Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540
The background of this play, which deals with an uprising of slaves who are overthrown not by weaponry but a display of whips, could have come from a number of sources—Justin, Giles Fletcher’s RUSS COMMONWEALTH, Herodotus, or Diodorus, who places the event in Sicily as Massinger does. Another bit of Sicilian history is added with the appearance of Timoleon, who was the subject of one of Plutarch’s LIVES and is the Corinthian general who aids the Sicilians in the defeat of the Carthaginians. Placement of the setting in Sicily was likely Massinger’s attempt to have the audience draw parallels with their own island-state: Corinth came to Sicily’s aid against Carthage as Holland hoped Britain would ally with her against Spain. With only this parallel as a beginning, it is a wonder that Sir Henry Herbert, Master of Revels, licensed the play on December 3, 1623 for a performance by the Lady Elizabeth’s Men.
Indeed, throughout THE BONDMAN, Massinger maintains his reputation for paralleling contemporary political events with his dramatic writing, and offering outspoken observations on the first two Stuart kings and their government—honestly criticizing what he saw and condemning that of which he disapproved. His view of politics, however, was really more moralistic than partisan. For example, many of the allusions made in THE BONDMAN are directed toward the vain and dissolute favorite of Charles I—the Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers.
Several characters in THE BONDMAN promote Massinger’s view of political liberty, a subject dealt with more in this play than in any others of the Massinger canon. To Massinger, political liberty was synonymous with the liberty of the human soul, which could only be obtained when reason and respectable conduct ruled over baser passions, and when the social bond of the subject to ruler or state did not interfere. In Act I of THE BONDMAN through the character of Timoleon, Massinger points out that freedom is deserved only by the virtuous. In the same act and scene, Cleora places the liberty of one’s soul at a value worthy of the surrender of all one’s worldly goods and riches. All this talk of liberty perhaps seems ironic when Massinger, being a supporter of political stability and an opposer of revolution, has the slaves in the play defeated. The resolve Massinger chooses is weak when juxtaposed with the eloquent speeches on freedom and liberty.
Another characteristic of Massinger’s plays evident in THE BONDMAN is his interest in the marriage or betrothal relationship. No other sixteenth or seventeenth century playwright, with the exception of Thomas Heywood, makes the relationship a central part of his drama. Massinger felt that betrothed or wed, couples had an obligation of mutual respect and trust and that infidelity or jealousy was highly disruptive in love. That Leosthenes in THE BONDMAN loses Cleora because of the raging jealousy he displays, and that Marullo (Pisander) instead, becomes the captor of Cleora’s heart with his unfailing trust, is moral justice in the true Massinger sense.
Perhaps it is well, then, that the Master of Revels licensed THE BONDMAN for production, despite its political overtones. Without this play, we would know less about Philip Massinger, the man, and his time.
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