"A New Way to Pay Old Debts: Massinger's Grim Comedy"

Critic: Martin Butler
Source: English Comedy, edited by Michael Cordner, Peter Holland, and John Kerrigan, pp. 119-36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.


[(essay date 1994) In the following essay, Butler examines the historical and political events that influenced A New Way to Pay Old Debts, contending that it reveals the anxiety of the aristocracy about losing power and status in a changing society.]

The fate of Philip Massinger has been a curious one for a major writer of comedy. A New Way to Pay Old Debts and The City Madam are arguably the most enduring comic achievements to have been produced between Bartholomew Fair and The Country Wife, and they almost alone have kept Massinger's name alive, yet in recent times his reappraisal has been made largely on the basis of his strengths in non-comic genres. The range and solidity of his work are perhaps more highly regarded now than they ever have been: most notably, Anne Barton's classic essay 'The Distinctive Voice of Massinger' makes a compelling case for the clarity of his language, the integrity of his dramaturgy, and the coherence of his political preoccupations.1 But while the tragedies and tragicomedies are in the ascendant, the comedies continue to be dogged by a conviction that they are just not comic enough. The trouble is they are really not terribly funny, and from some angles their humour feels rather grim, even unpleasant, not to say distasteful. T. S. Eliot may have praised Massinger as a master of sombre comedy,2 but later critics have found his humour uncomfortable, too nakedly a compound of fears, anxieties and insecurities. Even in the nineteenth century, when A New Way was barely ever off the boards, its popularity arose not from its comedy but from its melodrama, Edmund Kean having discovered that Sir Giles Overreach was a part to tear a cat in. Kean's audiences attended less for the laughs than for the more dangerous pleasures of being reduced to hysterical fainting fits by his 'Richard III of common life' and the towering passions and thrilling violence which he exhibited.3 The RSC revival of 1983, with its pervasive jollying up of the original, was only the latest instance of this conviction that as a comic dramatist Massinger left a great deal to be desired.4

It is self-evident that this difficulty with Massinger arises from a discomfort with his historical positioning: his humour is overshadowed by history. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the emphatically ex post facto considerations that invariably intervene into readings of A New Way to Pay Old Debts. A comedy in which an embattled aristocratic elite circumvent the will to power of an upwardly mobile citizen who challenges the hegemony of the 'true gentry' (2.1.89),5 A New Way has usually seemed an embarrassingly unmediated rehearsal of the looming crisis of mid-century--a perception enshrined in the RSC revival, which opened with a ragged waif laboriously chalking the numbers '1642' onto the floor. Given this postulate, the comedy of A New Way inevitably seems anything but carefree. In the notorious Leavisite reading by R. A. Fothergill, the play is a vile lampoon on a class-enemy: Massinger, a grovelling forelock-tugger of the Faithful Retainer variety, provided a declining aristocracy with the repellent but futile satire that it wanted.6 Current accounts of the play have left such value-laden judgements behind, but they still sound the note of historical regret. Michael Neill has analysed the patriarchal ideology encoded in the play and identified episodes in which that ideology seems to come into question, but though these moments hint at potential transformations within an otherwise conservative comedy for Neill they do not come into coherent focus: Massinger's overriding commitment to old stabilities prevents him from working through the awkward questions to which he is provoked.7 And in Philip Edwards's reading of the play, sensitive though it is to niceties of social placing, the thwarting of Overreach's ambitions still seems like wish-fulfilment for the sake of a disappearing class, and Massinger an exorcist who isn't quite on planet Earth. The shrewdness of Massinger's perception of change is contaminated by an 'atavistic belief (shared by those who participated in court masques) in the value of dramatic performances as a means of warding off disaster'.8 From here it is only a short step to the RSC revival with its portentous hint that however amusing these people might be, they were already on the wrong side of history.

Grim comedy indeed: with 1642 looming ahead, Massinger must have been whistling in the dark to keep his spirits up. But it is pretty obvious that in all of these readings the local historical embeddedness of the comedy has been subordinated to a long-term and largely tendentious teleology: the magnetism of that mystical number 1642. Writing at the very outset of Charles's reign--indeed, within the first six months--Massinger was in no position to predict upheavals that were seventeen years hence, and which he would not himself live long enough to see. Of course the argument runs that although Massinger could not foretell the future his play was still registering the developing transformation of its times, and testifying unconsciously to changes which it could not address save as a barely apprehensible nightmare. And yet if that is the case, the issue is one of defining those transformations in ways that are historically meaningful. Beneath the doom-laden reading of A New Way lie the intertwined assumptions that the period constituted the 'Crisis of the Aristocracy' and that the Civil War represented an assault on an outmoded elite by the forces of modern economic individualism. Tempting though these assumptions are as glosses on A New Way, neither would cut much ice with today's historians, who have long abandoned Whiggish models of progressive crisis, and who have found a vastly more active role for the aristocracy to play in bringing down the monarchy. Indeed, in one recent scenario, it's the old aristocracy who in the 1640s are to be found on the other side of history, managing resistance to the 'evil counsellors' of Charles Stuart.9 This view has been hotly contested, but whatever the truth of its details it does have the merit of reminding us that the role of at least some sections of the aristocracy in this period was oppositional, and that their resistance to change was far from equivalent to defeatism. More crucially, the teleology that telescopes 1642 into 1625 does so at the risk of radically misconstruing the developing alignments that were in fact in play around the comedy. If A New Way was engaged with the politics of its moment, it's worthwhile establishing the nature of that engagement before concluding too eagerly that Massinger's politics were historically futile. This may not make the comedy much less grim, but at least it won't look quite as defensive.

