"The Moral Tone of Massinger's Dramas"

Critic: A. L. Bennett
Source: Papers on Language and Literature 2, No. 3 (Summer 1966): 39-56.

[(essay date 1966) In the following essay, Bennett argues that Massinger was at his best when dealing with moral and political questions and was less successful at dramatizing romantic situations.]

It is remarkable that Philip Massinger, a dramatist without a ready wit and with only a modicum of humor, should have written the most successful comedy of Jacobean times (exclusive of Shakespeare's). What is stranger still, though perhaps not inexplicable, is that a writer with such an intense moral earnestness should have the morality of his dramas questioned by so many good critics. "Everyone who writes on Massinger," says Philip Edwards in a temperate and entirely sympathetic essay on the subject, "recognizes him as a moralist, a sage and serious man determined to indicate what behavior was acceptable and what was not."1 Hazelton Spencer has remarked that Massinger was "consistently serious, didactic even" and speaks of A New Way to Pay Old Debts as "sweating moral earnestness at every pore."2 But there is an impressive role of critics and poets from Coleridge to T. S. Eliot who are skeptical of the moral integrity of Massinger's plays. To say that a writer may be didactic without being genuinely moral is only to suggest a partial answer to the riddle, for what needs to be known is whether Massinger's work exhibits a failure in nerve, a failure in art, or a failure in vision. The purpose of this essay is, first, to answer the main question--whether there has been any failure at all--and then to show that Massinger's chief difficulties derived from abandoning satire for the Fletcherian type of tragicomedy.

It is instructive to review nineteenth-century critical opinion and to note the cleavage among the critics concerning Massinger's moral posture. Though Lamb had respect for Massinger, he could not speak of him with any enthusiasm; he thought the "very impurities" which obtruded themselves "among the sweet pieties" of The Virgin Martyr were too good to have been written by him.3 Hazlitt made a slashing attack on Massinger and Ford's "inveteracy of purpose, and perversity of will" and implied that their work owed "all its fascination over the mind to its power of shocking and perplexing us." Massinger, he said, made an impression by "hardness and repulsiveness of manner," and declared that his impassioned characters were "like drunkards or madmen."4 Coleridge's remark that Massinger's characters had no character is well known; he charged further that the comic scenes degraded the characters that were to form any part of the action of the piece, "so as to render them unfit for any tragic interest."5 These judgments imply a kind of unwholesomeness in the tenor of the plays. In his essay on Massinger Leslie Stephen made a frontal assault on the playwright's moral stance; admitting that Massinger was a moralizer by temperament, Stephen charged: "It can scarcely be said that his morality has much substance in it. It is a sentiment, not a conviction, and covers, without quenching, many ugly and brutal emotions. ... The admission that Massinger is moral must therefore be qualified by the statement that he is unnatural; or, in other words, that his morality is morbid."6 Arthur Symons' view is hardly less devastating than Leslie Stephen's:

No dramatist talks so much of virtue and vice, but Massinger has no conception of either except in the abstract. ... Massinger's outlook is by no means vague or sceptical on religion or on morals; he is a moralist before all things, and the copy-book tags neatly pinned on to the conclusion of each play are only a somewhat clumsy exhibition of a real conviction and conscientiousness. But his morality is nerveless, and aimless in its general effect; or it translates itself, oddly enough, into the co-partner of confusion, a disturbing and distracting element of mischief.7

This criticism cannot be considered entirely just without some notable exceptions, roughly one-third of Massinger's work.8

Swinburne tried to correct what he regarded as injustices in the Stephen essay but felt compelled to admit that the main contention was accurate.9 To be sure, many nineteenth-century critics took a happier view of the ethical element in Massinger. Swinburne spoke of Gifford's "conscientious devotion" and later (deprecatingly) of his "energetic advocacy." Ward cited Massinger as an instance of the connection of "poetic and moral excellence."10 S. R. Gardiner, the historian, declared that the main intention of his works was moral, giving as his principal instance that "he never descends to paint immoral intention as virtuous merely because it does not succeed in converting itself into vicious act. ... His coarseness is merely adventitious."11 Not only is evil intent in Massinger's plays "not virtuous"; Massinger makes it positively wicked. But I fear that his coarseness is in grain.

