"Verbal Formulae in the Plays of Philip Massinger"

Critic: Cyrus Hoy
Source: Studies in Philology 56, No. 4 (October 1959): 600-18.

[(essay date 1959) In the following essay, Hoy discusses the repeated verbal patterns in Massinger's own plays and his collaborative efforts.]

Massinger's habit of repeating himself is well known. Scholars such as Boyle and Oliphant, investigating his share in the Beaumont and Fletcher plays, have adduced the tendency as evidence for determining his work in collaboration with other dramatists.1 Critics such as T. S. Eliot, L. C. Knights, and M. C. Bradbrook see in the habit a symptom of the decadence that is generally regarded as the characteristic note of the later Jacobean drama.2 The current attitude toward parallel passages as evidence for authorship being what it is, the interest that once attached to Massinger's repetitions as sources of authorial evidence is no longer the primary one; though when a dramatist repeats himself on the scale of Massinger, certain at least of his more distinctive tricks of expression (those which are not demonstrably a part of contemporary usage) must come to possess a corroborative value as authorial evidence that it would be sheer obstinacy to deny. Still, it is for what it tells us about what has happened to Elizabethan dramatic verse by the 1620's that Massinger's language is chiefly interesting to us now, and for that purpose it stands as an almost classic case in point.

The repetitions themselves are two-fold. Massinger borrows freely from other dramatists (notably Shakespeare and Jonson), and he puts what he borrows to repeated use; in addition, he has favorite turns of phrase of his own that he repeats with a frequency that makes of them so many signatures of his style; as L. C. Knights puts it, "he repeats his imitations and he repeats himself."3 His language is, in a word, stereotyped; and the verbal repetitions of which Massinger's verse is compacted are seen, upon examination, to be but the outward and visible signs of the more inward stereotypes of feeling and thought, of situation and incident that are the very stuff of Jacobean drama. Reading through the whole corpus of Massinger's plays (and this is felt with especial emphasis if one takes into account his work in collaboration as well), one feels a kind of deadly inevitability in the manner in which a given situation, frequently recurring, will elicit a given flow of language, the nature of which can be predicted within reasonably narrow limits. It is as though the stereotypes of tragicomic situation in which Massinger mainly deals serve as a kind of trigger in the dramatist's mind that needs only to be touched to set off the prescribed rhetorical display. For every situational stereotype, there is a corresponding verbal formula that must inevitably accompany it. Since each formula is designed to cover the maximum number of cases, to deal with the situational stereotype in the abstract rather than with any particular manifestation of it, it will in the nature of things be couched in the language of a generalized utterance. Thus it will seem more appropriate to certain occasions than to others; and amid certain circumstances it will hardly seem appropriate at all. But the Massingerian method of meeting the dramatic occasion with a rhetorical formula, somewhat in the manner of a conditioned response, will not admit of nice adjustments to the demands of the particular moment. The formula is set; and once brought into play it must unfold itself, like an uncoiled spring. This is how one must finally account for the lack of feeling that all commentators on Massinger, from Boyle and Oliphant to T. S. Eliot, have noted in his verse. It is not simply that Massinger, as Boyle observed long ago, "describes a festival with the same stately, harmonious verse in which he sketches outbreaks of irrepressible passion";4 as often as not, the outbreaks of passion, be they induced by grief or anxiety or the intensest joy, are proclaimed by means of the same verbal formula. "Massinger's feeling for language had outstripped his feeling for things," says Eliot; "his eye and his vocabulary were not in co-operation."5 The feeling for language is evident in the conduct of his blank verse, which moves with imperturable assurance; "stately, harmonious" and "dignified" are the terms usually applied to it. But the words of which Massinger's formal, somewhat mannered blank verse periods are comprised have become for him little more than verbal counters, fixed in so many rigidly schematic rhetorical patterns, to be more or less mechanically invoked by the prescribed stereotypes of tragi-comic situation, of which they come to seem the inevitable concomitant. Here, if anywhere, is that dissociation of language and feeling that is the surest sign of decadence.

Generalizations of this sort are meaningful only when they can be seen to derive from the evidence of actual practice. In what follows, I have sought to examine in detail a selection of Massinger's verbal formulae, together with the various dramatic occasions that prompt their usage. In some cases, the occasion may amount to an actual dramatic situation, as with the verbal formulae that accompany scenes of temptation or entreaty; for the rest, we are dealing with the rhetorical utterances of which Massinger's characters typically deliver themselves when the dramatic occasion demands an expression of praise or astonishment, an effort at evaluation or a gesture of defense. To show the whole extent to which Massinger employs them, it has seemed best to take into account not only all of his unaided plays, but his work in collaboration as well.6


Among the trials to which the heroes of tragi-comedy are put, the most spectacular are those in which they are subjected to amorous temptations that no ordinary man can be expected to resist. Generally in Massinger the heroes take comfort in the fact that, under similar circumstances, the most ascetic of men would succumb, even as they almost inevitably do. This is the way it seems to the hero of The Renegado (II, 4), who finds himself courted by the niece of the Turkish Sultan. "A Hermit in a desert trenchd with prayers / Could not resist this batterie," he says, and both the sentiment and its expression become a kind of ritualistic utterance for Massinger's men under the duress of desire. The hero of The Picture (IV, 1) finds his thoughts turning from his wife to another "Whose rauishing beauties at the first sight had tempted / A hermit from his beades, and chang'd his prayers / To amorous Sonets." Theodosius, in The Emperor of the East (IV, 5), accounts for his somewhat excessive passion for his empress on the grounds that her beauty "might tempt a Hermit from his beads," and this is but "the least of her endowments."

