Philip Massinger

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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...

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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 Lord Lovell, his employer, to pretend that he is infatuated with Margaret Overreach. Her father jumps to furnish Margaret with riches, a marriage contract, and all things necessary for eloping with a lord. Thus, Wellborn regains his wealth and Tom Allworth gets Margaret. To complete the symmetry of the plots, Widow Allworth and Lord Lovell become a loving couple.

The play is rich in imagery. A gang of butlers and chefs at the Allworth house, with names such as Furnace and Order, keep up a running account of the way various schemers use food and fancy dress as weapons in their battle of wits. Among Overreach’s retainers is a crooked, pathetically thin judge whose perpetual hunger mirrors the insatiable appetites of his master. The vignettes of taverners and tailors clamoring for payment and the scenes of banqueting and muted bits of courtship would make the play a good one even without its gargantuan villain. Yet for most audiences, the play belongs to Sir Giles—and he goes mad.

The role, like that of Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597), is a rich one. Sir Giles has more land, more money, more luxuries, and more dreams than any other two characters combined. A commoner by birth, he has parlayed small sums into huge fortunes. Early in the play, he gives detailed instructions for ruining a neighbor and appropriating his land—beginning with cutting his fences, firing his barns, and trampling his grain; moving on through protracted lawsuits and phony writs; and concluding with the forced sale of the land for a fraction of its worth. Bitter against those who claim aristocratic status from birth, Overreach relishes the knowledge that his servants are the widows of gentlemen he has ruined, that his daughter wears elaborately jeweled dresses, that his home far outshines those of the gentry.

Yet despite this bitterness, Sir Giles wants more than anything else to see his daughter married to a nobleman, to call her “right honorable” and bounce young lordlings on his knee. To achieve that aim, he virtually orders the girl to prostitute herself to Lord Lovell so that a marriage between them will be necessary. He oversees preparations for her courtship with a vigor and a compulsiveness that almost win the sympathy of modern democratic audiences, whatever their original effect may have been. When he finds that his plans have failed—that she has eloped not with a lord but with a dependent page—he goes mad.

Critics disagree on whether Massinger intended Sir Giles’s ambition to gain the sympathy it does. Certainly, Massinger did not believe that usurers should cheat the poor or that citizens and lords should intermarry. He does, however, structure the play’s last scene so that Sir Giles, at last sure of his goal, receives one irreversible blow after another. When Wellborn counsels the “true valor” of repentance after the penultimate revelation, Sir Giles replies, “Patience, the beggar’s virtue/ Shall find no harbour here.” Though he has competently manipulated people throughout his career and has adopted patience when it suited his purpose, the anger he had hidden earlier has cut a deep underground channel in him, and now it floods out in murderous fury. When others prevent his carrying out his threats, his mind snaps. In his frenzy, he cries out one last lucid line before drowning in hallucinations: “Why, is not the whole world/ Included in myself?” It is a question Massinger’s tragic protagonists—Malefort or Sforza—might have asked, and one that Sigmund Freud would have found revealing.

The Picture

In A New Way to Pay Old Debts, Massinger examined human will in the context of greed and social ambition. In The Picture, the context is jealousy and trust. The play teaches that loyalty begets loyalty, while mistrust begets mistrust. When soldier Mathias goes to Hungary to seek fortune as a mercenary, he leaves behind his lovely wife, Sophia. He secretly takes with him, however, a magic picture of her, a likeness that will turn yellow if she is sexually tempted and black if she is unfaithful to him. Mathias soldiers so well that meek King Ladislaus and his gorgeous wife Honoria stand indebted to him. His boasts about his wife, however, arouse Honoria’s envy. Like the spoiled and willful villains of Massinger’s early tragedies, she decides to destroy what stands in her light, namely the constant love of Mathias and his wife. She sends goatish courtiers off to seduce Sophia and offers herself to Mathias. In a series of parallel scenes, Mathias, strengthened by the Picture, resists Honoria while his wife resists Ubaldo and Ricardo. The courtiers (and her husband’s long delay in returning home) eventually convince Sophia that her husband is unfaithful; in jealous anger, she decides that she, too, will embrace wantonness. As the lines of the Picture turn yellow and begin to blacken, Mathias, in anger, gives in to the queen’s kisses. Conscience, religion, and “love to goodness for itself,” however, soon recall Sophia from her wayward schemes. As the Picture correspondingly regains its natural colors, Mathias finds it easy to lecture the queen on the value of married love.

