"Massinger's Political Tragedies"

Critic: Douglas Howard
Source: Philip Massinger: A Critical Reassessment, edited by Douglas Howard, pp. 117-37. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

[(essay date 1985) In the following essay, Howard sees The Roman Actor and Believe as You List as evidence of Massinger's increased political involvement in the Caroline period and of his shift towards more appropriate subject matter for tragedy than he had treated in his earlier plays.]

The death of Fletcher in 1625 marked an obvious turning point in Massinger's career as a playwright, since thereafter he occupied Fletcher's place as chief dramatist for the King's Men. Massinger had been associated with this company as Fletcher's collaborator as early as 1616, but before 1625 only two of his unaided plays, The Duke of Milan (?1621-2) and The Unnatural Combat (?1624-5), were written for audiences at the Globe and indoors at Blackfriars. The remainder of his extant unaided works from the years before the death of Fletcher were undertaken for Christopher Beeston's companies at the Phoenix (or Cockpit) in Drury Lane, and they were all either tragicomedies or comedies.

After 1625, however, Massinger's name was--with the puzzling exception of The Great Duke of Florence (1627)1--associated exclusively with the King's Men. The majority of his plays continued to be tragicomedies, but those tragedies he did produce during the Caroline period follow a recognizable trend in the direction of political controversy. As early as 1619, Massinger had run into trouble with the authorities for his part in Sir John van Olden Barnavelt, a tragedy written in collaboration with Fletcher and based on recent political and religious conflict in the Netherlands.2 The play was licensed by the Master of the Revels, but its performance was temporarily delayed on account of a prohibition by the Bishop of London.

Massinger was twice more to encounter resistance for the political implications of his plays. In January 1631 Sir Henry Herbert refused to license the original version of Believe As You List because it treated the life of Don Sebastian, King of Portugal, who died in the battle of Alcazar-el-Kebir in 1578. After Don Sebastian's defeat, when Portugal had been annexed by Philip II, a number of pretenders appeared claiming to be Sebastian, and Herbert considered Massinger's sympathetic portrayal of one of them to be a dangerous matter in view of England's alliance with Spain. Massinger promptly set about rewriting the play, moving the scene from Portugal to Carthage and substituting the classical stories of Antiochus the Great and of Hannibal's persecution by Titus Flamininus for the Don Sebastian material.3 Herbert licensed the revised version of the play on 6 May 1631, and it was subsequently acted by the King's Men.

Seven years later, Massinger once more ran foul of the Master of the Revels regarding the political implications of a play, now lost, called The King and the Subject (1638). Herbert ordered among other things that the name of the play be altered, and King Charles himself required the omission of one offending passage, noting, 'This is too insolent, and to be changed.'4 The play was eventually allowed to be acted, 'the reformations most strictly observed, and not otherwise' (Bentley, vol. 4, p.795), but Herbert's entry does not indicate what the new title was. There being no other record of a play called The King and the Subject, efforts have been made to identify this work with another title. That most often suggested, by Fleay among others,5 is the lost Massinger tragedy called The Tyrant, which, though its date is unknown, is conjecturally assigned to 1628 in the Harbage (rev. Schoenbaum) Annals.6 The play is first mentioned in Moseley's list (1660), and it can be traced as far as Warburton's sale in November 1759 (Bentley, vol. 4, p. 819), but nothing is now known of its whereabouts. Both Greg and Bentley doubt Fleay's linking of The Tyrant and The King and the Subject,7 but even if the titles represent separate plays, both add to our impression that Massinger's later tragedies were increasingly political in nature.8

While changes in the political climate after the coronation of Charles no doubt helped shift Massinger's attention away from personal tragedy and towards tragedies of power,9 this new direction was a natural and inevitable one for the dramatist. His general moral outlook was clearly more suited to social and political questions than to the kinds of internal strife that he had tried to represent in characters like Sforza in The Duke of Milan and Malefort senior in The Unnatural Combat. Among the tragedies Massinger may have written between 1625 and his death in 1640, only The Roman Actor (1626) and Believe As You List (1631) are extant, but in both of these plays the central action is more nearly a conflict between good and evil characters than a war between reason and passion within the individual. Instead of the clash between Malefort's noble public self and his incestuous longings, we have Domitian's relentless persecution of innocent men in The Roman Actor. The line of battle is also clearly drawn in Believe As You List, where Flaminius is relieved of his duties as ambassador to Carthage in order that he may devote his full energy to the destruction of the saintly Antiochus.