The use of "hermit" in this context occurs in Massinger's work in collaboration as well as in his unaided plays. In The Double Marriage (I, 1) there is a reference to "virgins; such as Hermits would / Welcome to their sad cells." The "native excellence" of one of the women in The Knight of Malta (III, 3) is declared to be such as "would make a Hermit / Leave his deaths head, & change his after hopes / Of endlesse comforts for a few short minutes / Of present pleasures."

Sometimes, in such contexts, Massinger replaces the hermit with a more strictly philosophical ascetic, the cynic. Thus, in The Picture (II, 2), there is the reference to "A frozen Cynike, cold in spite of all / Allurements, one whom beauty cannot moue / Nor softest blandishments entice to loue." References to hermit and cynic come together in a passage from The Great Duke of Florence (III, 1); says the courtier Sanazarro of the fair Lidia:

A Hermit at his beades, but looking on her,
Or the cold Cinique, whom Corinthian Lais,
Not mov'd with her lusts blandishments, call'd a stone,
At this object would take fire.

The juxtaposition of "cold" and "fire," to be noted here, together with the juxtaposition of such related terms as "frozen," "heat," and "thaw," becomes for Massinger a standard method for contrasting the extremes of asceticism and sensuality, and the effect of one upon the other. Thus, in The Renegado (III, 3), there is the reference to the heroine's "frozen coldnesse which no appetite, / Or height of blood could thaw," just as in The Guardian (II, 4), mention is made of "a Beldam / So frozen up, that a Fever cannot thaw her." "There's no heate / can thaw thy frozen conscience," says one character of another in Believe as you List (I, 2); and the formula is echoed in The Little French Lawyer (I, 2), in Dinant's account of his cruel mistress: "No heat of service, had the power to melt / Her frozen Chastity." Says Caesar of the kisses of Domitia, in The Roman Actor (II, 1): "If I now wanted heate of youth, these fires / In Priams veines would thaw his frozen bloud."

The triad of youth/heat/blood occurs repeatedly in Massinger's collaborated work. Dinant, in The Little French Lawyer (I, 1) speaks of what his lady's "youth, and heat of blood requir'd / In lawfull pleasures." The lovers in The Sea Voyage (II, 1) compliment themselves on their temperance, "it being seldome seen," one observes, "That youth and heat of blood could ere prescribe / Laws to it selfe." Similarly, the hero of The Knight of Malta (III, 3) is commended because, "though he may / Do anything which youth and heat of blood / Invites him to, yet [he] dares not give way to them." On the other hand, Don Henrique, in The Spanish Curate (III, 3), has given way to just these things "in his young yeares" when he entered into a marriage contract with the virtuous but impoverished Jacintha, and to his advocate in court this is not surprising since "it is no miracle / That youth, and heat of Blood, should mix together." The old Duchess Sophia, in Rollo, Duke of Normandy (I, 1), points out to her son that "heate of blood and youth apt to ambition" will plead his pardon for past deeds of violence, but not for future ones.

The man who is proof against youth, heat and blood is to be wondered at, not so much as a paragon of temperance, as an insentient creature deficient in the ordinary human emotions, the epitome of cold unfeeling, a veritable man of snow. "Are you soe coy? thou art a man of snowe," taunts the courtesan at the wretched Antiochus in Believe as you List (IV, 2). And in The Guardian (II, 4), a pandar entices an incredulous young man to his waiting mistress with bravura assurance: "I plot to bring you ... / To those delights, which a man not made of Snow / Would ride a thousand miles for."


