Victor Hugo Drama Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2691

Critics divide Victor Hugo’s theater into four categories, excluding the plays before Cromwell. The first group constitutes his romantic dramas in verse: Cromwell, Marion de Lorme, Hernani, The King Amuses Himself, and Ruy Blas. Romantic dramas in prose include Amy Robsart, Lucretia Borgia ...

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Critics divide Victor Hugo’s theater into four categories, excluding the plays before Cromwell. The first group constitutes his romantic dramas in verse: Cromwell, Marion de Lorme, Hernani, The King Amuses Himself, and Ruy Blas. Romantic dramas in prose include Amy Robsart, Lucretia Borgia, Marie Tudor, and Angelo, Tyrant of Padua. The Burgraves and Torquemada form his epic theater, while Théâtre en liberté is lyric comedy. Although there is a distinct evolution, particularly in the development of the plot after Cromwell, and a greater integration of themes after Ruy Blas, all of Hugo’s plays have definite characteristics that mark them as his own dramatic creations.

After 1830, the role of woman becomes more important, possibly because of Juliette Drouet’s influence in Hugo’s life. At the same time, the populist theme grows in importance, culminating in the character of Ruy Blas, the man of the people. Hugo usually portrayed royalty in decline or dissipation, and Ruy Blas emphasizes this theme. Hugo’s earlier works tend to have tragic, melodramatic endings, while in his later works he moves to more human themes, and in La Grand-mère and Mangeront-ils?, maternal and conjugal love triumph.

The exposition is straightforward and usually takes place in the first few scenes. Even mysteries and disguises are made evident to the audience without diminishing interest. It is obvious, for example, that Lucretia Borgia is Gennaro’s mother, and that the masked intruder in Hernani is Don Carlos, who will not succeed in winning the beautiful Doña Sol. The exposition usually reveals a trait of character that does not change throughout the play. Hernani personifies Castilian honor; Don Salluste, revenge; Amy Robsart, love. A notable exception is Cromwell, one of the most complex and fully realized characters in Hugo’s theater. Acts, or journées (days), usually bear the title of a character and reveal the essential message of the section.

Hugo portrays the situation clearly and immediately and proceeds at once to action, which dominates his theater. The action converges on the resolution of the problem and is often produced by melodramatic devices: poison, disguise, hidden stairways, closets, and other such coups de théâtre. Poison is Hugo’s most common method; he uses it more than all the other romantic playwrights combined; hardly a play is without it. Yet in all cases, the real obstacle that necessitates the tragic resolution is fate, and the melodramatic devices are actually symbols for human powerlessness against the all-pervading destiny that thwarts humankind.

At the center of almost every drama there is a couple, young, handsome, and passionately in love. Their love is pure and fatal: Amy Robsart and Dudley, Doña Sol and Hernani, and Regina and Otbert. In the earlier plays, they form the heart of the drama; later, they are merely accessory.

In contrast to the ideal woman and her valiant hero is the villain. The portrayal of villainy gave Hugo full scope for his delight in the grotesque, and some of his most memorable creations are of this type. The villains in his early plays recall the cloak-and-dagger melodrama, while later types lean more to the demoniac, culminating in Torquemada, as John Peter Houston describes him, “the satanic enemy of Satan.” The grotesque is also embodied in the buffoon: the deformed Triboulet or the comic Flibbertigibbet, Cromwell’s four fools, or the best and most convincing character, Don César in Ruy Blas. Finally, in his later years, Hugo successfully combined the sublime and the grotesque in the chameleonlike Aïrolo in Mangeront-ils?, with a Shakespearean touch.


Of the six verse dramas written before 1830, the two most significant are Cromwell and Marion de Lorme. The other early verse dramas are tragedies in imitation of classical models, a comic-opera, and a melodrama. None of the six was staged before 1830. Cromwell, published in 1827, was unstageable by its very length. It was presented for the first time in 1956, in the Cour Carrée of the Louvre, in an adaptation by Jean Cocteau. Marion de Lorme was censored by the conservative government of Charles X but was successfully staged in 1831 at the Théâtre Porte-Saint-Martin.

Cromwell, depicting the vast panorama of a giant historical figure, is the story of a failed attempt to assassinate Oliver Cromwell by both Puritans and Cavaliers. Profiting from a flirtation of Lord Rochester with his daughter Francis, Cromwell succeeds in escaping from his enemies by drugging Rochester and disguising himself as a soldier. In the end, Cromwell thwarts all his enemies by refusing the crown. The play is a complex study of Cromwell’s character, and an attempt by Hugo to capture Cromwell’s personality from every side. Cromwell is less a depiction of the real historical personage than a fictitious mélange of Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte, yet Hugo’s dramatic creation is his best characterization. The play is written in liberated verse with the introduction of several other important Hugoesque techniques, among them, the characterization of the buffoon.