***

Certainly the play is preoccupied with preserving the status quo. Sir Giles's dreams about having great ladies kowtow to his daughter are demolished, and status is restored to those young scapegraces who had forfeited their rank as gentlemen: the prohibition on ambition coerces even Lord Lovell who, in refusing to wed Margaret Overreach, rejects her father's offer to buy him an earldom (4.1.144). At the same time, the play assumes that rank will out and birth confers inherent privileges. This is clearest in the case of Welborne, whose lapse into prodigality is really only generosity by another name (4.2.108-9), and who despite his rags is mortally offended by a charitable hand-out from Alworth (a mere page). Everybody assumes that hierarchies are in-born and natural, and even Overreach shares this general fetish, his ambitions seeming so unsettling precisely because he too believes he can never be a legitimate gentleman. Holding that there is 'a strange Antipathie / Betweene vs, and true Gentry' (2.1.88-9), he testifies to the resilience of the boundaries over which he leaps. His ambitions seem so transgressive because he is so firmly convinced that rank can never safely be disregarded.10

But although the play is a paean to birth, it does not ignore the facts of change. Though leaving the ladder of rank firmly in place, Massinger does allow a limited movement up and down it. His Nottinghamshire may be quiet, but it is not static. At the bottom, Tapwell is hoping that his alehouse will lift him into the village elites. Already he has the menial office of scavenger in view, and more may follow (1.1.67-8). At the top, similarity of status makes Lovell and Lady Alworth a marriageable pair ('Our yeares, our states, our births are not vnequall' he tells her), but marriage to a lord is promotion for this gentleman's widow, and she is properly overwhelmed by the 'great fauour' which it involves (5.1.45, 62). And in between, accommodations have been licensed between the poorer gentry and their wealthier competitors, despite Lovell's distaste for an 'issue / Made vp of seuerall peeces, one part skarlet / And the other London-blew' (4.1.224-6). Margaret Overreach may not end up a countess, but she does enter the orbit of gentility, albeit in the reduced opening of wife to Alworth (page to Lord Lovell but son to a once wealthy gentleman). This connection is hedged around with all kinds of provisos, notably Lovell's insistence that marriage with anyone as lowly as Margaret would 'adulterate my blood' (4.2.223), but the restoration of impoverished gentlemen to their estates has involved voting with the pocket book, and some controlled miscegenation turns out to be inevitable. Massinger doesn't exactly represent his gentlemen as an Open Elite; notwithstanding, the ability of the English aristocracy to accommodate themselves to money was a factor which would help them to retain their social hegemony well into the nineteenth century,11 and Massinger's prediction of their adaptability is something which the grim reading significantly marginalises.

Of course, the element of control is critical here: the play permits money to be tacked on to blood without the hereditary elites feeling it has damaged their authority. We are not shown structural change but the absorption of competitors into a hierarchy in which the mystique of birth continues to dominate, and those with cash are accepted only if they defer to the social pre-eminence of those whose overdrafts they are bailing out. Margaret is a legitimate marriage for Alworth because she is a walking mouthpiece for the ideology of deference, shame-faced when she has to order the impoverished Lady Downefalne about (3.2.49-52), and so upset about her father's insanity at the end that she is putty in her husband's hands. On the other hand, these are not terms to which Sir Giles will agree, and since he cannot be brought within a gradualist accommodation he has to be made to self-destruct. This appears to be a damaging gap in the play's social analysis, artificially limiting as it does the one character who seems seriously to challenge normative values. However, it is needful to look at just what Overreach's challenge amounts to.

Overreach isn't of genteel birth. 'I come from the Cittie', he tells Marrall, and he thinks in terms of the 'Fewde' between men of wealth and 'such whose Fathers were Right worshipful' (2.1.81-8). He might be assimilated to Luke Frugal in The City Madam--another power-hungry citizen who delights in enslaving aristocratic creditors12--or to the usurer Lucre in Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One, but there are significant differences, not the least of which is the distance that Overreach has already covered by migrating to Nottingham's shady groves. This is more than a matter of geography. Sir Giles may have arrived in provincial society only recently but he is not a simple interloper: the locals object to his exploitation of widows and orphans, but he already has a foothold in their community which conditions their dealings with him. They may complain that his chicanery is undermining the neighbourhood, but he is already exhibiting some of the de facto marks of gentility, and although related to the stereotype of the Middletonian citizen he cannot be equated with it exactly.

