Largely because of The London Merchant, George Lillo is a playwright to be reckoned with in any consideration of middle-class or domestic tragedy, not only in England but also on the Continent, where his influence was more generally felt. He demonstrated once and for all that tragedy was not the exclusive province of princes, but that middle-class men and women possessed the necessary stature for tragic action. Although his plays are not of the first rank, they are worthy progenitors of a large body of later drama.
The London Merchant
“The Ballad of George Barnwell” (which was sung to the tune of “The Merchant”), the late Elizabethan song which became the source of Lillo’s masterpiece, The London Merchant, was said to have been inspired by an actual murder case in Shropshire. The case concerned an apprentice who was seduced by an unscrupulous woman, embezzled funds from his master and gave them to the seductress, and then murdered an uncle in order to rob him. The authors of Elizabethan domestic tragedies often turned to accounts of murder cases for their sources, and Lillo was familiar with these sixteenth and seventeenth century middle-class plays (he wrote his own version of one, Arden of Feversham), so it is easy to understand the appeal of such a moralistic ballad to a young playwright who had been a shopkeeper and was a Calvinist Dissenter. It provided him with a substantive basis for a dramatized sermon on loyalty, honor, greed, and sexual morality—all of which he had touched on in his first play, Silvia.
Allusions early in The London Merchant date the action before the defeat of the Spanish Armada, but there is nothing else to detract from its contemporary realism (its original title included the words “A True History”), and Lillo’s addition of the characters of Maria, Trueman, and Millwood’s servants to the four in his source increased the possibilities for thematic development as well as dramatic conflict. He also made Millwood, the seductress, into a tragic figure through passages that recall Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth and by focusing on the reasons for her misanthropy.
The play opens with a dialogue between Thorowgood, the merchant, and Trueman, an apprentice, in which the master praises his country, its queen, and his fellow merchants, who “sometimes contribute to the safety of their country as they do at all times to its happiness.” Thorowgood warns Trueman that if he “should be tempted to any action that has the appearance of vice or meanness in it,” he should reflect “on the dignity of our profession,” and then “may with honest scorn reject whatever is unworthy of it.” When his only child, Maria, enters, the merchant recalls her many suitors, but she discounts “high birth and titles”; her melancholia, one suspects, is the result of unrequited love (for Barnwell, as it turns out).
The scene shifts to the home of Millwood, a malcontent who labels men “selfish hypocrites,” hates other women, and supports herself by taking advantage “only of the young and innocent part of the sex who, having never injured women, apprehend no injury from them.” Eighteen-year-old Barnwell, whom she has observed in financial transactions, is her latest intended victim, and Lillo prepares the audience well for his naïveté and easy distraction in the face of her advances. When she asks what he thinks about love, he talks about “the general love we owe to mankind” and his attachment for his uncle, master, and fellow apprentices. First addled and then smitten, Barnwell almost as quickly is miserable, having bought “a moment’s pleasure with an age of pain.” Conscience-stricken, he returns home, unable to reveal his transgression even to Trueman, his fellow apprentice and closest friend, but he is convinced that Millwood loves him. Thorowgood confronts but quickly pardons Barnwell for his unexplained absence (“That modest blush, the confusion so visible in your face, speak grief and shame”) and then warns his charge: “Now, when the sense of pleasure’s quick and passion high, the voluptuous appetites, raging and fierce, demand the strongest curb.” Barnwell, though, is tempted anew, this time by Millwood’s story of poverty. He seals his fate by giving her money taken from Thorowgood, but again is immediately tormented by remorse.
Asides and soliloquies are the means by which Lillo reveals Barnwell’s recurring bouts of conscience, and they serve not only to develop his character but also to advance Lillo’s didactic purposes, for almost all such speeches are brief exempla, parts of a play that scholar Stephen L. Trainor, Jr., describes as structured “according to the prescribed format for a Dissenting sermon.”
Trueman, not present in Lillo’s source, is a moral counterpart of the fallen Barnwell. He remains Thorowgood’s willing student and loyal apprentice and illustrates the highest ideals of lasting friendship. Shaken as he is by Barnwell’s flight and confession of embezzlement in a letter to him, Trueman plans with Maria to make up the losses and thus conceal all from her father. During their plotting, Maria turns to the audience: “In attempting to save from shame one whom we hope may yet return to virtue, to Heaven and you, the judges of this action, I appeal whether I have done anything misbecoming my sex and character.” Lillo apparently wanted theatergoers to wrestle with the moral implications of the action not only after a play but also during it. Millwood’s servants, like Trueman and Maria creations of Lillo, are the traditional helpmates and coconspirators of their mistress at the start, but they quickly become disillusioned and decide that “’Tis time the world was rid of such a monster” when Millwood convinces Barnwell to kill his uncle, for “there is something so horrid in murder that all other crimes seem nothing when compared to that.” They resolve, therefore, to prevent the crime. The four characters Lillo has created thus dedicate themselves to saving a soul and eradicating evil. Representing several walks of life—apprentice, servants, daughter of a well-to-do merchant—they are role models for Lillo’s audience, a substantial portion of which had been sent to the theater by masters and elders for edification as well as for entertainment.
The longest speech in the play is Barnwell’s third-act soliloquy before the murder. Aware as he is of the “impiety” of his “bloody purpose” and sensing that nature itself trembles because of his “accursed design,” he cannot fail to do Millwood’s bidding: “She’s got such firm possession of my heart and governs there with such despotic sway. . . . In vain does nature, reason, conscience, all oppose it.” Hesitant to act, he finally stabs his uncle, who in his dying words asks the “choicest blessings” for his “dearest nephew” and forgiveness for his murderer. Barnwell’s self-serving laments over the body have led many to echo Millwood’s characterization of him as a “whining, preposterous, canting villain” who fails to evoke sympathy and lacks tragic stature. Lillo, however, was not influenced solely by classical tradition; his Calvinistic background also was probably a determining force in Barnwell’s course of action. When he is seized as a result of Millwood’s treachery, Barnwell complains: “The hand of Heaven is in it. . . . Yet Heaven, that justly cuts me...
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