Writers of our own time, too, are divided in their opinion of the total moral effect of Massinger's work. A. H. Cruickshank, who loved the man (though not quite to idolatry), implied a kind of unwholesomeness in his character: "Massinger, in his grasp of stagecraft, his flexible metre, his desire in the sphere of ethics to exploit both vice and virtue, is typical of an age which had much culture, but which, without being exactly corrupt, lacked moral fibre."12

Beginning with T. S. Eliot, there has been an increasing tendency toward revisionism in Massinger criticism. Eliot believed that Massinger had been "more fortunately and more fairly judged than several of his contemporaries" and cited Coleridge's "fine perceptions," Leslie Stephen's "formidable destructive analysis," and Swinburne's essay ("Swinburne's criticism at its best"), in which the late Victorian poet and critic agreed, sorrowfully, that most of what Stephen had to say--his "main contention"--was true. Admitting that "none of these, probably, has put Massinger finally and irrefutably into place," Eliot took Canon Cruickshank's judgment (cited above) as the text of his own essay and said that to elucidate that sentence would be to account for Massinger.13 T. A. Dunn, Massinger's latest biographer, believes that the moralist sabotaged the artist ("for him, artistic conscience always succumbs to the conscience of the moralist."14) Philip Edwards has recently come to Massinger's defense, explaining that the poet was unfortunate in trying to woo the public with the Fletcherian kind of play. He affirms, I think with truth, that "the plays could not have been more successful if they had contained less morality, for without the moral scrutiny which is at their core they have no reason for existing" (p. 350).

Criticism cannot make a complete account of Massinger without examining his artistic beliefs: there may be some eccentricity or grave flaw in his theory. The most remarkable statement of his credo is the impassioned plea that Paris makes for his profession in The Roman Actor. In the first scene of that play, Paris, the foremost actor of Rome in the time of the bloody tyrant Domitian, is cited to appear before the Senate to answer charges of treason and libel against the state and Caesar. When he rises to address the full Senate, his bearing is noble and his utterance lofty. He is so confident in the justice of his cause that he wishes Ceasar were sitting as his judge.

The first half of his argument is a comparison of actors and philosophers, particularly with regard to the effectiveness of each in "deterring careless youth" from vice and in "inflaming noble youth with ambitious heat" and "glorious undertakings." Now, if actors deserve reproof for showing a man "sold to his lusts" and the sad end the wretch arrives at (Paris argues), then why not burn all those golden principles "writ down by grave philosophers" that instruct us to choose virtue instead of pleasure for our guide? Conversely, if to inflame youth to "the active virtue" deserve commendation and reward, actors should be accorded as large a share as "all the sects of philosophers," whose cold precepts, seldom read, do not fire the blood or "swell the veins with emulation" to the degree that drama does. In the second half of the defense, Paris turns to two specific charges: that the stage corrupts youth and that actors (or dramatists) traduce superiors. The answer to the first charge is that vice on the stage never goes unpunished; spectators inclined to vice, seeing the sad end of the vicious, "go home changed men." Actors are innocent of the second charge too. If an auditor at the theater, seeing the secret crimes of great ones published on the stage, is pricked in conscience, "we cannot help it." The implication is that it is a legitimate function of the stage to appall the guilty. Paris ends his defense on this note, going through a list of crimes and making an effective refrain of "we cannot help it":

Or, when we show a judge that is corrupt ...
If any in this reverend assembly,
Nay, even yourself, my lord, that are the image
Of absent Caesar, feel something in your bosom
That puts you in remembrance of things past,
Or things intended--'tis not in us to help it.
I have said, my lord: and now, as you find cause,
Or censure us, or free us with applause.