Sir Giles's dignity is damaged by his associates. Justice Greedy's insatiable hunger is a demystified version of his own ambition, and he is badly let down by Marrall, who slurps the soup at Lady Alworth's table, provoking much supercilious comment from her servants about the slovenliness of lawyers (2.2.118-32). But although the despicable Marrall is clearly non-U, the contrast underlines how much more genteel Sir Giles actually is. He would have known how to behave, as he is sensitive to nuances of compliment and insult. He dismisses Marrall's tale about having been entertained by the lady with absolute incredulity--it's a 'most incredible lye' by an 'Impudent Varlet' (2.3.87-94)--because his sense of the proprieties is so outraged by it, and although Lovell tactfully rebukes Lady Alworth for her patronage of Welborne, it is Sir Giles to whom her derogation feels positively monstrous (3.3.26, 4.1.238). When Welborne insults him with the bare title 'Sir' (5.1.114), it is with a finely calculated sense of how painful to him such casual disrespect will be. Such considerations would be absurd in Lucre and downright irrelevant to Luke Frugal, but they show how much Sir Giles already is a part of the society which he affects to despise, how delicately he has been positioned on the border between belonging and exclusion.

Were it not for Marrall at his side, Sir Giles might well seem a gentleman. He has a knighthood, and no one ever thinks this is inappropriate. He has ties in the locality, since his wife was sister to old Sir John Welborne, and twice his 'friends' here are spoken of, though they never actually come into view (2.1.56, 5.1.313). He tells Marrall that great countesses' doors have flown open to him (2.3.88-90), and as a suitor to Lady Alworth he has free access to her house (1.3.1-33). He is sufficiently entrenched in the shire to join the magistracy if he wanted to, and sufficiently comfortable to refuse for the sake of more nefarious considerations (2.1.10-22). More crucially, he affects the lifestyle of a gentleman, and however much others are troubled by it, it does not strike them as inherently ridiculous. Says Lady Alworth's cook:

   this Sir Giles feedes high, keepes many seruants,
Who must at his command doe any outrage;
Rich in his habit; vast in his expences;
Yet he to admiration still increases
In wealth, and Lordships.

(2.2.110)

Overreach rebukes Greedy for being more interested in food than in making money, but he doesn't himself behave like 'a vsurer that starues himself' (2.2.106). He is more a Volpone than a penny-pincher, and he spends high when he needs to do so, welcoming Lovell with a great display of plate, linen, viands and perfume, and dismissing Marrall's complaint that ''Twil be very chargeable' (3.2.1-10). Most striking of all, he wears a sword--the symbolic badge of gentility--and threatens repeatedly to use it.

The violence of Sir Giles was intrinsic to Kean's interpretation--his Overreach was remembered as 'the most terrific exhibition of human passion' that the stage had ever seen13--but even without Kean the intensity of Overreach's rages will always unsettle any naively comic reading of the play. His violence is a political thing, since it is the means by which he expresses his power. Its principal beneficiaries are Marrall (who is in physical fear of him throughout) and Margaret (whose eyes he threatens to dig out), and it links him to Welborne (who opens the play by beating up Tapwell). But as matters accelerate, Sir Giles develops a startling propensity to challenge people to duels. He is outraged at Margaret's suggestion that Lovell might take advantage of her, then forsake her:

Doe I weare a sword for fashion? or is this arme
Shrunke vp? or wither'd? does there liue a man
Of that large list I haue encounter'd with,
Can truly say I e're gaue inch of ground,
Not purchas'd with his blood, that did oppose me?
Forsake thee when the thing is done? he dares not.
Giue me but proofe, he has enjoy'd thy person,
Though all his Captaines, Eccho's to his will,
Stood arm'd by his side to iustify the wrong,
And he himselfe in the head of his bold troope,
Spite of his Lordship, and his Collonelship,
Or the Iudges fauour, I will make him render
A bloody and a strict accompt, and force him
By marrying thee, to cure thy wounded honour;
I haue said it.

(3.2.140-54)

This is not mere bravado or bluster. Overreach may not know his daughter but he has no illusions about lords (it's worth recollecting that even Massinger's 'puritanical' patron, the Earl of Pembroke, had two illegitimate children by Lady Mary Wroth), and Lovell, who has fought overseas, would be a considerable opponent. Further, Overreach's society understands and respects the ethos of duelling: Welborne's most pressing claim on Lady Alworth is that he had seconded her husband in all his duels (1.3.103-4). Overreach's threats here are directed at his daughter, but they establish his ability to complete within the aristocratic arena on aristocratic terms: he may appear a bad man to his enemies, but his boldness for his 'honour' is a quality which means they have to take him seriously. Subsequently we find him telling Lovell that 'with mine own sword / If call'd into the field, I can make that right, / Which fearefull enemies murmur'd at as wrong' (4.1.118-20) and in the final scene he repeatedly responds to bafflement by calling out the supposedly honourable men whom he rightly sees have defeated him by trickery. He draws on Welborne and wants to take him 'single in the field' (5.1.149); only swords can keep him from Marrall; and his culminating action is a public challenge to Lovell. Welborne derides this, but Overreach's retort that only 'coward hunters' brave the lion from behind the safety of numbers is the kind of insult that knows the people against whom it is directed (5.1.299-311; and compare 'cowards' at 5.1.241). The gesture which in his final insane speech symbolically disqualifies him from gentility is his impotent failure to draw his sword out of its scabbard.

