19th Century

Victor Hugo’s Early Modern Outlaw Play: “Hernani” (1830)

Stephen Basdeo is a historian and lecturer based in Leeds, UK. He researches the life and works of several British and French ‘mysteries’ authors including George W.M. Reynolds, Pierce Egan the Younger, Eugene Sue, and Victor Hugo. He is also currently reading Camilo Castelo Branco’s Os Mistérios de Lisboa (1854).

Young Victor Hugo (Wikimedia Commons)

Outlaws in Plays and Prints

Fans of outlaw stories, if they were ever able to time travel, might travel back to the 1820s and 1830s.

In England, a number of Robin Hood stories, such as Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), the anonymous Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819) and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822), had been published in quick succession. Scott had also published in 1818, his brilliant Rob Roy, a novel based upon the life and deeds of the real-life highland brigand. All of these tales were adapted for the English stage.

Robert Macaire, an immensely popular outlaw-themed melodrama in England and France (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

On the French stage the melodrama was born and one particularly popular melodrama in 1823 was L’Auberge des Adrets, which introduced audiences to the fictional eighteenth-century outlaw Robert Macaire. L’Auberge des Adrets was then translated into English and premiered on the English stage, while French audiences enthusiastically read translations of English gothic novels, and Scott’s and Shakespeare’s works (though many of these English novels were never published ‘officially’ but as pirate translations by publishers such as Galignani).[1]

Young Victor Hugo

With outlaws being a popular subject for the stage, it is little wonder that a young and up-and-coming writer wanted to make his mark with a play about a brigand as well. This man was Victor Hugo, and the play in question was Hernani, which premiered in 1830 (French title: Hernani, ou l’Honneur Castillan).

At this point in his career, Victor Hugo was not the great author of works such as Notre Dame de Paris and Les Miserables that we think of today.

The second son of Napoleonic general Joseph Leopold Sigisbert Hugo, Victor spent much of his early life traveling with his father on campaign, staying in various Spanish towns and cities as the war against Britain necessitated (Hugo took the name of Hernani from a small Spanish village he stayed in as a youth).

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the restoration of the French monarchy, the Hugos lost a lot of their money, although the restored Bourbon king allowed Joseph Hugo to keep his rank. Meantime, Victor began a writing career, although his early works were, as one might expect of a young writer, of varying quality. Anxious to ingratiate his family with the newly-restored monarchy, Hugo’s first poetry in La Muse Française and Le Conservateur Litteraire was filled with anti-revolutionary sentiments (although he later embraced republicanism and, through later novels such as Ninety-Three, became one of its most zealous advocates).[2]

Hernani: Manifesto of French Romanticism

With Hernani, Hugo did not have a political point to make but an artistic one.

The Classicists dominated the French stage, but the French Romantic movement dominated the literary world, and Romantics had their sights set on ‘winning’ the stage as well.

The two groups’ values, so they thought, were diametrically opposed to one another. The classicists advocated formal rules for the production and enjoyment of art, and as their name suggests, they looked to the Ancient Romans and Greeks for artistic inspiration. Indeed, many of their plays and texts they wrote were set, not in France but in Ancient Rome.

The Romanticists—a group that Hugo was anxious to join and which included men like Hector Berlioz and Theophile Gautier—eschewed neoclassicists’ rules for the production and enjoyment of art and placed greater emphasis on France and Europe’s medieval heritage. Hence Gautier’s Une Larme du diable (1839), an imitation of a medieval ‘mystery’ play in which God cheats to win a bet with Satan—an affront to both the Church and Gautier’s conservative critics.

Don Carlos from Hernani (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

In Hernani, Hugo wanted to showcase what was in effect a ‘manifesto of Romanticism’—abandoning the tired old neoclassical formula and instead opening up different settings to audiences.

Thus Hugo opted to set his play in an unlikely place: Early modern Spain—too ‘low’ a setting for the classicisits. The setting was emphasised, not only through the dialogue but also through the use of scenery. French classicist dramatists felt that they did not need scenery—it was viewed as cheap and something that was more characteristic of plebeian entertainment rather than high art. The true beauty and power of the drama was supposed to rest on the words of the play alone.[3]

But in Hugo’s script we find some quite specific stage directions and scene-building instructions. For example, at the beginning of Act I Hugo wrote

Scene.—A bed chamber. Night. A lamp on a table; door of a closet, L. 2. E.; a small door R. 2 E.; door of an entrance, L.C.; a table; R.C. and chairs. JOSEPHA discovered at embroidery. A knocking heard at a small door on the R.C.; she listens; knocking a second time.[4]

This was to be as lifelike and ‘realistic’ a play as possible, and the first performance of Hernani came on 25 February 1830 at the Comédie-Française.[5]


A full synopsis of Hugo’s play is available elsewhere, but I want to focus on the outlaw elements of his tale for the character of Hernani bears many ‘echoes’ of those in British outlaw tales (I stress the word ‘echoes’ rather than ‘influences’ as I do not think we can trace any direct influences of British outlaw tales on Hugo’s play, but the similarities are at least worth pointing out).

The disguised Don Carlos overhears Zanthe and Hernani (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

Kings and Subjects

British outlaw tales since the medieval period have contained some form of what Mark Truesdale calls the ‘King and Commoner’ trope: According to Truesdale, in such narratives a monarch dons a disguise and ventures among the populace incognito. This is seen, for example, in tales such as The Miller of Mansfield and even A Gest of Robyn Hode (1495).[6]

In Hernani, Don Carlos, the King of Spain, dons a disguise and gains admittance to the bedchamber of the beautiful Donna Zanthe. While in English king and commoner narratives the purpose of a monarch’s disguise is usually benign, in Hernani Don Carlos secretes himself in Zanthe’s chamber because he is in love with her and would like to abduct her. G.W.M. Reynolds, who idolized Hugo, likely took inspiration from this scene for the opening of his best-selling Mysteries of the Court of London (1849–56), in which George IV disguises himself and gains admittance to the house of a virtuous young maiden.

