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The Three Musketeers | Context


The House of Bourbon

The Three Musketeers is set during the reign of King Louis XIII. Louis was born in 1601 into the House of Bourbon, a royal family that had ruled France since 1590 and would continue to do so until the French Revolution (1787–99). Louis was just nine years old when he became king, so his mother ruled as regent in his place. At 14 he married Anne of Austria. When Louis was 16, he sent his mother into exile because he was angry over being excluded from power. He became dependent on Cardinal Richelieu, a powerful French clergyman who became Louis XIII's chief minister in 1624, for guidance.

Tensions roiled between the Catholics and the Protestant Huguenots throughout the reign of Louis XIII. The siege of La Rochelle, the center of Huguenot forces, in 1628, was a total victory for Louis, whose troops forced an unconditional surrender from the Huguenots after 14 months of fighting. His declaration of war on Spain in 1635 won him the favor of the people but created friction in his marriage to Anne, whose father was king of Spain. Anne's flirtation with the Duke of Buckingham added to the tension. Yet, the king and queen managed to produce an heir, Louis XIV, born in 1638, and a second son, Philippe de France, Duke of Orléans, born in 1640. (It was a descendant of Philippe who employed young Alexandre Dumas as a scribe and who later became king.) Louis XIII died of tuberculosis in 1643.

Cardinal Richelieu wanted absolute power for the French crown and an end to Spanish interference under the rival Austro-Spanish Habsburg dynasty (House of Austria), both threats to France's autonomy. He accused Anne of treason in 1637 for communicating with her brother King Philip IV of Spain, but she was never found guilty. Richelieu died in 1642.

From Empire to Restoration to New Power

General Napoleon Bonaparte, based on political skills he exhibited in the years following the French Revolution, became first consul of France in 1799. As consul, Napoleon initiated constitutional reform as well as economic, legal, educational, and religious reforms. He set up the Napoleonic Code, which supported social equality and freedom of religion, and negotiated peace in Europe. These popular reforms paved the way for Napoleon to crown himself emperor in 1804. However, within three years of his peace agreement, Napoleon sought to expand the French empire through war in Europe. He was exiled to the island of Elba in 1814 after his failed military campaign, and the House of Bourbon, one of the most powerful ruling houses in Europe, returned to power with Louis XVIII. Napoleon briefly made a comeback in 1815 and, after Napoleon's forces lost the Battle of Waterloo, the Bourbons returned again.

The House of Orléans, another French noble dynasty, rose to power under King Louis-Philippe (Dumas's former employer) in 1830, and it was during his reign that Dumas wrote The Three Musketeers. Thus, 200 years after the reign of Louis XIII, his descendants were in power once again just as Dumas was bringing him to life on the page.

With so much upheaval in France during Dumas's lifetime, it is easy to imagine readers and audiences craving stories of loyalty, honor, justice, and constancy such as The Three Musketeers, whose brave heroes would gladly die for the king and the sovereignty of France.

Early 19th-Century French Literature

During Napoleon's regime, the preferred style of literature was neoclassical. It was formal, strict, ordered, rational, a throwback to Greek and Roman classical literature, and a good match for an authoritarian emperor bent on world domination. Theater was at the top of the literary hierarchy, but translations of Sir Walter Scott in the 1820s created demand for historical novels. Novels such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo, Dumas's friend and primary rival, were brilliant but challenging to the majority of readers. Dumas had the skills and personality—prolific, hardworking, and affable—to write popular works in the genre. The growth of newspaper circulation in 1836 brought serialized melodramas to the general public, and Dumas churned out thousands of pages per year, putting a human face on the kings and queens of courtly intrigue.


Romanticism was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that began in Europe in the late 18th century. It was characterized by the emotional, the subjective, and the personal as a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment—the 17th- and 18th-century intellectual movement that focused on the uses and powers of reason—and Neoclassicism.

Dumas's move to Paris in 1822 and subsequent playwriting coincided with the second phase of Romanticism, from 1805 to the 1830s. This second phase focused on the hero or exceptional individual. It also prized emotion over reason and senses over intellect. D'Artagnan, for example, who wishes to be a Musketeer, is a lover and a fighter, not a thinker—all qualities France embraced in escaping the torpor of Empirical-era literature. Furthermore, Romanticism embraced a sense of nostalgia for glorious days gone by, when people were thought to have been more heroic than in the current age.

Characteristics of Romantic Literature:

  • emphasis on emotion over logic
  • youth as an ideal in contrast to the corruption of adulthood
  • elevation of nature
  • focus on individual heroes
  • value for outsiders
  • idealization of common people
  • yearning for the past
  • symbolic settings or characters
  • interest in psychology
  • mistaken identity
  • servants who parallel parody, or stand in for their masters
  • mockery of class or status
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