My point in drawing out these underemphasized aspects of Overreach's character is that although he challenges the Nottinghamshire gentry he does not embody a rival ideology with which their ideology of rank is in collision. He is not a Luke Frugal, a miserly citizen who longs to sit in solitude amidst his store. Rather, he has internalised the values of the class to which he aspires, and once entrenched amongst the aristocrats he would outstrip them at their own game. Conspicuous consumption holds no terrors for him. He tells Lovell that as his father-in-law he will shower him with cash and 'ruine / The Country' for the sake of keeping up the 'port' and 'riotous wast' which goes hand in hand with being a nobleman: the marriage gives him more pleasure than Lovell will have 'In spending what my industry hath compass'd' (4.1.105-9, 138). Overreach is not a plebeian revolutionary whose victory would be the end of the world as we know it. On the contrary, it would continue as the old aristocratic world, but with a new man at the top. What he desires is power, expressed in terms of enslaving all men to his personal will. He would be 'the grand incloser / Of what was common, to my priuate vse': he would have 'all men sellers, / And I the only Purchaser', and his daughter waited on by decayed ladies since ''tis my glory, though I come from the Cittie, / To haue their issue, whom I haue vndone, / To kneele to mine, as bond-slaues' (2.1.32-3, 81-3; 4.1.124-5). Plainly the element of status anxiety is strong here--it is the social elites whom Overreach's ambitions hit hardest--but his ambitions paradoxically reinforce hierarchies of rank since they depend for their satisfaction on outrageous acts of subordination, and once Overreach has wed Margaret to Lovell he intends to raise her husband to yet higher dignities (4.1.142-4). Overreach is not a leveller but a tyrannical megalomaniac, striving to reduce the whole of the nation to his private will. It's not surprising that the man who thought 'the whole world' was 'Included in my selfe' should end the play in a strait-jacket (5.1.355-6).

So A New Way does not rehearse a coming crisis as the '1642' model supposes it to do. Although Massinger has labelled Overreach as an arriviste, we do not see a city challenge to aristocratic ideologies so much as an attempt to hijack the hierarchies of rank by someone acting out of radically private motives, a rabid individualist who will be defeated by the resistance of society as a whole to domination by the will of a single person (Overreach's schemes depend on the willingness of other people to cooperate--especially Margaret and Marrall--and since they won't his ambitions are doomed to frustration). An ideological conflict is being represented here, but it is not between an ideology of rank and the bourgeois ideology which Massinger is purported to have been so very anxious about. Rather, what we are witnessing are tensions within the ideology of deference itself, which are articulated as competition between members of the ruling elites and which are resonant of the political divides of the 1620s rather than the 1640s. By which I mean that Overreach's real opponent is not Welborne but Lovell, and that these two competitors embody what in 1625 were coming to emerge as rival perceptions of the character of political obligation.

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Lovell gets short shrift in most accounts of the play, probably because he's assumed to be boringly conventional. Actually, the entire play is really a victory for him. In this world of orphans and absent fathers, in which Sir Giles hopes by marrying himself to Lady Alworth and his daughter to Lovell to become the patriarch of a nightmarish anti-family, Lovell eventually emerges as the ideal father restored. His marriage engrosses the play's social prestige, and everyone ends in situations of political obligation to him. Margaret weds his devoted page, who promptly turns Overreach's estates over to his disposal (5.1.387-8); Welborne will redeem his honour by fighting overseas in Lovell's regiment. Overreach had nurtured a fantasy in which Lovell would be subordinated to him: Lovell would be his son-in-law and the next Lord Lovell a grandson dancing on his knee (4.1.99-103). As things turn out, Overreach is demolished and power is returned to the hands of the one person whose claim to precedence rests on hereditary birthright.

Massinger gives Lovell a highly unusual colouring: he's middleaged, he's an aristocrat, and he's a soldier. As a romantic hero he's more like a father than a lover, and age qualifies him for social leadership as much as amatory success. As an aristocrat, he's very carefully positioned, above everybody else in the play but not quite at the top of the social tree: his lack of ambition for the higher status that Overreach would purchase for him labels him in a significantly oppositional way. From the mid-1610s James had been selling titles for ready money, and Buckingham's relatives had been amongst those most conspicuously profiting from the fluidity of status, but Lovell has no truck with this sort of thing. His honour has been 'By vertuous wayes atchieu'd, and brauely purchas'd' (4.1.195), and his willingness to let his name die rather than preserve it through a connection with Margaret expresses a contempt both for city wealth and for the unmerited honour that the crown was happy to sell for cash. It is on the field of battle that he (and Alworth and Welborne) see honour as being truly established.