The Picture trumpets Massinger’s theme of will. Honoria has been badly spoiled. Her husband proclaims himself her slave, gives her charge of the treasury, and knocks timidly at her bedroom door at night, unsure of admission, while dependable observers voice authorial comments on such submissiveness. Willfulness reigns so supremely in Honoria that she sees Mathias and Sophia’s loyalty as something else for her to overcome. “I thought one amorous glance of mine could bring all hearts to my subjection,” she complains. “I cannot sit down so with mine honour.” Accustomed to having her way, she no longer questions whether her way is just.

It takes the Picture, indirectly, to save her. A day’s journey from the palace waits a good woman, one capable of doubt and anger but essentially honorable. While Honoria and Mathias circle each other like amateur wrestlers looking for a headlock, Sophia manages her household in Bohemia. As the match in Hungary gets tougher, she loses her sense of humor, punishing servants for pranks. When she succeeds in bringing her suspicions and fears under control and chooses “goodness for itself,” the long-distance reformations begin. First Mathias chooses chastity, then Honoria learns humility, and Ladislaus gains in fortitude.

This growth in the characters’ virtue comes through a magic totem, just as Theophilus’s conversion had come from flowers and the pagan princess’s Christianity had come through a sprinkle of water. The problem of deus ex machina has thus surfaced again, yet in The Picture, Massinger backs away from superstition. Sophia is outraged to learn that her husband relies on a picture instead of doing, as she has, the very hard work of trusting one’s spouse. Her sense of humor becomes astringent: She will teach the courtiers a lesson, so she pretends to make assignations, robs them of their clothes, dresses them in women’s garb, and sets them to work spinning wool. She will teach Mathias, too, so she disorders the house for his homecoming, ignores his royal guests, and pretends to have become promiscuous. In the play’s final scene, it takes the entire cast’s pleading to keep Sophia from entering a convent.

Sophia’s lessons work. The lecherous courtiers renounce womanizing. Her pretense rouses an almost murderous wrath in her husband. When he is made aware how unjust and unstable his jealousy makes him, he learns to value trust. The royal Hungarians also find a better marital balance. Sophia’s actions produce these effects directly, not through flowers or thunderbolts. Her will is strong enough to affect the other characters’ wills, in a purely human way.

The Maid of Honour

The anatomy of will shapes The Maid of Honour as fully as it does The Picture, yet the test cases differ. Sophia and Mathias, and Honoria and Ladislaus, have to learn to control but not ignore their jealousies. In The Maid of Honour, the test case is the oath. Almost every character in the play makes and wants to break an oath, yet for Massinger oath-breaking inevitably signals a disordered will. (Massinger rarely questions whether a conventionally condemned action is right or wrong but rather whether the character has will enough to choose the course assumed right. In his better plays, such as this one, even the very good characters are capable of moral failure.)

The title character, Camiola, is a lovely, charmingly honest young maid. She cherishes oaths; being naturally inclined to “deal in certainties,” she likes having things spelled out, contracted. She believes in the social order that has produced her. When the king’s brother, Bertaldo, sends eye beams toward her, she tells him she loves him but denies his passionate suit. “Reason, like a tyrant,” forbids a match between his royal blood and even the richest and fairest of citizens, which she grants herself to be. Besides, she is convinced that “when what is vow’d to heaven is dispens’d with/ To serve out ends on earth, a curse must follow,” and Bertaldo, as a Knight of Malta, has vowed lifelong celibacy. Thus, at the play’s start, she sacrifices her love.