The Outlaw Hernani

Don Carlos does not manage to abduct Zanthe on the first occasion, however, but there are in fact three men who are in love with Zanthe: Don Carlos, Hernani, and an older lecherous man named Ruy Gomez, and the unfortunate Zanthe is betrothed to the latter. Zanthe—who is essentially the Maid Marian of the play—is only in love with Hernani, however, and while Don Carlos is hiding in a closet, Hernani visits Zanthe and they hatch a plot to run away together.

It is in Zanthe’s chamber that Hernani—who carries a bugle horn with him at all times which he uses to summon his men—reveals something about his character. Much like Robin Hood, who in contemporary literature was said to be the Earl of Huntingdon,[7] so Hernani is also of noble birth. He is the son of the Duke of Aragon, whom Don Carlos had put to death on a false charge of treason. Dispossessed and deprived of his inheritance, Hernani has taken to the forests and caves of Castile in northern Spain, and gathered about him a band of 60 desperate fellows whom Don Carlos’s ‘tyrannical’ actions have also forced to become outlaws.

Hernani reveals his identity at the wedding (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

Hernani is also a master of disguise. Although he and Zanthe had planned to run away together, this scheme is prevented by the king and Zanthe is forced to go to the house of the older Ruy Gomez to marry him. Shortly before the wedding, a stranger arrives and claims Gomez’s hospitality. This is granted, but Hernani, almost suicidal because his lover is about to marry his rival, reveals his identity (and the fact that he is Zanthe’s lover) to all present. Hernani’s intention is to get Gomez to either have him arrested or kill him in a duel.

Yet Gomez refuses Hernani’s request—the scared laws of hospitality will not allow him to harm a guest and thereby bring shame on his own house. Gomez and Hernani vow vengeance on each for other another day, however, and Hernani gives the former his bugle horn, telling him that when he is ready for a duel, blow the horn and Hernani will come.

The Death of the Outlaw

Meantime King Don Carlos arrives at Gomez’s residence and, upon finding that he harbours the fugitive Hernani—whom the laws of hospitality will not allow him to deliver up even to the king—he is most displeased and vows to punish both men. Gomez’s punishment starts immediately: Carlos abducts his wife and carries her back to the royal residence.

Later, however, Carlos pardons Hernani when he renounces his oath of vengeance against the king, and Hernani is restored to his rightful title of Duke of Aragon and he is finally permitted to marry Zanthe.

Yet on their wedding night, as they dream of the future, Hernani hears the bugle horn. It is Ruy Gomez, and he wants to have his long-awaited duel with the man who stole his fiancé.

Zanthe begs Hernani not to attend because it will mean certain death, yet he insists that must go otherwise he must live in shame forever. In response, Zanthe drinks half a bottle of poison because she cannot bear life without him. Distraught, Hernani drinks the other half and the pair of them die. And the curtain falls.

Hernani hears the bugle horn one last time (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)


Although Hernani is an outlaw play and bears some very slight echoes of Robin Hood texts (which may not even be echoes but merely minor similarities), it would be a mistake to call this a type of Robin Hood text. Hernani does not steal from the rich and give to the poor. He seems only interested in marrying the woman he loves but his ideas of honour and duty always conflict with his love for Zanthe. Hence the play’s French title which translates as ‘Hernani; or, Castilian Honour’.

Hugo’s play has been derided by later critics as being of relatively little literary merit. This is not an unjustified assertion. He was still a young writer and some of his playwriting was a little clumsy. Anyone who reads the plot outlined above will realise that it is a little ridiculous.

But the play was taken most seriously by the Classicists. On its first night, a fist fight broke out between supporters of neoclassical drama and the Romantics (Hugo had in fact bought a number of tickets in the stalls and stuffed the theatre with some of his most vocal supporters). The fight at the theatre, or ‘Battle of Hernani’, was widely covered in French newspapers and it is the fist fight after the play which perhaps did more to propel Hugo to fame in France than his (until 1830) writings of varying quality.

Paul Albert-Benard’s Battle of Hernani (Wikimedia Commons)


[1] Rohan McWilliam, ‘The French Connection: G.W.M. Reynolds and the Outlaw Robert Macaire’, in G.W.M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press, ed. by Anne Humpherys and Louis James (Ashgate, 2008), 33.

[2] Isabel Hapgood [online], ‘Life of Victor Hugo’, Reynolds’s News and Miscellany, 9 June 2021, accessed 17 October 2021, available at: http://www.reynolds-news.com

[3] John Andrew Frey, A Victor Hugo Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999), 125.

[4] Victor Hugo, ‘Hernani’, Victor Hugo: Dramas, Trans. Isabel Hapgood, 4 vols (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1902), 1.

[5] Joseph E. Garreau (1984). ‘Hugo, Victor’, in McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, ed. by Stanley Hochman, vol. 2 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984), 532.

[6] See Mark Truesdale, The King and Commoner Tradition: Carnivalesque Politics in Medieval and Early Modern Literature (London: Routledge, 2018).

[7] Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, 2 vols (London: T. Egerton, 1795), I, p. 2.