We have to take the war context seriously to understand what Massinger is getting at. In the Oxford edition Philip Edwards disparages the military angle by relating the play to the disastrous expedition led to the continent in 1624 by the German general Ernst von Mansfeld, and in a more recent essay he links Lovell to Kenelm Digby's quixotic privateering around the Mediterranean in 1627-9 and implies that these 'chivalric notions of military honor' were out of touch with reality.14 But the situation was more complex than this. After the collapse of the Spanish Match late in 1623, England was swept with war fever, as a nation tired of James's appeasement of Spain embraced the prospect of renewed military action. Mansfeld's expedition was a fiasco, but this was due to bad organisation by a mercenary more interested in his money than his men, and to the fact the King hobbled it by forbidding Mansfeld to take any direct action against Spain, thus preventing him from relieving the siege of Breda, the one thing that might have been strategically significant (a failure still lamented by Lady Alworth's cook (1.2.26-8)). But James died in March 1625 and was replaced by a youthful king eager for honour abroad. Virtually Charles's first action was to fit out a fleet against Spain, the first act of warfare to be promoted by the crown since the days of Elizabeth.15

In the event, Cadiz was a disaster, but Massinger was writing before the news got home,16 and even afterwards enthusiasm survived for the right kind of war. In 1625, besides Mansfeld's dwindling army and the new troops raised for Cadiz, there were plans for an attack on the Spanish privateers at Dunkirk (an action to which Marrall refers, 5.1.231-3),17 and four British regiments were in action under the Prince of Orange in the Low Countries. These troops had been raised in 1624 to fulfil the terms of an alliance with the Dutch, and they had a high public profile. Since they were volunteers (not conscripts like Mansfeld's troops), they evoked the days of Leicester and Sidney, when English soldiers had defended Dutch liberty against Spain, and at court there was fervent competition for officers' places. The companies were eventually led overseas by four popular noblemen, the Earls of Essex, Oxford and Southampton and Lord Willoughby; Oxford and Southampton would both die in the service. Essex went on to Cadiz, then returned in 1626 with a new body of volunteers for Germany. These men were still in Holland, though much reduced, in 1627.18

After years of appeasement and failure to fight for Protestantism, great expectations attached to these initiatives. In the pamphlet Honour in his Perfection, by Gervase Markham (like Massinger, a Pembroke client), fulsome praise is heaped on the companies and their aristocratic leaders. Markham argues that their glory will inspire emulation in gentlemen left behind: 'Nor was this done so much to extol and renowne them, as to quicken and set on fire the noble hearts of many others, which now like some of the Statues or the Monuments in Westminster lye sleeping on their Elbowes'.19 For Arthur Wilson, who accompanied Essex to Holland, the Earl's campaigns embodied the best of English honour, in contrast to soldiery associated with the Duke of Buckingham, whose navy was humiliated at Cadiz and who would preside over an even greater debacle at the Isle of Rh�. Whereas Buckingham seemed a flamboyant and self-serving commander, Essex was a 'gallant voluntier', his companions 'daring Spirits' whose careers validated the honour of their ancestors. These were men who had been at odds with James's pacific court, and even under the warlike Charles such popular nobles would still be distrusted. Essex, said Wilson, was someone 'who ever affected ... a naturall and just freedom of the subject', and he was sent to Cadiz to 'sweeten the business', 'being a man beloved of the people, and the people not likeing [Buckingham's] exorbitant power'.20 Wilson wrote with hindsight, but at the time it was seen that the popularity of such officers brought in volunteers, and that war usefully got troublesome aristocrats out of the country. In the 1640s Essex would fight the King, as general for parliament; in Thomas Scott's Robert Earl of Essex his Ghost (1624) he was already being mythologised as the successor to his father's Elizabethan heroics.

It is this kind of soldiering--an army of patriots, officered by gentlemen and generalled by popular nobles--that I suspect we are to associate with Lovell.21 Lovell's soldiery is discussed at some length, and it is underlined that he is the 'gallant minded, popular Lord Louell, / The minion of the peoples loue' (2.1.69-70). Not only does he command soldiers but

         what's rare is one himselfe,
A bold, and vnderstanding one; and to be
A Lord, and a good leader in one volume,
Is granted vnto few, but such as rise vp
The Kingdomes glory.

(3.2.78-82)

Overreach assumes Lovell is just like all the other gaudy court cavaliers. He tells Margaret to expect him to take liberties with her since he is 'a Courtier, and a Soldier, / And not to be trifl'd with' (3.2.106-7), and Alworth plays up to this false image, boasting that his lord will celebrate his marriage 'at Court' with all pomp and ceremony (4.3.95-7). Remarkably, Alworth has his own doubts about Lovell, and agonises over his fear that when presented with Margaret Lovell will take her and forget about his page. He describes it as a test of his patron's military character, describing Margaret as a cannon whose bullets will so fiercely assault the bulwarks of Lovell's 'rebellious Passions' that he will be unable to defend himself (3.1.60-71). In fact, of the four aristocratic colonels, Oxford had just this kind of reputation as a debauched cavalier. When he went to war in Germany in 1620, one wag wrote that 'Sir Horace Vere / Hath caried the earle of Oxford where, / He neither shall have wine nor whore, / Nor Hercules himself could do no more'.22 But Lovell turns out to be a responsible soldier who will not betray his dependant (3.1.37-41) and who easily keeps his appetites under control. He is, in fact, a kind of aristocratic puritan.