The cross purposes at which characters in tragi-comedy so frequently find themselves inevitably alter the pattern of their relations. Roles are exchanged as intentions shift, and so the petitioner becomes the petitioned, the pursuer the pursued, the beseecher the besought. The natural superior becomes a humble suitor for favors that he should command; the natural inferior is courted to accept bounties that he might be expected to seek in vain. This, of course, makes for a striking stage situation. The proud lady, generally passion-driven, must overcome her disdain; the proud nobleman is made to recognize that the favor he has assumed to be his has been bestowed elsewhere; the humble favorite finds, to his shame, that greatness has been thrust upon him. Massinger employs a set of formulae that marks his handling of such occasions, both in his unaided plays and in his work in collaboration. Thus, in The Renegado (II, 4), Donusa, niece to the Sultan of Turkey, finds herself enamoured of a young Venetian merchant to the point of offering him "bounties / Which all our Easterne Kings haue kneeld in vaine for." And later in the same play (III, 3), one king who has thus vainly knelt warns another rejected suitor against blasting Donusa's fame because he has been denied "a happinesse / Which men of equall, nay of more desert, / Haue su'd in vaine for." In The Duke of Milan (V, 1), the proud Marcelia is exonerated in death for having "but entertain'd / A fortune humbly offer'd to her hand, / Which a wise Lady gladly would haue kneel'd for." Sanazarro, in The Great Duke of Florence (V, 2), is rebuked for having caused the young Duchess of Urbin "to court him to embrace / A happinesse, which on his knees with joy / He should have su'd for." The proud Leosthenes, finding himself displaced in the affections of Cleora by the seeming slave Pisander, in The Bondman (V, 3), tells her roundly that, were she not deceived by passion and a "too violent will," "I should not neede to plead for that, which you / With ioy should offer." The chaste Calista, beseeching the favor of her libertine lover Adorio, in The Guardian (I, 1), appeals to him as follows: "if I were no Gentlewoman, but bred coursely, / You might with some pretence of reason slight / What you should sue for." And in the play of "The False Servant" within the play of The Roman Actor (IV, 2), the proud Lady (a type of the wife of Potiphor) courts her servant in terms that are typical: "Must we intreate, / That were borne to command, or court a seruant ... / For that, which thou ambitiouslie shouldst kneele for?"

The notion of entreating when one might command becomes something of a formula in itself. Donusa, in II, 4 of The Renegado, begs her lover not to "force her / That ne're knew ought but to command, nor ere read / The elements of affection, but from such / As gladly sude to her, in the infancie / Of her new borne desires, to be at once / Importunate, and immodest." The leader of the Amazonian ladies of The Sea Voyage (III, 1), in allowing the men of their island to select wives from their numbers, makes the point that, "though it be / A debt women may challenge to be sued to, / Especially from such they may command; / We give up to you that power."

"Shall I entreate for what I may command?" demands one of the Gentleman Ruffians of the embattled heroine of The Little French Lawyer (IV, 7); and later in the same scene appear more of the Massingerian formulae for use on such occasions. The rejected lover Dinant taunts the lady who has scorned him, and whom he has caused to be made captive by a group of gentlemen friends disguised as "Ruffians," with the fate that seems to threaten:

                                        those favours,
Which with so strong, and Ceremonious duty
Your lover and a Gentleman long sought for,
Sought, sued, and kneeld in vaine for, must you yield up
To a licentious villaine, that will hardly
Allow you thanks for't.

The poor but virtuous hero of The Custom of the Country (II, 3) is offered a fortune which, he is assured, he need but entertain "And that which Princes have kneel'd for in vaine / Presents it selfe to you." To kiss the hand of Cleopatra, in The False One (I, 2), is "a favour (Kings have kneel'd in vaine for)." When, in The Virgin Martyr (I, 1), the daughter of the Emperor Dioclesian declares her love for the valiant Antoninus, and then asks if he will refuse her, he can only reply, incredulously: "Refuse, what kings vpon their knees would sue for?" "One tear," says a character to his mistress in a Massinger scene of Love's Cure (IV, 2), is "Sufficient to command a pardon from me, / For any wrong from you, which all mankinde / Should kneel in vaine for." When Malefort, in The Unnatural Combat (II, 3), is allowed to name his own reward in return for services rendered to the populace of Marseilles, he requests that a marriage be contracted between his daughter and the son of Beaufort, the governor of the city; the request accords perfectly with the wishes of Beaufort junior, and he replies with a courtly compliment that pays a glancing tribute to the ironic cross-purposes of fate, now miraculously uncrossed, for the moment at least: "You demand / That which with all the service of my life / I should have labour'd to obtain from you." In II, 2 of The Fatal Dowry, the virtuous but impoverished hero Charalois, who has already been generously be-friended by the elderly Rochfort, is given the chance to requite past favors by granting a suit of his benefactor's; which, Charalois freely consenting, turns out to be nothing less than the offer of Rochfort's lovely daughter and heiress in marriage. It is the perfect occasion for a Massingerian character to proclaim the wonder of being freely offered what he should kneel in vain for, and when no speech to this effect is forthcoming we have good reason for suspecting what everything about the scene bears out, and what all students of the play agree to be true: that the scene is not Massinger's, but is the work of his collaborator, Field.7


In V, 2 of The Virgin Martyr, Theophilus, the erstwhile persecutor of Christians now a convert from pagan infidelity, thus eulogizes the martyred Dorothea to his former Roman overlords:

      Dorothea but hereafter nam'd,
You will rise vp with reuerence, and no more
As things vnworthy of your thoughts, remember
What the canoniz'd Spartan Ladies were
Which lying Greece so bosts of, your owne matrons
Your Romane dames whose figures you yet keepe
As holy relickes in her historie
Will find a second vrne. Gracchus['] Cornelia,
Paulina that in death desirde to follow
Her husband Seneca, nor Brutus['] Portia
That swallowd burning coles to ouertake him,
Though all their seuerall worths were giuen to one
With this is to be mention'd.