Such a sacrifice, however, is not easily made. Like any self-confident, honest, and infatuated young woman, Camiola sees in his “sweet presence/ Courtship and loving language” evidence that Bertaldo possesses “so clear a mind, . . . furnished with Harmonious faculties moulded from Heaven.” She proclaims that her passion for Bertaldo rests on his solid virtues, on “the judgment of my soul.” (In fact, her catalog of his virtues relies heavily on the superficial.) Because she is rich and charming, she has had little need for or practice in renunciations. When he leaves, she is sure her sun has set forever. Her passions fight so fiercely against reason that she first takes to her bed, then tries to recover by amusing herself with the vain suit of a fop, Signior Sylli, himself a prodigious breaker of oaths.

Bertaldo, frustrated, embarks on a time-honored cure for the constellation of feelings that Robert Burton called “heroical love”: He goes to war. An ally of Sicily has invaded the kingdom of Duchess Aurelia and is in need of assistance. The war is patently unjust, as even the ally’s ambassador admits, but Bertaldo needs a fight, and his brother, King Roberto, allows him to go. In fighting against the duchess, Bertaldo is breaking yet another of his knightly oaths, to protect the innocent. Back in Sicily, his brother the king sends an ambassador of his own to Duchess Aurelia. His mission: to swear falsely that Bertaldo is fighting without the king’s consent. Most of the play’s characters see promises as convenient ways to get what they want. They use oaths willfully. Fulgentio, the king’s favorite, for example, uses them to turn the king against his brother, and, when Camiola scorns him, he swears to tell “every man in every place” that she is a strumpet.

Because Camiola is strong-willed rather than willful, she keeps her resolutions even when they are inconvenient. Yet once, temporarily, she falters. She has refused Bertaldo on two counts—the difference in their social classes and his vow. When, in the course of battle, he is captured and refused ransom by his brother, she gladly sends fifty thousand gold crowns to redeem him. Buying him from slavery, she believes, makes her his social equal and thus frees her to marry him. In her exuberance at finding a way around the problem of class, she apparently forgets his vow. She sends off a betrothal contract with the ransom money. She employs as messenger a man who, she knows, loves her loyally from a distance. Anticipating Bertaldo’s gratitude, she lives a dance of glee, daydreaming their future together.

In a play about the importance of vows, Massinger, moralist, will not let a heroine, no matter how charming, build a happy future on broken promises. Bertaldo does sign the betrothal agreement but almost immediately finds himself the object of another infatuation. The normally level-headed Duchess Aurelia, like Camiola, sees his courtly bearing as proof of a wise and noble nature. Forgetting past offenses, she offers him marriage, a dukedom, and a papal dispensation from his vow of celibacy. Bertaldo, like the spoiled Honoria, has few scruples. He accepts and returns home in triumph, doubly promised.

Massinger’s conclusion owes much to Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well (pr. c. 1602-1603). Bertaldo, like Bertram, is publicly exposed. The duchess shakes off her infatuation and Camiola wins fair title to the now repentant man. Then, in a plot twist destined to perplex readers for centuries, Camiola abandons the court, abandons Bertaldo—whom she now pities as a weakling—and marries herself to the Church as a nun.

Massinger may have intended Camiola’s decision as a comic resolution, but several things qualify the reaction audiences have to it. Though she has proved strong-willed and loyal, Camiola is very young. She has misjudged Bertaldo’s character through her own inexperience. She has a flair for drama that needs careful control. She choreographs the entire last scene of the play, from exposing Bertaldo to taking the veil, deliberately arranging events to “deserve men’s praise, and wonder too,” and she does so immediately on learning of his betrayal. Thus, the will, which has guided her throughout the play in delightfully good-hearted ways, shows itself even in the act of renouncing itself.


Massinger, Philip