War, as Lovell and company see it, is the proving-ground for an ethos of sobriety, duty and obligation:

                         it is a schoole
Where all the principles tending to honour
Are taught if truly followed: But for such
As repaire thither, as a place, in which
They doe presume they may with licence practise
Their lusts, and riots, they shall neuer merit
The noble name of souldiers. To dare boldly
In a faire cause, and for the Countries safety
To runne vpon the cannons mouth vndaunted:
To obey their leaders, and shunne mutenies;
To beare, with patience, the winters cold,
And sommers scorching heate, and not to faint,
When plenty of prouision failes, with hunger,
Are the essential parts make vp a souldier,
Not swearing, dice, or drinking.

(1.2.100-14)

This opposition between cavalier debauchery and disciplined soldiery Welborne will have to learn, and he promises finally to redeem his riots by following the wars. Further, these values have political spin-offs, since good captains keep their words to their men, and Lovell's honour is seen as bound up with his sincerity and sense of obligation. Unlike Overreach, who is deceitful, who enjoys being served by slaves, and who supposes that riotous living is the incontrovertible prerogative of greatness, Lovell insists on his contempt for 'Great men' whose sense of superiority makes them treat 'all such as follow 'em, / Without distinction of their births, like slaues' (3.1.22-5). As a patron he is 'more like a Father to [Alworth] than a Master', and his word is his bond, in contrast to the 'othes bound vp with imprecations, / Which when they would deceive, most Courtiers practize' (3.1.30, 44-5, my emphasis). There is an antithesis here, crystallising around the wartime politics of the 1620s, which invests Lovell in the character of patriotic and selfless aristocrat, aware of his obligations to his dependants and his role in the service to his country, and opposes him to Overreach. With his desire to enslave just about everyone Overreach offends against this code, and provokes rebellions in Margaret and Marrall. His tyranny is inevitably thwarted by the benevolent aristocratic paternalism for which Lovell is the figurehead.

Doubtless there is a great deal of evasion involved here. Massinger's ideological assumptions oblige him to idealise Lovell, and to restrain the potentially subversive elements of his action within a constitutionalist frame. Margaret's and Marrall's rebellions against Overreach are hardly acts which liberate them, since she is just as powerless in the new community as she was in the old, and once he has betrayed his old master he is destroyed forever with the new. Lovell's outlook is not remotely democratic, and in acknowledging him as a father who knows the 'fitting difference' between footboy and gentleman (3.1.27) Alworth reinforces the ladder of deference off which no one ever steps. But the crucial point is that Massinger is not idealising the aristocracy per se but a particular section within the aristocracy, and the values to which they were coming to be attached. A middle-aged soldier, Lovell invokes older notions of heroism, the ethos of the earl of Essex (and his father) rather than that of the present favourite Buckingham. A Caroline nobleman, he is also a kind of Elizabethan, and this at a time when disasters at Cadiz and Rh� were demonstrating the failure of Charles and his favourite to live up to patriotic expectations. For all that the play propels a citizen upstart against the entrenched elites, it is a split within the ideology of the elites that it rehearses. Its antithesis between a traditional aristocracy, concerned for sobriety, patriotism, social order and political obligation, and a parvenu who lives high and answers to no one for his actions, speaks eloquently of the anxieties of the 1620s--and it does so by no means from a position of withdrawal.

***

Inevitably, it is difficult not to feel that Buckingham is the missing link here, and that his combination of unchallenged influence and grand living was very much at stake. As everyone knows, Overreach was a fantasia on a member of his family, Sir Giles Mompesson, the monopolist impeached by the 1621 parliament, whose Christian name he shares and whose extortion of money from innkeepers is echoed in 1.1 and 4.2. This chimes with the play's broadly oppositional colouring. Monopolies were a special grievance in James's last decade, and Pembroke chaired the Lords committee that considered Mompesson's crimes. More particularly, they were an embarrassment to Buckingham, given that Mompesson was a client and that two of his brothers were deeply involved in other offensive monopolies.23 But one can take this too far: Overreach's outlines don't correspond at all to Mompesson's, who was old Wiltshire gentry,24 and by 1625 the heat was off monopolies, which had been brought under statute in 1624. In any case, the play doesn't raise monopolies as a grievance, and personal caricature would have been extremely hazardous.