The passage combines three of Massinger's favorite rhetorical formulae for declaring the manner in which a given character exceeds all precedents: Dorothea (1) "but named" will cause the Spartan ladies to be (2) "no more remembered," while the Roman dames are not (3) "to be mentioned" in comparison with her.8 These three verbal strands occur frequently in Massinger, singly and in various combinations. Thus, for a passage built on the phrase "but named," there is the following from The Parliament of Love (IV, 2):

                                        I am made
her minister, whose Crueltie but nam'd
would with more horror strike the pale cheekd hearers
then all those dreadfull words which Coniurers vse
to fright their damn'd familliers.

Or this from The Roman Actor (II, 1), where the basic phrase has been varied slightly:

But the divorce Lamia was forc'd to signe
To her, you honour with Augusta's title,
Being onely nam'd, they doe conclude there was
A Lucrece once, a Collatine, and a Brutus,
But nothing Roman left now, but in you
The lust of Tarquin.

The phrase "no more remembered" occurs with such regularity in Massinger's work as to become a kind of signature of his style. The following, from The Duke of Milan (II, 1), is typical:

                                        All the Pompe,
State, and obseruance you had being his,
Compar'd to what you shall enioy when mine,
Shall be no more remembred.

Or, from a collaborated play, this from Massinger's share of The Custom of the Country (V, 1):

All Ancient stories, of the love of husbands
To vertuous wives, be now no more remembred.9

These two phrases come together in a passage from The Emperor of the East (I, 1) that closely approximates the one already quoted from The Virgin Martyr; the heroines Pulcheria and Dorothea surpass at least one of the same classical examples by means of identical rhetorical formulae:

                                        The mother
Of the Gracchi, graue Cornelia (Rome still boasts of)
The wise Pulcheria but nam'd, must be
No more remembred.

The same pattern is employed in The Roman Actor (I, 4):

                                        When I but name the Daci,
And gray ey'd Germans whom I haue subdu'd,
The Ghost of Iulius will looke pale with envie,
And great Vespatians, and Titus triumph, ...
Will be no more remembred.

And it occurs as well in Massinger's share of The Prophetess (V, 2):

                                        those great women
Antiquitie is proud of, thou but nam'd,
Shall be no more remembred.

As the Spartan ladies, in the passage quoted from The Virgin Martyr, will be cast from memory, Dorothea but named, the Roman dames are not "to be mentioned" in comparison with her, and this third verbal strand becomes something of a Massinger speech formula as well. Thus, in his share of The Double Marriage (I, 1):

          compar'd to him;
Nor Phalaris, nor Dionisius,
Caligula, nor Nero can be mention'd.

And again, in his portion of The Little French Lawyer (IV, 7):

If I had loos'd that virgin Zone, observe me,
I would have hired the best of all our Poets
To have sung so much, and so well in the honour
Of that nights joys, that Ovid's afternoone,
Nor his Corvina should againe be mentioned.

The traditional examples of virtue and vice, of beauty and fame, do not bear comparison with the more spectacular ones that abound in the world of tragi-comedy; thus they come to "deserve no wonder" or, more commonly, they "deserve not to be named," which is but another way of saying they are not to be mentioned. The apples of the Hesperides are nothing beside one that is presented to the Emperor Theodosius, in The Emperor of the East (IV, 2):

Those golden apples in the Hesperian orchardes
So strangely guarded by the watchfull Dragon,
As they requir'd greate Hercules to get 'em,
Nor those with which Hippomenes deceiu'd,
Swift footed Atalanta, when I looke
On this, deserue no wonder.

The passage is reproduced in part, with the alternative terminal formula, in Massinger's share of The Virgin Martyr (IV, 3):

      your Hesperian Orchards
The Golden fruite kept by the watchfull Dragon
Which did require Hercules to get it
Compar'd with what growes in all plenty there,
Deserues not to be nam'd.

There is a similar comparison of gardens, cast in an identical verbal mould, in Believe as you List (IV, 2):

  a paradise of delight, to which compar'd
Thessalian Tempe, or that garden where
Venus, with her reviud Adonis spende
their pleasant howers, and make from their embraces
a perpetuitie of happines
deserue not to bee nam'd.

The pattern occurs, in other contexts, frequently in Massinger. Thus, in The Bondman (IV, 3):

            what Timandra,
Or the citie has indur'd, her losse consider'd,
Deserves not to be named;

in The Great Duke of Florence (I, 1):

Chiron the Tutor to the great Achilles
Compar'd with him, deserves not to be nam'd;

and in The Roman Actor (III, 2):

           Marius storie
That does report him to haue sate vnmou'd
When cunning Chirurgions rip'd his arteries,
And veines, to cure his goute compar'd to this
Deserues not to bee nam'd.