(I, iii)15

Massinger here has entered into his character, has identified with him, and makes the feeling match the high occasion. Whether he is drawing upon Horace or directly from Sir Philip Sidney in this argument in behalf of dramatic poetry (the comparison of poets and philosophers and the phrase "active virtue" are reminiscent of Sidney), the substance at first glance appears unassailable, and criticism seems a perversity. Clifford Leech calls this a "magnificent plea for the stage,"16 and dramatically it is so; but as a statement of principles it reverses Sidney's emphasis on "a speaking picture" of virtue and reveals a rather significant preoccupation with vice. (For a satirist, this must be allowed, for vice and folly are satire's stock in trade.) This preoccupation with wickedness may be explained away by the dramatic exigency: Paris, to exonerate his profession and avoid penalty, must answer the charge of "traducing such / That are above us." But Sandidge's judgment, that Paris' argument was intended as a complete defense and not penned simply as a speech appropriate for the actor, is impressive. It was an "apology," he suggests, "with all the arguments Massinger could adduce, not for a specific time, but for all times."17

Of the six parts of the defense dealing with vice, one concerns avarice (or covetousness) and three separately call up pictures of lust ("a man sold to his lusts," "Lydian panderism," and "loose adultress"). This of itself does not indicate an obsession; it could mean only that of all the deadly sins, he hated lust the most, or perhaps not even that. But when the reader surveys the body of the dramatist's work, he is struck by the fact that two dramas have avarice as the main theme (A New Way to Pay Old Debts) or an important theme (The City Madam), and that seven of Massinger's fifteen unassisted dramas have lust as the main theme.18 Of the playlets within The Roman Actor, one is called Cure of Avarice; Iphis and Anaxerete presents a proud mistress and a doting, despairing lover; the third treats of illicit love (The False Servant). The fact that Cure of Avarice does not cure Philargus the miser and that Iphis and Anaxerete does not affect the doting Caesar but actually inflames Domitia's lust for Paris seems to mean little, though Edwards speculates that the failure of these playlets to send the spectators home "changed men" indicates Massinger's melancholy feeling that satire is really not effective. This feeling (and his failure to get his finest tragedy, Believe as You List, approved by the authorities for production), Edwards suggests, drove Massinger to choose the odd vehicle of Fletcherian tragicomedy to "chase the consequences of moral choice" (p. 342). Whatever the reason, his turning to romantic tragedy and tragicomedy was unfortunate, for he could not make the moral tone of these works clear, and it is perhaps for this reason that critics have found it difficult to assess the total effect of his plays. In his satires, Massinger's vision is unclouded and his heart is sound.

The remaining point to be made concerning Paris' (i.e., Massinger's) vindication of drama is that it rather na�vely assumes that when drama has rewarded the virtuous and punished the wicked, it has performed the greater part of its ethical obligation. The redemptive power of great drama is not exaggerated in this vindication of the theater arts, but when one conceives of The Bashful Lover, The Picture, The Parliament of Love, The Emperour of the East, or even The Maid of Honour or The Bondman as sending evilly inclined spectators home changed men, the idea seems absurd. Leslie Stephen put this issue bluntly: "After all, can anybody say honestly that he is braced and invigorated by reading Massinger's plays?" (p. 375). He expects "No" for an answer and that is readily given if several of Massinger's notable successes are expected, but one would hope that the possibilities of drama are not limited to bracing and invigorating. If he should ask us whether we are entertained, most of us would be constrained to say that we are, for Massinger "cometh to you with a tale." But the moral tone of much of his work is gravely impaired.

If punishing the unrighteous were enough, then the Cecil B. De Mille motion picture spectacles would be of great moral documents. Besides this flaw in his theory, Massinger had other troubles of which he was perhaps not entirely aware. Though he was intelligently critical of the political condition and sensitive to social abuses, the times he lived in and the sickly palate of the Caroline audience still had their effect. The taste of the Court was as bad as popular taste; audiences sought amusement and entertainment almost exclusively. Of the twenty plays presented at Court in the 1630-31 season, only one was Shakespeare's and ten were Beaumont and Fletcher's. The theater, F. P. Wilson implies, had become the playgoer's narcotic.19 The Fletcherian type of romance and spectacle was an unlikely vehicle for Massinger's moral preachments: the low comedy and lascivious language mixed with the outworn conventions of courtly love and flawed honor make his real convictions sound like mere pious sentiments. The drama before 1600, says Clifford Leech, was a drama of power; after that it became a drama of sex (p. 182). In fact, he says, the whole seventeenth century was "hag-ridden by sex," and play writers were often merely externalizing their own lusts. Even in a play as remote from human love as The Virgin Martyr, "Massinger and Dekker see Dorothea with a repressed sensuality, and extract a thrill from her martyrdom" (p. 183). Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and Troilus and Cressida stand at a point of transition, being studies in the interrelation of sex and power. Massinger picked up the theme of "the dotage of our general's" from Antony and Cleopatra and made dotage (that is, craven sexual submissiveness) the main theme of four plays and the minor theme of two others.20 It is perhaps unjust to call this sex-obsession, but one finds in Massinger a significant preoccupation with the subject. It overflows the measure.

