A New Way to Pay Old Debts

by Philip Massinger
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1214

Although a prolific and workmanlike playwright, Philip Massinger never achieved an outstanding individual style strong enough to distinguish him among his contemporaries or in theatrical history. After studying at Oxford, Massinger wrote plays in collaboration with Cyril Tourneur, John Fletcher, and Thomas Dekker; later he served for fifteen years as the principal playwright for William Shakespeare’s old company, the King’s Men. A New Way to Pay Old Debts, having remained popular over time, is his claim to enduring fame.

The plot, although not particularly original, is lively. The formula of the play, trickery to fool a criminal, was not a new one with Massinger, but he gave his theme dramatic interest and clever satire. The new way to pay old debts is credit, seen in the actions of Lady Allworth, which enables the prodigal Wellborn to establish himself once again in the respectable world after having been cozened by his uncle. The character of Sir Giles Overreach, a favorite with lead actors, was probably based on Sir Giles Mompessen (1584-1651), a famous extortioner of seventeenth century England who had commissions from James I for controlling licenses to innkeepers. His crimes were discovered, and he and his legal associate Francis Michel (Marrall in the play) were prosecuted and convicted a decade before the play appeared.

The themes of this comedy of manners are no more complicated than the plot, but they are valid and convincingly handled. Overreach represents the senseless desire to attain nobility, a desire that is paradoxical when accompanied by his disdain of the nobility’s inability to fend successfully for itself in the mercantile world. Lovell is pitted against Sir Giles; birth and inherited riches are set against wealth won by individual industry. Overreach’s complete lack of principle and scruples contrasts him with Lovell but also makes him a more interesting character. The scene between father and daughter is a clear presentation of the grasping man’s willingness to make any means practicable for a determined end: “End me no ends,” her father tells Margaret in act 5, scene 1, echoing his words in act 3, scene 2, “Virgin me no virgins!” Massinger neatly emphasizes the way in which Overreach—through the complicity of Greedy—sets about corrupting the law he professes, to suit his vicious purpose. The avarice at the heart of the action is a satirical reflection of the central motivation of contemporary society as Massinger views it.

Overreach is the main character, whose forceful personality dominates the stage even when he is not there. Scenes without him pale in dramatic interest by comparison; audiences wait for him to return, to outrage them again. His explanation to Margaret recalls Christopher Marlowe’s Barabas (in The Jew of Malta, 1633): “Wasn’t not to make thee great/ That I have now, and still pursue, those ways/ That hale down curses on me, which I mind not?” Margaret, however, is nothing more to her father than an object, a pawn he can move to his own will. Nobility of blood means nothing to her, but everything to him, who can never know it. He is so vulgar that he has no understanding even of the spiritual nobility Margaret strives to maintain in the face of his demands that she prostitute herself to Lovell: “Stand not on form,” he tells her in an echo of Falstaff, “words are no substances.”

Just as Greedy values only what he can taste, Overreach treasures only what he can touch and reach physically. His relationship with Marrall, as it unfolds, proves that there is not even honor among thieves in their world. His bombastic boorishness is reflected with perfect irony when, expecting Lovell, he asks of Marrall, “Is the loud music I gave order for/ Ready to receive him?” In his uncultured opinion, the louder the music is, the more impressive it is. His brazen, pompous overtures to Lovell in act 4 shock even jaded sensibilities; he and the nobleman are two entirely different kinds of people, and the audience may wonder uneasily who it is more like. The catharsis occurs shortly thereafter, when young Allworth manages to gull Sir Giles with one of his own characteristic legal tricks: “Good Master Allworth,/ This shall be the best night’s work you ever made.” The play continues with the pathetic spectacle of Overreach’s fiscal and mental dissolution, until he is carried away in the outward shambles that finally correspond to his inner moral state.

Not nearly as interesting are the other characters, although Justice Greedy is unforgettably entertaining as a “compleat glutton.” Self-styled “arch-president of the boil’d, the roast, the bak’d,” he is epitomized by Furnace: “His stomach’s as insatiate as the grave.” It is one of the most delightful comic ironies of the play that Greedy cannot eat the dinner he prepares with such anxiety lest the fawn not be roasted with “a Norfolk dumpling in its belly.” Revolving around Greedy are the uniformly sympathetic ordinary characters of Lady Allworth’s cooks, butlers, and household attendants. By comparison with her servants, the lady herself is flat and uninteresting. Her advice to Allworth, in fact an uncannily accurate memory of her husband’s dying advice to his son, makes her sound like a latter-day Polonius: “Beware ill company, for often men/ Are like to those with whom they do converse.” She, like the nondescript Lovell, is as dramatically superficial as she is morally shallow; she is worried more about appearances than realities, the very opposite of Overreach. In her own subtle way she sells herself to Lovell as Overreach would have Margaret do.

Lady Allworth’s son, too, is almost tiresomely virtuous, at his worst when he vows to his mother that he will serve Lovell loyally. She is all too right in calling him “like virgin parchment, capable of any/ Inscription,” and one might wish that he were inscribed with more vivid ink. One of the great laughs of the play is Lovell’s reaction to Allworth’s simpering reception of his commission: “Nay, do not melt.” Wellborn has at least a streak of the devil in him to make him interesting, although he does not have the dramatic force one would expect from the pivotal figure in the plot. His undisclosed whispering to Lady Allworth in act 1, scene 3, sets in motion the wheels that lead to the downfall of Overreach by his own trickery.

More successful is the character of Marrall, who has the virtue of being a thoroughly despicable parasite without the partially redeeming, intelligent self-irony of Ben Jonson’s Mosca. Marrall is a low-class person out of his depth; this is portrayed riotously in Amble’s report of his toasting the lady “in white broth” and humbly thanking “my worship” for serving him wine. Marrall ends up as an exaggerated caricature of his own meanness as he offers to let Wellborn ride upon his own back and says, over-elaborately, “an it like your worship,/ I hope Jack Marrall shall not live so long/ To prove himself such an unmannerly beast . . ./ As to be cover’d/ When your worship’s present.” The audience has no more sympathy for him than Wellborn does and is delighted when Wellborn, having paid his own old debts with credit, cancels Marrall’s credit rating as the knave deserves.

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