And there is more than an echo of it in such a passage as this from Massinger's share of The Custom of the Country (II, 1):

So oft I would restore death wounded men,
That where I liv'd, Gallen should not be nam'd.

All of these rhetorical formulae are but several ways of declaring the situation of the moment to "transcend" all that has gone before by way of example, and the verb is frequently on the lips of Massinger's men and women. The mind of Cleora in The Bondman (I. 3), like the tyranny of King Antiochus's Roman persecutors in Believe as you List (IV, 2), is said to "transcend all presidents," just as, in the collaborated plays, does the villainy of the Bravo in The Custom of the Country (IV, 2) and the course of evil that is open to Rollo, Duke of Normandy, if he is so blind as to persist in it, in the play of that name (I, 1). Luke, in The City Madam (V, 3), is reviled as a "Revengefull, avaritious Atheist, / Transcending all example"; Cleremond, in The Parliament of Love (III, 2), announces: "I rise vpp a new example of / Calamity, transcending all before mee"; and the life of Rochfort, in Massinger's share of The Fatal Dowry (I, 2), "transcends all faire examples." Pulcheria, the sister of the Emperor Theodosius in The Emperor of the East (I. 1), "transcendes, and makes / Credulity her debtor"; the Lady Donusa's loss of chastity "equals, / If not transcends" her lover Vitelli's loss of innocence in the course of their intemperate affair, in The Renegado (III, 5); the elder Malefort's victory over his son in The Unnatural Combat (II, 3) is hailed as "a deed, / Transcending all this Countrey ere could boast of"; the doting King of Hungary, in The Picture (I, 2), declares that the "heavenly mind" of his Queen might well furnish a model from which "moderne Poets" could "fashion a Minerua farre transcending / Th' imagin'd one, whom Homer onely dreamt of"; and in the same scene of the same play, the same noble lady is said to "transcend / In all things excellent." Domitian, in The Roman Actor (I, 3), "Transcends the ancient Romans" in the excellencies of a prince; the poor captain Belgrade, in The Unnatural Combat (III, 3), declares his right to appear at any feast, though it be stored "with varietie transcending / The curiousnesse, and cost, on Traians birth day"; and the calamities endured by the Kingdom of Naples, in Massinger's share of The Double Marriage (I, 1) "transcend" those of Constantinople, "now in the power / Of barbarous Infidels." Elsewhere in the collaborated plays, there are transcendencies as well. Cardenes's repentance, in A Very Woman (V, 4), is said to "transcend all wonders"; the cruelties of Woolfort "transcend" his "former bloody ills," in Beggars' Bush (I, 1); the faith of the Prince of Orange "do's as far transcend" that of his enemies "as light do's darknes," in Barnavelt (II, 1); Protaldie, in Thierry and Theodoret (II, 1), will cause his soldiers to "transcend / All that e're yet bore armes." And in a Massinger scene of The Fatal Dowry (IV, 4), there is an oblique reference to "the canoniz'd Spartan Ladies" of the passage already quoted from The Virgin Martyr who again are about to be, if not transcended, at least equalled by another Massinger heroine:

      let those fam'd matrones
That are canoniz'd worthy of our sex,
Transcend me in their sanctity of life,
I yet will equall them in dying nobly.


In a Massinger scene of The Spanish Curate (III, 3), the lawyer Bartolus opens his defense of his client as follows:

            If I stood here,
To plead in the defence of an ill man,
... or to accuse the innocent ...
It would be requisite I should deek my Language
With Tropes and Figures, and all flourishes
That grace a Rethorician, 'tis confess'd
Adulterate Mettals, need the Gold-smiths Art,
To set 'em off; what, in it selfe is perfect
Contemnes a borrowed glosse.

The sentiment is typical of Massinger, and its expression echoes phrases that recur in his work. Thus the virtuous Lidia, in The Great Duke of Florence (II, 3) humbly views herself as a subject so barren as to yield "nothing / That Rhetorick with all her tropes and figures / Can amplifie"--a reflection which, being true, redounds to her highest praise. Chiefly, however, it is the sentiment that we have encountered elsewhere in Massinger. By way of declaring the justice of their purposes, the disinterestedness of their intents, Massinger's characters often make a point of eschewing any of the devices of rhetoric that might make the worse appear the better cause. "Cleere truth cannot want / Rhetorical persuasions," says a character in The Emperor of the East (I, 2), for the good reason that simple truth carries a conviction of its own. This being so, rhetorical devices are superfluous in relating it, an assumption held by the character in A Very Woman (V, 4) who speaks of "a truth [that] / Needs not rhetorical flourishes," and then proceeds to "deliver it" with "brevity and plainness."

