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Bluebeard is a wealthy aristocrat, feared and shunned because of his ugly, blue beard. He has been married several times, but no one knows what became of his wives. He is therefore avoided by the local girls. When Bluebeard visits one of his neighbours and asks to marry one of her two daughters, the girls are terrified, and each tries to pass him on to the other. Eventually, he talks the younger daughter into visiting him, and after hosting a wonderful banquet, he persuades her to marry him. After the ceremony, she goes to live with him in his château.
Very shortly after, Bluebeard announces that he must leave the country for a while; he gives all the keys of the château to his new wife, telling her they open the doors to rooms which contain his treasures. He tells her to use the keys freely and enjoy herself whilst he is away. However, he also gives her the key to one small room beneath the castle, stressing to her that she must not enter this room under any circumstances. She vows she will never enter the room. He then goes away and leaves the house in her hands. Immediately, she is overcome with the desire to see what the forbidden room holds; and, despite warnings from her visiting sister, Anne, the girl abandons her guests during a house party and takes the key to the room.
The wife immediately discovers the room's horrible secret: its floor is awash with blood and the murdered bodies of her husband's former wives hang from hooks on the walls. Horrified, she drops the key into the pool of blood. She flees the room, but the blood staining the key will not wash off. She reveals her murderous husband's secret to her sister, Anne, and both plan to flee the castle the next day; but, Bluebeard returns home unexpectedly the next morning and, noticing the blood on the key, immediately knows his wife has broken her vow. In a blind rage, he threatens to behead her on the spot, but she implores him to give her a quarter of an hour to say her prayers. He consents, so she locks herself in the highest tower with Anne. While Bluebeard, sword in hand, tries to break down the door, the sisters wait for their two brothers to arrive. At the last moment, as Bluebeard is about to deliver the fatal blow, the brothers break into the castle; and, as he attempts to flee, they kill him. He leaves no heirs but his wife, who inherits all his great fortune. She uses part of it for a dowry to marry off her sister, another part for her brothers' captains' commissions, and the rest to marry a worthy gentleman who makes her forget her horrible encounter with Bluebeard.
- It is not known why Bluebeard murdered his first bride; she could not have entered the forbidden room and found a dead wife.
- Maurice Maeterlinck wrote extensively on Bluebeard and in his plays names at least five former wives:
- Sélysette from "Aglavaine et Sélysette" (1896)
- Alladine from "Alladine et Palomides" (1894)
- Ygraine and Bellangère from "La mort de Tintagiles" (1894)
- Mélisande from "Pelléas et Mélisande"
- Ariane from "Ariane et Barbe-bleue" (1907)
- In Offenbach's opera (1866), the five previous wives are
- with the sixth and final wife being a peasant girl, Boulotte, who finally reveals his secret when he attempts to have her killed so that he can marry Princess Hermia.
- Béla Bartók's opera "A Kékszakállú hérceg vára" (1911) names Judith, which places her as wife number four, whereas Ariane would be wife number six, but fails to take Judith into account. Bartók's version does not name any of the wives that appear in it.
- Anatole France's short story "The Seven Wives of Bluebeard" names Jeanne as the last wife before Bluebeard's death.