The Maid of Honour

by Philip Massinger
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 921

While it is generally accepted that Philip Massinger’s The Maid of Honour was performed before Henrietta Maria, queen of Charles I of England, in 1630, the precise date of the play’s composition is unknown. Some scholars have dated its writing to around 1621 and others to as late as 1630. The earlier date would make it one of Massinger’s first independent plays; the latter date would place it during his mature period of authorship. External evidence provides information about the play’s performance and publication but gives little or no indication of when it was written. Internal evidence, largely in the form of topical allusions to intrigues at the English court, is subject to various interpretations. What is clear is that the play, whenever it was written, comments upon issues facing English society and politics during the period. The play also transcends these topical issues to touch on enduring themes such as honor, loyalty, and courage.

Massinger, the only son of a family moderately prominent in the cultural and political life of the times, attended Oxford but left without receiving his degree and soon after entered a long and productive life in the theater. His extensive experience included collaboration with many distinguished playwrights, including John Fletcher and Thomas Dekker. He also wrote a number of dramas by himself, and became known as one of the finest of contemporary writers for the stage. In 1620, John Taylor’s poem “The Praise of Hemp-Seed” listed Massinger as one of England’s premier dramatists, along with notable authors such as John Drayton, Ben Jonson, George Chapman, John Marston, John Middleton, and Thomas Heywood.

The Maid of Honour clearly shows why Massinger was accorded such praise, for it is an excellent display piece for Massinger’s talents. It has a clear and fluent style, a deeply felt sense of morality, and a keen appreciation of individual character and motivation, which is seen most clearly in Camiola’s renunciation of the world and her fiancé at the moment when she appears to have won both.

The central themes of The Maid of Honour are money; the morality involved in the activities of royalty, especially marriages and foreign alliances; and the concept of just versus unjust war. All of these are folded into one overriding theme: the conflict between virtue and expediency. Massinger’s play explores this theme in three fashions: through reference to English political life; by correspondences to earlier plays, in particular dramas by William Shakespeare; and in its own original way.

In political terms, The Maid of Honour examines certain general moral and philosophical issues, such as the concept of a just war and the virtue of neutrality during armed conflict, both issues that were of immediate concern at the time and that evoked spirited debate among intellectuals and statesmen. Not infrequently, such debates found expression on the popular stage. The underlying thematic concerns that the play addresses are the role of justice and virtue in political affairs, and how much morality a nation can afford in its relationships with other kingdoms.

In exploring this theme, The Maid of Honour echoes specific events of English political life, particularly those during the reign of King James I (r. 1603-1625). A number of critics have commented on the close correspondence between the events in the play and those during the latter years of the reign of James I, in particular his son-in-law’s abortive invasion of Bohemia. So close are the parallels between the play’s Roberto, king of Sicily, and his favorite, Fulgentio, and history’s James I and the duke of Buckingham, that some scholars have expressed surprise that the drama was ever authorized for performance and publication.

The Maid of Honour also includes a number of correspondences to other dramas of its own and earlier periods, in particular Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well (pr. c. 1602-1603, pb. 1623). Some critics go so far as to see The Maid of Honour as a mirror image of Shakespeare’s play, with the ending reversed. In All’s Well That Ends Well, the heroine Helena leaves a life of seclusion to marry her beloved, Bertram. In the Maid of Honour, Camiola leaves her fiancé to enter a convent. There are numerous other parallels between the two dramas in setting, scenes, and even dialogue. Massinger, who was well-versed in the drama of his own and earlier times, is clearly conducting a dialogue with his great predecessor.

Finally, The Maid of Honour is an impressive drama in its own right. Although it works within an established pattern—that of the “testing” play, in which the heroine must prove her loyalty and fidelity—it expands beyond the confines of the genre, becoming a meditation on power and statecraft. Its characters, especially Camiola, the maid of honor, are presented as a mix; they are particular individuals and types. They present general and specific truths about human nature.

Massinger’s style has been criticized by numerous scholars as lacking in vigor and as not sufficiently poetical. T. S. Eliot, for example, has said that the playwright’s verse “without being exactly corrupt, suffers from cerebral anaemia.” If such criticisms are just, and there is ample room to dispute the matter, The Maid of Honour is an outstanding exception to such charges. In this play, Massinger’s use of language is supple and flexible, deploying a blank verse that expresses its meaning clearly yet carries a level of allusion and symbolism that adds to the depth and richness of the play.

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