_____As the note on the play says, the text "seems to have been assembled from the memories of actors, and perhaps as much as half the play Marlowe wrote is missing." So it's a fairly bare-bones play, without much of the verbal panache of Marlowe's other plays, and with a lot of suspiciously fervid anti-Catholicism and cheerleading for Queen Elizabeth I, especially in the latter half.
Charles IX congratulates Henri, King of Navarre, on the marriage to Charles's sister, Margaret. His mother, Catherine de' Medici, also congratulates Navarre, but pointedly mentions their "difference in religion" and in an aside vows to dissolve the marriage "with blood and cruelty."
Navarre, however, believes in the sincerity of both the king and his mother. It is the Duke of Guise that he worries about because "the malice of his envious heart / ... seeks to murder all the protestants." He asserts that Guise does whatever "the Pope will ratify, / In murder mischief and tyranny." The Lord High Admiral notes that Guise, the Cardinal of Lorraine, and the Duke Dumaine were upset at Navarre's marriage to Charles's sister Margaret "Because the house of Bourbon now comes in / And joins your lineage to the crown of France."
Guise summons an apothecary whom he has commissioned to poison a pair of gloves, and sends him with them to Navarre's mother, the old queen. After that, he orders a soldier to assassinate the Admiral. In a soliloquy, he meditates on his motives, which are not entirely religious, and on how he controls King Charles, who gets the blame for whatever Guise does, and how Catherine is "Rifling the bowels of her treasury / To supply my wants and necessity." He also indicates his intention to get rid of Navarre.
The apothecary brings the gloves to the old queen, who dies of the poison, and the soldier wounds the Admiral, who realizes, "These are the cursed Guisians that do seek our death. / O, fatal was this marriage to us all."
Charles expresses reluctance to persecute the Protestants: "my heart relents that noble men, / Only corrupted in religion, / Ladies of honour, knights, and gentlemen, / Should for their conscience taste such ruthless ends." But his brother, Anjou, argues that they should "seek to scourge their enemies / Than be themselves base subjects to the whip." Guise and Catherine support his argument. So Charles wimps out and says, "What you determine, I will ratify." Guise proceeds to outline the plans for the St. Bartholomew's day massacre. They are interrupted by a man who brings the news of the attempt on the Admiral, and Charles decides to visit him. The Admiral (who is apparently in a curtained discovery space upstage) tells Charles that "these are the Guisians / That seek to massacre our guiltless lives. Charles assures him that he will be well-guarded.
Guise orders that the Admiral "Be murdered in his bed." When he is, Anjou suggests, "Cut off his head and hands, / And send them for a present to the Pope." Moreover, his body should be hanged in chains on a cross. Then Guise orders that the guns be fired and the bells tolled that signal the start of the massacre.
Guise and Anjou enter, chasing Protestants, with Guise shouting, "Tue, tue, tue! Let none escape. Murder the Huguenots," and Anjou urging, "Kill them, kill them!"
A preacher named Loreine is murdered by Guise, and though Anjou says, "Stay, my lord, let me begin the psalm," Guise insists, "Come, drag him away, and throw him in a ditch."
Mountsorrell enters the home of Seroune and his wife. Seroune requests to be allowed to pray before being killed, but when he invokes Christ, Mountsorrell says, "Christ, villain? Why dar'st thou to presume to call on Christ, without the intercession of some saint?" and kills him.
The scholar Ramus is murdered by Anjou because of his interpretation of Aristotle. Guise reports, "there are a hundred Protestants / Which we have chased into the river Seine / That swim about and so preserve their lives." Dumaine suggests sending archers to the bridge to shoot them. After Guise leaves, Navarre and Condé enter with two schoolmasters. Anjou claims that he tried to stop the massacre and, when Navarre objects that he had heard Anjou was involved in it, protests his innocence: "You are deceived, I rose but now." Guise returns with soldiers, and Navarre and Condé go to tell the king what Guise has been doing. Guise kills the two schoolmasters, and sends three of his men to Orleans, Dieppe, and Rouen to continue the massacre there.
The play here jumps ahead in time, no doubt because of the missing text. Anjou is now in Poland, where the electors have chosen him to be king. He agrees to it, on the condition that if his brother Charles should die and he be deemed heir to the French throne, "I may retire me to my native home."
We return to the time of the massacre. Two soldiers enter with the body of the Admiral and argue about what to do with it. They decide to hang it on a tree. Guise, Catherine, and the Cardinal enter, and Guise asks, "Now, madam, how like you the lusty Admiral?" She approves of the deed, but urges, "come, let's walk aside, th'air's not very sweet." So Guise has some attendants take the body and throw it in a ditch.
Catherine brings up the subject of Charles, who has been expressing regret for the massacre. The Cardinal claims, "I have heard him solemnly vow / With the rebellious King of Navarre / For to revenge their deaths upon us all." This doesn't deter Catherine:
For Catherine must have her will in France.
As I do live, so surely must he die,
And Henry then shall wear the diadem;
And if he grudge or cross his mother's will,
I'll disinherit him and all the rest;
For I'll rule France, but they shall wear the crown.
Guise and some others attack and kill a group of Protestants.
