Lorenzaccio, a heavily fictionalized account of the assassination of Florentine ruler Alessandro di Medici by his cousin Lorenzo, is one of the masterpieces of French Romantic theater. I don’t think, however, that it is an unqualified masterpiece. Structurally, it’s kind of a mess, with characters being established early on and then not showing up again, or alternately with, for example, students who have never appeared in the play being massacred at the end. It’s hard to care about people who we haven’t seen before, and it’s annoying to see interesting characters dropped. The characterization of Philippe Strozzi is hard to follow in terms of the changes he undergoes, and he’s one of the major characters who appears throughout the play.
On the other had, there’s Lorenzo, Lorenzaccio himself (Musset very skillfully uses Italian suffixes and diminutives throughout the play), and the fantastic scene (Act III, scene iii) where he unveils his motivations to Philippe. Lorenzo has taken on a debauched lifestyle in order to get close to his tyrant-cousin and kill him. “All the Ceasars in the world made me think of Brutus,” he puts it. But over the years, he finds his own character deteriorating as he becomes the mask. Moreover, where he once believed in “human greatness, like a martyr believes in his God,” his experience of the world (from an admittedly skewed perspective) has destroyed this belief, and he no longer thinks a republic will be reestablished when he kills Alessandro (Alexandre in the French text). The intensity of Lorenzo’s despair, and his self-asserting decision to kills Alessandro anyway, as a means of maintaining some tie to his former self and challenging the world, make this scene incredibly compelling.
Lorenzaccio was written under the July Monarchy, after a revolution had led, not to a republic, but to a new constitutional monarchy that was backsliding every day. Alfred de Musset wasn’t involved in radical politics–he even lost his government position as a librarian after the next revolution, in 1848. He took the subject of Lorenzaccio from a sketch by his more politically involved lover, the writer George Sand.
But in Lorenzaccio, Musset channels the despair of someone who really cares, but is past hoping for any improvement.