Rhetoric, then, has no place in the defence of an honest cause. It is useless at best, and so can be branded as "fruitles" in The Bashful Lover (I, 2); at worst, it is a tool of deception and so, not surprisingly, is associated with the fiend in A New Way to Pay Old Debts (II, 1); repeatedly it is disclaimed by those who dare to let the truth speak for itself. One such is the heroine of The Maid of Honour (V, 2), who defends herself thus:

            The goodnesse of my cause
Begets such confidence in mee, that I bring
No hir'd tongue to plead for mee, that with gay
Rhetoricall flourishes may palliate
That, which stripp'd naked, will appeare deform'd.

Charalois, pleading in court for the burial of his father's corpse, in The Fatal Dowry (I, 2), echoes this conviction:

            The cause
We come to offer ...
Is in it selfe so noble, that it needs not
Or Rhetorique in me that plead, or fauour
From your graue Lordships, to determine of it.

In The Parliament of Love (V, 1), a character is accused of employing the "rhetorical flourishes" that the heroine of The Maid of Honour and Bartolus in The Spanish Curate have renounced:

      tho [wth gay rhetoricall florishes]10
you strive to guild a rotten Cause the touch
of reason fortified by truth deliuerd
from my vnletterd tongue shall show it dust.

One of the captains in Barnavelt (II, 1) replies to the speeches of those who would have him renounce his allegiance to the Prince of Orange in the tones of a man who knows the world's ways:

We know yor oild tongue; and yor rethorique,
will hardly work on vs, that are acquainted
wth what faire language yor ill purposes
are ever cloathd. ...


Efforts at evaluation in Massinger deal in absolutes. The present action or intention or motive is adumbrated against a standard of performance that may be either traditional or private, and this will either overshadow completely the present gesture or be over-shadowed by it. The examples of the past are invoked, as we have seen, only to be dismissed with a phrase; the virtuous ladies of classical antiquity will be no more remembered as their glories are transcended by the paragons of the present; and the models of recorded cruelty will deserve no mention when the Massingerian villain is but named. This is hyperbole that admits but rarely of an equal, and but seldom, where there is a question of choice, of any alternative. Opposing sets of values are put in the scale, and one or the other is found wanting. "All wrongs, though thrust into one scale / Slide of themselues off, when right fills the other, / And cannot bide the triall," says a character in A New Way to Pay Old Debts (IV, 1). The metaphor of weighing, of balancing contrary principles one against the other, is the basis of a recurring image. Cleora, the heroine of The Bondman (I, 3), employs it as she exhorts her countrymen to put aside personal and selfish interests, and unite to meet the threat of a foreign invasion:

        think you all treasure
Hid in the bowells of the earth, or ship-wrack'd
In Neptunes watry Kingdome, can hold weight,
When Liberty and honour fill one scale,
Triumphant Iustice sitting on the beame?

The statement, like so many others in Massinger, becomes something of a ritualistic utterance, cast in a verbal stereotype. Theodosius in The Emperor of the East (V, 2), seeking to rationalize his harsh treatment of his empress, whose faithfulness he has come to suspect, declares that he has done "nothing, which will not hold waight in the scale / Of [his] impartiall justice." The utterance can be employed to state a cruel irony, as when Caesar in The Roman Actor (II, 1), who has forcibly taken for his own the wife of the senator Lamia, chooses to regard the lady as an unparalleled gift duly rendered unto himself by a generous subject, and taunts the husband in a formal speech that dwells on the rarity of the gesture: "the Empire, Lamia, / Diuided equally, can hold no waight, / If ballanc'd with your guift in faire Domitia." Similarly, when the incestuous father in The Unnatural Combat (III, 4) would prevent his daughter's marriage, he declares her to be unworthy of her suitor: "all that I fancied excellent in her / Ballanc'd with what is really his owne, / Holds waight in no proportion."

The demands of tragi-comedy regularly bring the Massinger men and women to commit actions that, for good or ill, will outweigh all past deeds recorded to their credit or their shame. Thus every new action performed, every new attitude struck, can be hailed as something of a nonpareil, at least in the context of the individual's own experience, if not in that of humanity at large. Cleremond, in The Parliament of Love (III, 2), whose mistress has demanded that he kill his best friend as a test of his obedience to her will, knows that to seek consolation in the example of other sorely-tried lovers is but to "guild [his] miseries wth falce Comforts," since any example that presents itself, "if putt into an equall scale / with my vnparraleld fortune will waigh nothinge." By his own admission, the hard-living Alonzo's desertion of his betrothed, in The Bashful Lover (IV, 2), represents "one crime, with which / All ills I have committed from my youth / Put in the scale weigh nothing." When Ladislaus, King of Hungary has witnessed the manner in which the gallant soldier Mathias counseled his queen, who had formed a head-long passion for the young knight, back into virtuous ways, in The Picture (IV, 4), he can recognize that the moral victory thus gained surpasses anything in the nature of a military one, and so compliments the young man accordingly: "your seruice / Donne on the Turke compard with this waighs nothing."