Charles is seized by "A sudden pang, the messenger of death," and dies. Catherine laments briefly and unconvincingly and then sends "ambassadors / To Poland to call Henry back again / To wear his brother's crown and dignity." (The time sequence, once again, has been switched around and/or telescoped.) Navarre realizes that there's "no safety in the realm for me," so he and Pleshé go off to raise an army.
Anjou has been crowned Henry III. Either his stay in Poland or his ascension to the throne has changed him, for he's a more agreeable fellow than he was as Duke of Anjou. He also now has two "minions," Joyeux and Mugeroun. The latter catches a cutpurse stealing the buttons from his coat, and cuts off the cutpurse's ear, but Anjou/Henry lets him go with a warning. Catherine and the Cardinal confer about this kinder, gentler Henry, and decide that they'll take advantage of his weakness. The Cardinal reveals that Guise has raised an army of his own, ostensibly to wage war on Protestants, but in fact on the house of Bourbon, to which Navarre belongs. Catherine assures the Cardinal that if Henry doesn't behave, she'll take care of him the way she took care of Charles.
The Duchess of Guise writes a letter to Mugeroun, who is her lover, but Guise surprises her and reads it. He spares her life because she's pregnant, but resolves to take care of Mugeroun.
Navarre enters "with drums and trumpets," having started his war against "the Guise, the Pope, and King of Spain." A messenger brings word that "A mighty army comes from France with speed."
Henry makes his minion Joyeux general of the army, which leaves "To march against the rebellious King Navarre." Then he taunts Guise for having been cuckolded by Mugeroun. Guise exits, vowing to kill Mugeroun. Henry regrets the taunt, and decides to find the duke and make friends between him and Mugeroun.
Joyeux is killed in the battle, which the forces of Navarre win. Navarre vows to "with the Queen of England join my force / To beat the papal monarch from our lands."
A soldier hired by Guise shoots and kills Mugeroun. Henry enters to tell Guise that it has come to attention that Guise has raised an army of his own, and "we presume it is not for our good." Guise demurs, but Henry charges him with treason. Guise protests that it's for his own good, because he's an enemy of the Bourbons and the Protestants, both of which would like to see him killed. He admits that he has strong support from the pope and the king of Spain, who, "Ere I shall want, will cause his Indians / To rip the golden bowels of America." But Henry persists, "Dismiss thy camp, or else by our edict / Be thou proclaimed a traitor throughout France." Guise decides to "dissemble," and says, "I kiss your grace's hand and take my leave, / Intending to dislodge my camp with speed." After Guise leaves, Epernoun urges Henry not to trust him: "My lord, I think for safety of your royal person, / It would be good the Guise were made away." Henry admits to Epernoun that he's aware of what's up, and that he's secretly going to Blois:
For, now that Paris takes the Guise's part,
Here is no staying for the King of France,
Unless he mean to be betrayed and die.
But, as I live, so sure the Guise shall die.
Navarre decides to join forces with Henry against Guise.
Henry hires three murderers to kill Guise, then lures Guise to see him, pretending to be allowing him to keep his army. After the king leaves, Guise is triumphant. The Third Murderer enters and warns him that he's about to be killed, but Guise smugly invokes Julius Caesar: "Yet Caesar shall go forth. / Let mean conceits and baser men fear death." The murderers stab him, to his disgust: "To die by peasants, what a grief is this!" And he dies calling on the pope to excommunicate and Philip of Spain to wipe out the house of Valois. "Vive la messe! Perish Huguenots! / Thus Caesar did go forth, and thus he died."
Henry enters, and sends an attendant to fetch Guise's son. He proclaims, "I ne'er was King of France until this hour." And he links Guise to the Spanish Armada: "Did he not cause the King of Spain's huge fleet / To threaten England and to menace me?" Guise's son enters and tries to throw his dagger at Henry, but is taken off to prison. Henry then gives orders to kill Dumaine and the Cardinal. Catherine enters, and proclaims Henry "Traitor to God and to the realm of France!" After they leave, she mourns Guise and says, "for since the Guise is dead, I will not live."
The murderers strangle the Cardinal.
Dumaine receives word that Guise and the Cardinal are dead. He vows to raise an army, and a friar volunteers to kill Henry.
Henry and Navarre meet to join forces. The friar enters with a letter, but Epernoun tells Henry, "I like not this friar's look, / 'Twere not amiss, my lord, if he were searched." Henry dismisses this suspicion: "our friars are holy men." But the friar stabs Henry, who gets the knife and kills the friar." Navarre sends for a surgeon, and Henry sends word to "my sister England" (i.e., Elizabeth) to "give her warning of treacherous foes." When the English agent arrives, he proclaims "eternal love to thee, / And to the Queen of England specially, / Whom God hath blessed for hating papistry."
The surgeon announces that "the wound is dangerous, / For you are stricken with a poisoned knife." Navarre is hopeful: "The king may live." But Henry replies, "O no, Navarre, thou must be King of France /.... / Valois' line ends in my tragedy. / Now let the house of Bourbon wear the crown." And as Henry's body is borne out, Navarre vows that
Rome and all those popish prelates there
Shall curse the time that e'er Navarre was king,
And ruled in France by Henry's fatal death!