questioned.

The play, however, retains more than enough elements of the Elizabethan tragedy to satisfy those who desire action, and plenty of it. Duels and murder fill the stage. The betrayed husband tortures his wife; the friar drops dead, providing the requisite ghost at the end of the play; and, in a scene harking back to the miracle plays of the fifteenth century, a devil is raised by Bussy in an attempt to discover his enemies’ plots. The final scene shows Bussy and the ghost holding off a pack of paid killers, when an assassin with more sense than superstition draws a pistol and shoots Bussy down. With action like this, a good part of the audience must have simply endured the moralizing in the knowledge that something exciting would soon happen.

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