Opposing claims are evaluated, and the claimants to beauty and honor are dismissed or celebrated. The wife of the "wrangling Advocate" Bartolus, in The Spanish Curate (I, 1), "of a meane birth ... and meanly match'd" though she be, is possessed of an "all-excelling Forme" that "will weighdowne the Scale" even when the lady is "put in Ballance" with "any She" endowed with the best of earthly perfections. The spokesman for the adherents to the cause of the Prince of Orange, in Barnavelt (II, 1) replies to the arguments of those who would have him and his men forswear their allegiance by declaring that they will never be "won / to vndervalue him, whose least fam'd service / scornes to be put in ballance wth the best / of all yor Counsailes." The brave but outspoken soldier Romont, defending the dead marshal of Dijon against the judicial enemies who would defame his memory, in The Fatal Dowry (I, 2), begins by expressing his own scorn for the members of the court ("I, that in my seruice done my Country, / Disdaine to bee put in the scale with thee"), and then goes on to declare that the meanest of the dead marshal's undertakings will "outway all the good purpose, / Though put in act, that euer Gownemen practized." When a character in The Knight of Malta (III, 2) observes that Miranda, the noble knight himself, while "indeed a Gentleman," has yet his equals, the heroine is quick to challenge the impugnation: "Where? I would go far, ... / But to see one that without injury / Might be put in the scale, or paralleld, / In any thing that's Noble, with Miranda."


Nothing in the language of Massinger's plays is more ritualistic than the manner in which the principals respond to the various astonishing occasions in which the action of tragi-comedy is so rich. In themselves, the amazing shifts of tragi-comic action might be expected to elicit a full gamut of emotional responses; but the Massinger men and women greet all the varieties of their histrionic experience with a handful of formal, rather elegant terms that almost give the lie to the emotions they are intended to express. Characters are "rapt" beyond themselves.11 They are urged by others to "be not rapt so" (or "thus").12 One character is asked by another why he is "rapt thus," in The Bashful Lover (II, 7) and The Double Marriage (I, 2); or the question is put of a third person, as in The Roman Actor (IV, 1). And ever and always, there are the simple announcements, "I am rapt," as in The Duke of Milan (I, 3), The Roman Actor (III, 1), The Bondman (I, 3).

As characters are "rapt" beyond themselves, so can they be "transported" beyond self, as in The Picture (I, 2), or The Guardian (III, 6). And again, the question of why they should be "transported thus" is put, either directly, as in The Roman Actor (III, 2), or indirectly, as in Rollo, Duke of Normandy (V, 1). Often, what transports them is simply "passion," as in The Unnatural Combat (I, 1), The Parliament of Love (V, 1), The Fatal Dowry (V, 2), The Elder Brother (V, 2); but sometimes the passion is named. It is "joy" in The Guardian (III, 6), The Parliament of Love (III, 2), and Love's Cure (I, 2). In the latter play, "madnesse transports" a character in III, 3, and "daring" in V, 3, just as, in The Custom of the Country, the same character is transported by "frantique Love" in III, 4 and "violent dotage" in V, 5. And in sundry other plays, a state of "transport" is commented upon either by the person experiencing it, or by an observer.13

Characters are "overwhelmed with wonder," as in The Maid of Honour (IV, 3) or A New Way to Pay Old Debts (V, 1). They are overwhelmed with an "excess of joy," as in The Picture (III, 2) and The Bashful Lover (III, 3); or, in IV, 3 of the latter play, "an excess of comfort." It is the "torrent" of joys that overwhelm in The Bondman (IV, 3), as it is the "weight of happiness" in The Renegado (II, 4).

The "excesse of joy" that can overwhelm can also "ravish," as in III, 2 of The Virgin Martyr, and the verb becomes a favorite Massinger exclamation of intense delight. "I am ravishde!" exclaims a character in Believe as you List (II, 2), and he is echoed in play after play.14 Characters in Massinger are regularly "amazed."15 They are "thunderstruck."16 They "stand rooted" in surprise.17 Most spectacular of all, perhaps, is the manner in which amazement, often touched with horror, turns them into statues. "I am turnd statue," announces a character in Believe as you List (V, 2) at a particularly wondrous turn of events. Indignation at the ingratitude with which he is used almost turns Paulinus, in The Emperor of the East (V, 1), "into a senselesse statue." Often, the metaphor takes the form of an inquiry. "Are we all turn'd statues?" asks Lord Lacy in The City Madam (III, 2) of the company that has just been charmed into silence by the glozing words of the hypocrite Luke. "How now? turnd statue sir?" asks Ladislaus of Mathias in The Picture (V, 3), as the latter stands speechless with uncertainty at the conduct of his wife. "Stand you now like a Statue?" demands Harpax of Theophilus in The Virgin Martyr (III, 2), as the latter stands rooted in amazement as his daughters cast down the pagan images.

