Philip Massinger Essay - Critical Essays


The shaping and testing of will is certainly not Philip Massinger’s only theme, but its development in several of his major plays amply illustrates both his talents and his limitations. Whether the will is tested by the demands of religion, the lure of lucre, the icy grip of jealousy, or the sweetness of an infatuation, Massinger manages to stir the theme deep into a play, to arrange characters and events to illustrate it. If he did not challenge the social or psychological conventions of his day as John Webster or John Ford did, he did make dramatically vivid and sometimes convincing cases for the wisdom of those conventional attitudes.

It is in Massinger’s studies of passion, whether the conclusion is tragic or comic, that one sees most clearly both his strengths and his limitations—both his famous seriousness as a dramatist and teacher, and the problems critics find with his use of conventions. Four plays particularly illustrate Massinger’s “anatomy” of passion and will: The Virgin Martyr, The Maid of Honour, The Picture, and A New Way to Pay Old Debts.

The Virgin Martyr

In The Virgin Martyr, Massinger collaborated with Dekker to produce a hagiography with a decidedly Romish coloring. Massinger believed in ritual, ceremony, and order, as well as in the power of prayer to change determinations. With a certainty bordering on superstition, he believed that those who adhere to a set body of moral codes will have an almost magical effect on their world.

Dorothea, the virgin martyr, has such an effect. She adheres to Christian dogma and practices the virtues of generosity, compassion, self-control, and rational argument. She gladly accepts martyrdom as payment for three benefits: heaven for herself; conversion of Antoninus, the young Roman who loves her; and a gift of fruit and flowers for Theophilus, her prosecutor. At her dying request, “A holy fire/ yields a comfortable heat” in Antoninus; soon thereafter, Theophilus, receiving his miraculous bouquet, sets about becoming Rome’s next Christian martyr. Thus, prayer’s power triumphs—perhaps over the free will of the converts.

Yet The Virgin Martyr, contrary to what the title leads us to expect, is not entirely Dorothea’s story; her self-control in the face of physical torment is merely the simplest of several versions of self-control tested. Massinger gives as much attention to Antoninus, the governor’s son, and Artemia, the emperor’s daughter. Antoninus passionately loves Dorothea, yet when Artemia chooses him for her consort, he cannot safely refuse. He temporizes, then rushes off to pursue Dorothea again. The Christian virgin, completely occupied with prayer and good works, shows no interest in a pagan lover. She would rather feed the poor and instruct the ignorant.

Antoninus does not love Dorothea for her virtue—he simply loves her, irrationally. Of Artemia’s proposal, he complains, “When I am scorched/ With fire, can flames in any other quench me?/ What is her love to me, greatness, or empire,/ That am slave to another?” That Dorothea’s love brings him “assured destruction” bothers him not a whit, and when he attempts to color his passion with reason, the attempt largely fails.

Artemia, like Antoninus, covers passion with reasonable answers, yet ultimately, the pagan princess exercises a self-control that makes her admirable. Given her choice of husband, she bypasses kings and follows her affection for Antoninus; when she finds that he loves Dorothea, she impulsively wants him dead. She orders his execution but soon relents. Regaining control, she gives up her interest in him, “That all may know, when the cause wills, I can/ Command my own desires.” At the play’s end, she chooses a more appropriate husband, the emperor Maximinus, grounding love and affection to him on a clearly rational basis.

The question of will is examined from two other perspectives as well—those of Theophilus’s daughters and of Dorothea’s servants. The daughters, at the play’s start, have newly renounced their Christianity and returned to their father’s pagan gods. Tortures and reasoning had not worked, but the knowledge that their father chose his cultural convictions over even paternal feelings brought the girls back to Jove’s altar. Massinger casts their conversion from Christianity in convincing psychological terms; their father’s will has overwhelmed them. (Later, Dorothea uses reason to bring them back to Christ.)

The other perspective is that of Dorothea’s two reprobate servants, Hircius and Spungius, who provide a not very comic commentary on their mistress’s intellectualism. Drunkard and whoremaster respectively, they squander, with mechanical predictability, money entrusted to them for the poor. They embrace Christianity or paganism, depending on which sect puts the readiest cash into their hands. They claim no will at all. As Spungius says, “The thread of my life is drawn through the needle of necessity, whose eye, looking upon my lousy breeches, cries out it cannot mend them.” Derogatory comparisons and flat punch lines give these characters some cleverness but no will. Their conversations counterpoint Dorothea’s rational control.

The Unnatural Combat

Several of the themes and characters of The Virgin Martyr turn up in later Massinger works. The Unnatural Combat, for example, is the study of a father’s incestuous passion for his daughter. Malefort, the father, habitually does as he pleases; he has dispatched prisoners of war, disregarded friendship, and done away with one wife to make room for a second. Massinger has his audience learn these things gradually as he builds a picture of an effective military leader, but one whose power comes from utterly undisciplined appetites. Malefort gradually loses the sympathy of the audience until, halfway through the play, he kills his own son in a duel. His saving grace has been his care for his daughter. Now he suddenly realizes that he wants the girl incestuously, and the habit of taking what he wants—of unbridled, undisciplined will—is so strong in him that his real and painful struggle to give her up is doomed to fail.

The Malefort character resembles that of Theophilus in The Virgin Martyr and has even stronger resemblance to the Duke of Milan in the play of that title. There, the possessive will of Duke Sforza demands that, should he die, his chaste and innocent wife be killed, lest she someday enjoy a second love. Sforza’s possessive will, like Malefort’s, derives from his habitual and public indulgence of his appetite for Marcelia, and, like Malefort’s, it is fatal. Domitian and his wife in The Roman Actor share the same lack of disciplined will.

The Renegado

The willful will-lessness Massinger portrays in these characters is opposed in the likes of Dorothea and Artemia. Massinger is particularly interested in the influence of such characters on others. In The Renegado, for example, the stalwart Christian hero converts the equally stalwart pagan heroine by having a Jesuit sprinkle her with holy water as she passes by, a rapid-transit baptism. In this case, the ritual itself effects the change in will. (Such a belief in ritual’s power to summon up prevenient grace served as a kind of watershed in the early seventeenth century, separating Papists from Anglicans. Thus, critics tend to think Massinger was a Catholic.) In a humanized, toned-down form, Massinger’s interest in the way wills fixate, interact, and change informs three of his mature works, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, The Picture, and The Maid of Honour. These three plays are vintage Massinger; all three deserve close study.

A New Way to Pay Old Debts

In A New Way to Pay Old Debts, Massinger packs the deus ex machina in mothballs and stores it backstage along with the thunderbolts and heavenly flowers. The play, often considered his masterpiece, depends on human goodwill and gets most of its energy from one man’s bad will. A New Way to Pay Old Debts transfers the single-minded bad man of The Unnatural Combat to the world of London city comedy, reshaping him into a Sir Giles Overreach, a character based on the real-life monopolist Sir Giles Mompesson. Sir Giles moves so firmly over Massinger’s stage that, despite a highly conventional comic plot, the play almost loses its status as comedy.

A New Way to Pay Old Debts contains all the conventions of Jacobean double-plot comedy. In one of its plots, Frank Wellborn, Overreach’s nephew, schemes to regain the land his uncle has deceitfully appropriated. In the other plot, Wellborn’s younger friend, Tom Allworth, schemes to win Overreach’s daughter Margaret. Each plotter uses a similar device. Wellborn asks Widow Allworth, Tom’s mother, to pretend that she is infatuated with him; Overreach jumps to furnish Wellborn with riches as bait to catch the wealthy lady. Allworth asks...

(The entire section is 3731 words.)