The significance of the play itself, however, has been overshadowed by that of its preface, the manifesto of romanticism in the French theater. Dividing history into three ages—patriarchal, theocratic, and modern—Hugo develops the concept of the grotesque as particularly appropriate for modern times. In the same way, he sees drama as complete poetry, a combination of comedy and tragedy, with only unity of action as necessary from among the three classical unities. Hugo proclaims liberty of creation and of versification in the drama and urges writers not to choose the beautiful but rather the characteristic. Art for him is divine, and its aim is the imitation of nature and truth.

Marion de Lorme

Both in Cromwell and Marion de Lorme, Hugo attempted to put these rules into practice. Marion de Lorme, shorter and therefore stageable, is the story of a courtesan redeemed by a pure love for Didier, a melancholy hero of unknown origin. He is the unconscious victim of Cardinal Richelieu’s edict against duels, as he challenges Marion’s former lover, Saverny, to a duel from which both escape, yet for which both are condemned. Marion tries to save Didier by every means, even resigning herself to the diabolic Laffemas. Yet all fails, for the implacable Cardinal Richelieu, who never appears yet who is omnipresent and all-powerful, refuses the pardon granted by the weak-willed Louis XIII. The portrayal of a feeble monarch did not appeal to the Restoration government, but Louis-Philippe’s regime permitted it, and the play was a moderate success with Marie Dorval in the leading role.


Hugo’s two greatest plays are generally acknowledged to be Hernani and Ruy Blas. Hernani represented the triumph of the romantic theater at the conservative Théâtre-Français, following the famous battle of the winter of 1830, brought about by the efforts of Hugo and his liberal friends. Ruy Blas inaugurated the Théâtre de la Renaissance, where Hugo was given complete freedom by the newly married Hélène de Mecklembourg, duchess of Orléans and wife of the heir to the throne.

Hernani has as its theme Castilian honor, not unlike Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid (pr., pb. 1637; The Cid, 1637), of which it has definite echoes. It is set in sixteenth century Spain and portrays three rivals for the brilliant and beautiful Doña Sol: Ruy Gomez, her elderly tutor, who represents both honor and vengeance; Don Carlos, the future Holy Roman Emperor; and Hernani, the bandit seeking revenge on Carlos and a noble in disguise. Don Carlos changes from a comic lover to a noble prince and pardons Hernani, giving him Doña Sol as his bride. Ruy Gomez, while respecting his honor as a host to Hernani, demands Hernani’s life in the name of the same honor. At the very moment of their marriage, Hernani and Doña Sol fall victims to Ruy Gomez’ vengeance and die poisoned in each other’s arms.

Ruy Blas

Ruy Blas is also set in Spain, this time in the seventeenth century, the era of declining empire under King Charles II. It is, in fact, an image of decadence that pervades the entire play, showing royalty by indifference and nobility by corruption and impoverishment. In contrast, Ruy Blas represents the growing role of the people and the social ascension of a simple lackey who aspires not only to political power but also to the love of a queen, Marie-Anne de Neubourg, a young and passionate woman who has been abandoned by her indifferent husband.

Ruy Blas assumes his political role and his pursuit of the queen under the orders of his corrupt master, Don Salluste, who wants revenge against the queen for her discovery of his liaison. Ruy Blas does so in disguise, taking the name of the impoverished Don César, a picaro type and Hugo’s most convincing comic character, whose unexpected return in act 4 causes a comedy of errors. Ruy Blas has become a faithful servant of the queen and a political success, and he has gained her love and esteem when Don Salluste pursues his revenge by snaring the queen in a compromising situation. Ruy Blas confesses his identity and poisons himself rather than expose the queen to dishonor. As a final tribute to his love and a concession to the romantic audience, he dies hearing the queen speak his name.

Both plays are replete with Hugo’s melodramatic devices: disguise, ladders, closets, and the ubiquitous poison. Yet the plot is integrated, the heroes are convincing, and the lines are swift and melodic. Ruy Blas’s monologue in act 1, Don César’s comic wit, as well as the scene of the portraits in Hernani, are superb poetry and drama. Especially in Ruy Blas, the political portrait of the hero is noble and persuasive.

Amy Robsart

With the exception of Amy Robsart, which was staged in 1828, Hugo’s prose dramas Lucretia Borgia, Marie Tudor, and Angelo, Tyrant of Padua, were written between his most successful verse dramas and were staged at the more popular Théâtre Porte-Saint-Martin. Grant sees this change of theater and genre as an effort by Hugo to appeal to the “people” rather than to the “public.” All are noticeably inferior to his verse productions, though they are not without merit.