Massinger's comic scenes, too, contribute to the blurring of dramatic decorum. They are salacious, clumsy, or merely inane. They are built around serving men and women who are hungry for food or hungry for sex. Many of Massinger's clowns attempt to get laughs by their gluttony, like Justice Greedy in A New Way, or by being deprived of food (or drink) and exhibiting an extreme longing for it, like Hilario, Ubaldo, and Ricardo (The Picture), Belgarde (The Unnatural Combat), or Spungius (The Virgin Martyr). Massinger's best tragedy, Believe as You List, is marred by the buffoon Berecinthius, a gross fat man. Massinger had no gift for humor, and in his attempts he often succeeds, as Stephen says, "in being at once dull and dirty." Symons agrees that "his professedly comic types ... are without really comic effect" (p. xxxi). His jokes, when they do not concern food and drink, usually turn upon the sexual leer. Massinger's bawdry, not always uttered by underlings, is sometimes almost as shocking as that of frankly salacious modern fiction. The effect is like that produced by a humorless man trying to appear archly risqu�. He uses the gross four-letter words, like those found in the early drama, very sparingly; his phrases, instead, are lubricious. He is resourceful in finding words descriptive of the phallus, and Eubulus' description of the pudendum in The Picture (III,iv) is repulsively vulgar (though it is meant for caustic wit). Massinger's temptation scenes are titillating, sometimes scabrous, and his words suggesting the characteristic movement in coitus are extremely coarse. In The Maid of Honour, Gonzago, the devout Knight of Malta, reproves but lightly the rough soldiers for crying "Whores!" when the Duchess Aurelia and her company ride by, and apparently agrees with Captain Jacomo that soldiers must have their license--"They will touch at her breech with their tongues" (IV,i). All of this bears out what Muriel Bradbrook says of the drama of "the decadence" and of Massinger in particular: he blurs the moral values.21 In too many of the plays, Massinger's talent for maintaining decorum seems insufficient.

When, however, the question is proposed--"Is Massinger genuinely moral?"--the response should be another question: "Which Massinger?" For Massinger could write in another fashion, even on the subject of love. The Great Duke of Florence is a pleasant love story concerning Giovanni, who lies to his uncle Cozimo about the beauty of a simple country girl that Giovanni is in love with because he is afraid the great Duke will want to marry her himself. The moral tone of The Maid of Honour is fairly well maintained; and The Roman Actor, though it is violent and brutal, evokes high moral indignation. All critics praise Believe as You List, Massinger's Lear, and his two admirable comedies of social satire.

But Massinger is usually not to be trusted on the subject of woman and love. One particularly disturbing element is that in all of the fifteen dramas he wrote by himself the word "like" (to indicate the feeling of a young man for a fair maid) does not occur even once. He uses "affect" only twice and "love" very sparingly. His usual phrases to describe the feelings in an honorable love affair are "lawful flames," "holy fires," or "burned to cinders." These expressions may be explained as the language of sonneteering, the courtly romance, and the Court of Love postures of "mistress" and "servant"--all discarded patterns, except in decadent tragicomedy. But there is more to it than that. When Massinger uses the word "love," there is so much of the sensual in the relationship that the reader can never be sure whether he means "lust" or "an assortment of ideals and fancy feelings hung about some person handy." This lack of a clear distinction between desire and what has been traditionally understood as love comes as much from muddied feeling, as Eliot suggests (pp. 159-60), as from working with awkward material. It is not that Massinger was anticipating by several hundred years D. H. Lawrence's extraordinary doctrine in Lady Chatterley that "sensuality is purity"; one understands that Massinger thought he hated sensuality. But--to give only one example--in The Bondman he pictures the hero as a young man who lusts after the heroine; he even "dotes" on her, as Antony dotes on Cleopatra; but when he has her in his physical power, he exercises such extraordinary restraint that he does not rape her. This restraint is considered a supreme act of temperance, and the "temperate" hero (rather than the lusting, doting, suspicious, jealous rival) is the "boy who gets girl" in the end. This is moral blurring. So long as Massinger was following the Fletcherian mode of exploiting romance, "love," sensation, and spectacle to create a "speaking picture" of virtue, he was fighting a losing battle. He lacked the feeling to depict passionate love persuasively.22