Inevitably, the notion of "turning statue" is associated with the mythological Gorgon. "What new Gorgons head / Have you beheld, that you are all turn'd Statues?" asks the Queen in The Queen of Corinth (V, 2) of her courtiers, who stand "rooted" in proper horror at the discovery of the villainies of the monarch's own son. The heroine of The Renegado (II, 4) assures her lover that her "lookes" are not "like to the Gorgons head, that turne / Men into Statues." The verbal pattern can, of course, be varied. Thus, in The Guardian (III, 6), a husband's "Gorgon looks" turn his unfaithful wife, not to a statue, but "to stone." In what amounts to another variant of the pattern, the Gorgon of a jealous husband's rage is enough to turn "marble" the suspected wife, in The Emperor of the East (IV, 5); and in The Lovers' Progress (IV, 2), a wife is commanded to look upon her murdered husband "and then turne marble." Emotional developments of stunning impact are rendered through what amount to little more than verbal posturings.


1Robert Boyle, "Beaumont, Fletcher, and Massinger," Englische Studien, IX (1886), 209-39; E. H. C. Oliphant, The Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher (Yale, 1927), pp. 60-66.

2T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays (New York, 1950), pp. 181-195; L. C. Knights, Drama & Society in the Age of Jonson (London, 1937), pp. 270-273; M. C. Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge, 1952), pp. 72-73, 135-136, 240-250.

3Knights, p. 270.

4Boyle, p. 238. Oliphant (p. 60) says much the same thing: "[Massinger's] outbursts of anger are illustrated by the same dignified verse that he employs for the portrayal of a state of happy contentment."

5Eliot, p. 185.

6Massinger's share in the plays of the Beaumont and Fletcher canon has been discussed at length in my monograph, "The Shares of Fletcher & his Collaborators in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon," currently appearing in Studies in Bibliography, VIII (1956), 129-146; IX (1957), 143-162; XI (1958), 85-106. All passages cited below from plays of joint-authorship occur, without exception, in scenes that I have there shown to be his.

7For a non-Massingerian use of the phrases discussed here, cf. Middleton, A Game at Chess (II. 1), where the Black Bishop's Pawn, during the course of his attempted seduction of the White Queen's Pawn, invites her (lines 77-8) "to the house, where thou mayst surfet / On that, w[hi]ch others miserablie pine for"; asks (lines 103-4), as she withstands all blandishments, "Must I bid you come forward to a happines / Youre selfe should sue for?"; and finally (lines 127-8) reflects bitterly on the contempt he has endured "In freelie offring that shee should haue kneelde / A yeare in Vayne for. ..."

8The verbal strands considered here doubtless have a basis in Jonson. Cf. The Alchemist (IV, 2, 143-45): "when thy name is mention'd, / Queens may look pale; and, we but showing our love, / Nero's Poppaea may be lost in story."

9For some of the other numerous occurrences of the phrase in Massinger's work, both unaided and in collaboration, cf. the following: The Maid of Honour, II, 5, III, 1, V, 2; A New Way, I, 1; The Great Duke of Florence, V, 3; The Renegado, IV, 1, 2, 3; The Emperor of the East, IV, 5, V, 3; The Unnatural Combat, I, 1, III, 3; The Roman Actor, III, 1; The City Madam, III, 2; The Parliament of Love, III, 3; The Guardian, V, 1; The Elder Brother, V, 1; The False One, IV, 2; The Fair Maid of the Inn, V. 3; Barnavelt, II, 1, III, 6.

10Miss K. M. Lea notes in her edition of the play (London: Malone Society, 1928), p. 63, that the passage has been deleted in the manuscript by the corrector.

11In The Maid of Honour (IV, 4), The Emperor of the East (IV, 2 and V, 3), and The Renegado (V, 3).

12In The Emperor of the East (II. 1), Believe as you List (III, 2), The Picture (I, 2), The Unnatural Combat (II, 3), The Little French Lawyer (III, 3).

13E. g., The Roman Actor, I, 2, IV, 1; The Unnatural Combat, II, 3, III, 1; The Virgin Martyr, III, 1; The Sea Voyage, III, 1; The Lovers' Progress, IV, 3.

14E. g., in The Emperor of the East (I, 1), The Renegado (II, 3), The City Madam (II, 2 and V, 3), The Picture (IV, 4), The Parliament of Love (IV, 1), The Virgin Martyr (I, 1), A Very Woman (IV, 2), The Elder Brother (I, 2).

15E. g., Believe as you List, I, 2 and II, 2; The Maid of Honour, III, 3; The Unnatural Combat, III, 2; The Sea Voyage, V, 2; The Lovers' Progress, IV, 2 and 3).

16E. g., The Picture, IV, 4; Believe as you List, V, 2; The Guardian, I, 1; The Bashful Lover, II, 7; The Maid of Honour, IV, 4).

17E. g., The Bondman, V, 2; The Guardian, I, 1; The Duke of Milan, III, 3; The Queen of Corinth, V, 2.

Source: Cyrus Hoy, "Verbal Formulae in the Plays of Philip Massinger." Studies in Philology 56, No. 4 (October 1959): 600-18.