Amy Robsart was a failure on the stage, despite its elegant costumes, designed by Eugène Delacroix. It is set in sixteenth century England and focuses on the love of the pure and passionate Amy for the count of Leicester, favorite of Elizabeth, the queen of England. Amy and Leicester are secretly married, without the knowledge of even Amy’s honorable and self-sacrificing father, Hugh. The villain Varney, ancestor of Claude Frollo and Don Salluste, profits from Elizabeth’s attraction to Leicester and attempts to seduce the faithful Amy, who is eventually killed despite the efforts of the gentle buffoon Flibbertigibbet to save her. Although the play is exaggerated and melodramatic, it contains Hugo’s great characters in embryo: the ideal heroine, the noble elderly gentleman, the monster-woman, the villain, and the buffoon.

Lucretia Borgia

Lucretia Borgia was designed as a counterpart to The King Amuses Himself, Hugo’s drama in verse that was censored by Louis-Philippe’s government for its portrayal of a dissolute monarch, François I, a portrait not justified by history. The central feature of The King Amuses Himself is the redemption of the deformed buffoon Triboulet through his paternal love for his daughter Blanche. Lucretia Borgia, on the other hand, set in sixteenth century Venice, is a story of maternal love. Lucretia Borgia, presented by Hugo as more depraved than historical documents admit, has accidentally poisoned her own son, Gennaro, who is ignorant of his parentage, in an effort to avenge an insult made on her by his five companions. The magnificent final act shows a cavernous vault with a solemn procession of chanting monks bearing the coffins for Lucretia’s victims. As she dies at the hand of her own son, she finally reveals her identity to him.

Marie Tudor

As Hugo exaggerated Elizabeth’s sordid character in Amy Robsart, he made Marie Tudor into a jealous queen “whose bedroom opened onto the scaffold,” an assertion once again contrary to history. In Marie Tudor, she plots the death of her unfaithful suitor, Fabiani, who becomes enamored of her cousin Jane. Less tragic in this play, however, Hugo allows virtue to triumph and vice to be punished, as Gilbert, Jane’s noble guardian, is saved, and Fabiani is executed.

Angelo, Tyrant of Padua

Like Hugo’s other dramas in prose, Angelo, Tyrant of Padua also portrays women as its principal figures, despite its title. Hugo intended to present woman in two roles: the woman in society, the faithful yet maligned Caterina; and the woman outside society, the courtesan Tisbe who is redeemed by pure love and self-sacrifice. The tyrant Angelo suspects his wife of infidelity and is about to kill her when Tisbe allows herself to die in order to save Catarina, in whose possession she finds her mother’s crucifix. Catarina’s rebellion against her husband’s tyranny in a powerful speech is particularly significant in the development of Hugo’s attitudes toward women.

The Burgraves

The Burgraves, one of Hugo’s most powerful creations, was a failure on the stage because of the nature of the play as well as the intrigues of Hugo’s rivals and a change in popular taste. The chronicle of a family, it is an epic creation of mythic proportions, recalling the fall of the Titans, and of biblical grandeur, evoking Cain, Nemrod, and Job. Four generations of warriors dwell in the valley of the Rhine, the younger two given over to corruption and vice. The patriarch of the clan, Job, is the mortal enemy of Frederic Barbarossa, discovered to be his brother and formerly his rival for the same woman, Guanhamara. Job atones for his crime by recognizing the power of Barbarossa as the savior of Germany. Patricia Ward proposes that this is Hugo’s metaphor for his own belief in the emperor and in the union of France and Germany, as well as for his faith in pardon and redemption.

Théâtre en liberté

After The Burgraves, Hugo no longer wrote for the stage but continued to think in the language of drama. He planned a theater in liberty, Théâtre en liberté, where he would give free rein to his imagination without fear of governmental or popular criticism. During his years in exile, he composed several fragments around the characters of César de Bazan and Maglia, a Robin Hood character. By 1873, the plays destined for Théâtre en liberté were completed, although the work was not published until 1886, the year after Hugo’s death.


The finest pieces of this period are Mangeront-ils? and Torquemada. Mangeront-ils? recalls William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596), and Hugo’s Aïrolo is not unlike Puck or Ariel. It is the love story of Lord Slada and Lady Janet, who, pursued by the King of Man, take refuge in a ruined cloister where they are unable to eat. Aïrolo, aided by the dying sorceress Zineb, who wills him her magic plume, saves the lovers in a delightful fantasy in which love triumphs.


Torquemada, on the other hand, is a magnificent and frightful portrayal of the demoniac Inquisitor Torquemada, who kills for the glory of God. King Ferdinand is the symbol of selfish hedonism; Pope Alexander VI, powerful and corrupt, is balanced by the saintly hermit, Francis of Paula, while Sanche and Rose are Hugo’s typical lovers. They save Torquemada from prison, but because he considers their use of an iron cross as sacrilege, he condemns them to death.

Like the grandiose Torquemada, Hugo’s visionaries peer with God and Satan into the immense abyss which Hugo himself tried to penetrate during his entire life. His lyric approach to the theater and his concern with the authentic, with destiny, and with good and evil enabled him to rise above convention, placing melodrama on a level with serious artistic endeavor.

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