It is only when he threw off love's dominion and turned toward political and social satire that Massinger created something of lasting value. It is surprising, as Philip Edwards says, that he wrote only two satires, for "such satires are necessarily built round a moral spine, and seem to perform just what he asked of drama" (p. 342). A New Way to Pay Old Debts moves away from the perfumed and poisoned air of Court, where "court-stallions" and "smock-agents" caper, leer, and smirk, and "she-waitresses" keep the gate opposite St. Peter's. The play takes it audience to the wholesome English countryside where we find such a monstrous old villain, Sir Giles Overreach, that we can hardly believe in him. He is so avaricious, such a "purchaser," so ambitious to marry his daughter into the nobility that he is more amusing than sinister (like that other overreacher Volpone). We know that his daughter Meg, almost as fresh and wholesome as Margaret of merry Fressingfield, and her true love will have a trick to catch the old one. We do not go to this delightful play for laughter. For once, Massinger understood the distinction Sir Philip Sidney made: "Delight hath a joy in it, either permanent or present. Laughter hath only a scornful tickling."


1"Massinger the Censor," Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, ed. Richard Hosley (Columbia, Mo., 1962), p. 341.

2Elizabethan Plays, ed. Hazelton Spencer (Boston, 1933), p. 1052.

3Lamb's Criticism, ed. E. M. W. Tillyard (Cambridge, 1923), p. 31.

4Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe (London and Toronto, 1931), VI, 265, 266.

5Coleridge on the Seventeenth Century, ed. Roberta F. Brinkley (Durham, N.C., 1955), pp. 674, 675.

6Hours in a Library, II (New York, n.d.), 346, 376.

7Philip Massinger, Mermaid Series, I (New York, n.d.), xviii.

8The difficulty, as often happens, comes from the critic's desire to make a clarion generalization, hoping that the exceptions are trivial or minor. In assessing Massinger's work, one should be careful to qualify, for here the exceptions are significant and striking. In Believe as You List, for example, though the play has some flaws, the morality is neither "nerveless," "aimless," nor "a co-partner of confusion," but clear and sound. That several other plays of Massinger should be removed from the interdiction will appear in this paper.

9The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, ed. Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas J. Wise, XII (New York, 1926), 254.

10Hours in a Library, p. 375.

11"The Political Element in Massinger," The Contemporary Review, XXVIII (August 1876), 495.

12Philip Massinger (Oxford, 1920), p. 19.

13T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1917-1932 (New York, 1932), p. 182.

14Philip Massinger (Cambridge, 1957), p. 74.

15W. Gifford edition of Massinger (London, 1813). There are no line numbers.

16Shakespeare's Tragedies and Other Studies in Seventeenth Century Drama (London, 1950), p. 176.

17William Lee Sandidge, A Critical Edition of Massinger's "The Roman Actor," Princeton Studies in English (Princeton, 1929), p. 23.

18The Roman Actor, The Duke of Milan, The Picture, The Emperour of the East, The Bondman, The Renegado, The Unnatural Combat, The Parliament of Love.

19Eliabethan and Jacobean (Oxford, 1945), p. 85.

20The major theme of The Roman Actor, The Duke of Milan, The Emperour of the East, and The Picture; a minor theme in two dramas of lust, The Bondman and The Renegado.

21Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge, 1935), p. 243.

22"When Massinger's ladies resist temptation they do not appear to undergo any important emotion; they merely know what is expected of them; they manifest themselves to us as lubricious prudes" (Eliot, p. 189).

Source: A. L. Bennett, "The Moral Tone of Massinger's Dramas." Papers on Language and Literature 2, No. 3 (Summer 1966): 39-56.