The real relevance of Mompesson lies in the anxiety which he had exposed amongst the parliamentary gentry about the erosion of their local powers. Ostensibly his actions had hurt provincial innkeepers, but he struck a parliamentary nerve by seeming to undermine the autonomy of justices of peace. His patent entitled him to reform an abuse by regulating unlicensed inns, but in practice he sold licenses for cash and legalised innkeepers left and right that local magistrates had already banned. In parliament this provoked a storm of constitutionalist protest about London-based patentees interfering in local affairs, but the outrage was also motivated by social considerations. Sir Edward Coke fulminated that the patent did a 'great dishonour to the Justices of peace, and a great indignitie'; Sir Thomas Wentworth said justices 'ought not to be made subject to every petty patentee, which is a slavery makes men weary of the office'; and Sir Robert Phelips protested that though 'the king hath referred a great part of the government of this kingdom to the justices of the peace, this dishearteneth them, for it maketh a justice of peace to be buffeted by a base alehousekeeper. I never knew government receive so great a wound.' It was deemed especially offensive that Mompesson had written 'insolent' letters to some justices, as this 'would make inns to curb justices of the peace'.25 Understandably, Mompesson fled rather than face impeachment, but his punishment in absentia had a strong social element. Beside a massive fine, imprisonment and banishment, he was degraded from his knighthood, declared unfit for future office, and sentenced to ride along the Strand with his face to the horse's tail, and to be forever held an infamous person. Evidently his offence was not only greed, but his unsettling impact on inherited interests and loyalties.

This parliamentary overreaction helps to substantiate the particular nightmare that Massinger's Welborne is living, a gentleman who has lost not only lands but status and who, in the course of the play, is threatened with all kinds of exquisitely shameful humiliations--the stocks, hanging, loss of his ears. But Mompesson also shows how intimately at this time the developing political polarisations were bound up with more inchoate fears of social transformation, fears which (though expressed conservatively) helped to give emotional force to issues that otherwise involved challenges to royal authority. Over monopolies, James embraced the cause of reform and MPs were relieved to find that their complaints were not construed as subversion. But at a time when the crown was using the sale of aristocratic titles as a means of raising cash; when the Earl of Suffolk had recently been accused of corruption so extensive that he was said to have turned the Exchequer into a shop and his deputy into 'the prentice that cried "What do you lack?"';26 and when one of the articles of impeachment against Buckingham was that his family had engrossed honours out of all proportion to their services to the crown;27 then a concern to retain things in their older order was hardly devoid of more unsettling implications. Once the crown became perceived as the innovator, then resistance to change amongst the elites had consequences that could not easily be kept within the old sphere of conservatism. The gulf that opened up between 'new ways' and 'old debts' in the parliaments of the later 1620s--even if it was not a step on some hypothetical road to civil war--marked the emergence of polarisations that were helping to make conflict all the more likely.

I do not wish simply to replace one teleology with another. In 1625 such developments were still in the future and Massinger can send Welborne abroad to do 'seruice / To my King, and Country' without much sense of strain between the two terms (5.1.398-9). And yet the tensions which Massinger has to efface in order to reach this conclusion are eloquent testimony to the erosion of consensus in the mid-1620s. There is a glaring contradiction (for example) between Welborne's high spirits, which are allowed so long as they stay on this side of prodigality, and Lovell's sobriety: this contradiction within the aristocratic ethos exposes the problems in an ideology in which one group of aristocrats are constructed as oppositional figures yet which continues to assume that society is notwithstanding premissed on the social hegemony of the aristocracy at large. Conversely, the disturbing similarities which Overreach manifests to the people who eject him from their ranks advertise the difficulties involved in defining him as the unwanted Other, when to a very considerable extent he already belongs. (In this regard it is Margaret in the last scene--who marries her gentleman but breaks down because the marriage kills her father--who measures most overtly the tensions in Massinger's resolution.) Such inconsistencies demonstrate that the play's investments were both in change and in keeping things as they always had been, and they define the limits to Massinger's ability to imagine solutions to his age's emergent crisis. And while Massinger's aristocrats may not be able to predict the future, it should be clear by now that they are not in retreat, but are gearing themselves up to encounter it. It still may not be very funny to see Overreach destroyed by his peers and superiors, but at least we can better understand why his thwarting should have been felt to be a historical necessity.

Notes

1The Times Literary Supplement, 1977, 623-4; reprinted in Douglas Howard, ed., Philip Massinger: A Critical Reassessment (Cambridge, 1985), 221-32. For some other recent reappraisals, see Albert Tricomi, Anti-Court Drama in England, 1603-1642 (Charlottesville, 1989); and Lawrence Venuti, Our Halcyon Dayes: English Prerevolutionary Texts and Postmodern Culture (Madison, Wis., 1989), 55-98.

2Selected Essays (London, 1932), 216.

3Robert Hamilton Ball, The Amazing Career of Sir Giles Overreach (Princeton, 1939), 64-8.

4This revival is described with excellent detail by H. Neville Davis, 'A New Way to Pay Old Debts: Massinger and the RSC', Critical Quarterly, 26 (1984), 47-56.

5Citations are to The Plays and Poems of Philip Massinger, eds. Philip Edwards and Colin Gibson, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1976).

6R. A. Fothergill, 'The dramatic experience of Massinger's The City Madam and A New Way to Pay Old Debts', University of Toronto Quarterly, 43 (1973-4), 68-86.

7Michael Neill, 'Massinger's Patriarchy: A New Way to Pay Old Debts', Renaissance Drama, n.s. 10 (1979), 185-213.

8Philip Edwards, 'Philip Massinger: Comedy and Comical History' in A. R. Braunmuller and J. C. Bulman, eds., Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan (Cranbury, N.J., 1986), 179-93 (184).

9I refer to the work of John Adamson: see especially 'The Baronial Context of the English Civil War', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, 40 (1990), 93-120; and 'Parliamentary Management, Men of Business, and the House of Lords, 1640-49' in Clive Jones, ed., A Pillar of the Constitution (London, 1989), 21-50. For the hot contesting, see the amazing exchange between Adamson and Mark Kishlansky: Kishlansky, 'Saye What?', Historical Journal, 33 (1990), 917-37, and Adamson, 'Politics and the Nobility in Civil-War England', Historical Journal, 34 (1991), 231-55.

10On this point, see Gail Kern Paster, 'Quomodo, Sir Giles, and Triangular Desire: Social Aspiration in Middleton and Massinger', in Braunmuller and Bulman, Comedy from Shakespeare to Sheridan, 165-78.

11See Lawrence Stone and Jean Fawtier Stone, An Open Elite? England 1540-1880 (Oxford, 1984); and David Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (New Haven, 1990).

12See Martin Butler, 'Massinger's The City Madam and the Caroline Audience', Renaissance Drama, n.s. 13 (1982), 157-87.

13Ball, The Amazing Career of Sir Giles Overreach, 68.

14Edwards, 'Philip Massinger: Comedy and Comical History', 185. There is an altogether more positive appraisal of Kenelm Digby's privateering by Kenneth R. Andrews in Ships, Money and Politics: Seafaring and Naval Enterprise in the Reign of Charles I (Cambridge, 1991), 106-27.

15The background to this whole period has been brilliantly treated by Tom Cogswell in The Blessed Revolution (Cambridge, 1989).

16News of Cadiz reached England in December 1625 (Calendar of State Papers, Venetian series [CSPV] 1625-1626, 244, 253, 269).

17The Dunkirk privateers were a perennial source of irritation to both English and Dutch operations in the North Sea. A blockade of Dunkirk was broken by a storm in November 1625, and discussions took place between the English and Dutch concerning the fitting out of a new fleet to suppress the Dunkirkers. See CSPV 1625-1626, 213, 223, 230: and Samuel Rawson Gardiner, History of England ... 1603-42, 10 vols. (London, 1883-4), V, 325, VI, 35.

18Cogswell, The Blessed Revolution, 256, 274-8; Vernon F. Snow, Essex the Rebel (Lincoln, Ne., 1970), 118-24, 158-65; A. T. S. Goodrick, The Relation of Sydnam Poyntz (Camden Society, 1908).

19Gervase Markham, Honour in his Perfection (London, 1624), sigs. A2v-3r.

20Arthur Wilson, 'Observations of God's Providence, in the Tract of my Life' in Philip Bliss ed., The Inconstant Lady (Oxford, 1814), 119, 122-3, 127; and The History of Great Britain (London, 1653), 135-6 (speaking of the 1620 campaign). See also Snow, Essex the Rebel.

21Other noblemen active at sea and on land against Catholic forces in these years included the Earls of Warwick, Buccleuch and Danby.

22John Chamberlain, Letters, ed. N. E. McClure, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1939), II, 314-15.

23On Mompesson, see Gardiner, History of England, IV, 1-44, 84; Gardiner, 'On Four Letters from Lord Bacon to Christian IV of Denmark', Archaeologia, 41 (1867), 219-69; Stephen K. Roberts, 'Alehouses, Brewing, and Government under the Early Stuarts', Southern History, 2 (1980), 45-71: Keith Wrightson, 'Alehouses, Order and Reformation in Rural England, 1590-1660', in Elizabeth Yeo and Steven Yeo, eds., Popular Culture and Class Conflict 1590-1914 (Brighton, 1981), 1-27; Peter Clark, The English Alehouse (London, 1983); Menna Prestwich, Cranfield: Politics and Profits under the Early Stuarts (Oxford, 1966), 278-9; Robert Zeller, The Parliament of 1621 (Berkeley, 1971); Conrad Russell, Parliaments and English Politics 1621-1629 (Oxford, 1979), 98-108; and Elizabeth R. Foster, 'The Procedure of the House of Commons against Patents and Monopolies, 1621-1624', in W. A. Aiken and B. D. Henning, eds., Conflict in Stuart England (London, 1960), 57-85.

24Sir Richard Colt Hoare, The Modern History of South Wiltshire, 1 (London, 1822), 2, 218-19.

25Foster, 'Procedure of the House of Commons', 79; and Wallace Notestein, Helen Relf and Hartley Simpson, eds., Commons Debates 1621, 7 vols. (New Haven, 1935), II, 109-10, 112, VI, 257.

26Prestwich, Cranfield, 221.

27Roger Lockyer, Buckingham (Harlow, 1981), 322.

Source: Martin Butler, "A New Way to Pay Old Debts: Massinger's Grim Comedy." In English Comedy, edited by Michael Cordner, Peter Holland, and John Kerrigan, pp. 119-36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.




   
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