The Roman Actor and Believe As You List are, then, departures from Massinger's previous attempts at tragedy; they are, moreover, happy departures for a dramatist whose earlier tragedies were marred by his failure to make convincing tragic protagonists out of characters--like Malefort, Sforza, even Charalois in The Fatal Dowry (?1617-19)--whose combination of public self-assurance and private disablement by passion seems somehow implausible. Shakespeare was able, in Antony and Cleopatra, for example, to turn such inconsistent behaviour as that of Malefort or Sforza into a statement about the enigmatic and paradoxical nature of the tragic personality. Chapman created similarly convincing, if contradictory, figures in Bussy D'Ambois and the Duke of Byron, and certainly Webster found tragic potential in Vittoria Corombona's inscrutable mixture of treachery and defiant individualism in The White Devil.10 Massinger, however, was less comfortable with such amalgams of virtue and vice, and with the idea that their greatness in some way exempted them from judgement according to established societal norms. In both The Roman Actor and Believe As You List, Massinger moves away from such mixed characters, which, in a less exaggerated form, Aristotle himself thought best for tragedy, and towards characters whose complete goodness or thorough villainy reminds one that the influence of the Morality tradition was still to be felt in English tragedy.

Massinger was not, of course, the only seventeenth-century dramatist to write tragedy based on something approximating to a battle between virtues and vices. Jonson's Sejanus (1603), upon which Massinger drew heavily in The Roman Actor,11 focuses upon a thoroughly evil character who kills off his betters in an effort to gain power. Chapman turned from Bussy and Byron to the innocent and pitiable hero of The Tragedy of Chabot (1622), and even Shakespeare set Edgar and Edmund, as well as Cordelia and her evil sisters, in unmistakable moral opposition to one another. Since Massinger was not the sole practitioner of tragedy involving such antithetical figures, the important issue is the kind of tragic effect produced by this sort of play and its difference from tragedy which results from a flaw in character. Plays like The Roman Actor and Believe As You List are, in one sense, bleaker in outlook than those where suffering results from some failure of the individual. King Lear may be more sinned against than sinning, but his ill-advised division of the kingdom and his rash banishment of Kent and Cordelia implicate him in his own downfall. More important, Lear enters into a new state of self-awareness as a result of his suffering--something that does not happen in tragedies where destruction is a result of blind chance, or of personal malice. To Antiochus in Believe As You List, our chief reaction is pity; we may fear, but what we fear is the hideousness of his fate, not--as in Lear or in Oedipus the King--that we might bring such an end upon ourselves. And since the persecution of Antiochus does not, like that of Dorothea in Massinger and Dekker's The Virgin Martyr (?1620), bring with it the promise of a heavenly reward, we are left at the end of the play with a sense of hopelessness about the protagonist's fate. We feel, as we do after reading Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, that an innocent individual has been made to suffer by a horrifying combination of human depravity and divine neglect.

The mood of The Roman Actor, on the other hand, is less nearly one of despair. Although Domitian in his reign of terror causes many noble Romans to die unjustly, he finally pays for his crimes, and his cruelty is made to seem ineffectual when men like Rusticus and Sura insist that the tyrant's rending of their bodies merely adds lustre to their souls (III.ii.95-108). The pattern of The Roman Actor is essentially that of all de casibus tragedy; it combines the vicissitudes of fortune with retribution for sin in bringing about the fall of a prince. Domitian might say with Lord Mowbray in The Mirror for Magistrates (1559) that Fortune did her part in his fall, but that 'Vyce onely vyce' causes the heart to incline to evil.12

The fact that Domitian comes to a bad end (while Flaminius, the antagonist in Believe As You List, does not) is only one of the important distinctions between the two plays. An even more revealing difference is that the protagonist in The Roman Actor is not completely innocent in the way that Antiochus is in the later, more narrowly political Believe As You List. Paris, unlike the exiled Asian king, has a disastrous slip from honour when he momentarily gives in to the sexual advances of Domitia, the emperor's wife. If Antiochus has ever been guilty of wrongdoing, he has atoned for his sins: we first see him as he emerges from 22 years of wandering about the world in repentance for the foolish ambition that caused him to lose 12,000 men on 'Achaias bloodie plaines' (I.i.38).

Paris is virtuous, but not in the awe-inspiring way that Antiochus is, or even in the way that Lamia and many of Domitian's other victims are in The Roman Actor. He is peculiar among Massinger's tragic protagonists for being a believable near-miss at perfect goodness. He does not alternate, as Massinger's earlier protagonists do, between unconvincing extremes of good and evil, nor is he a paragon of virtue like Dorothea or Antiochus; he is an essentially noble individual who in a moment of trial compromises his honour.

The difference between Massinger's treatment of Paris and Antiochus is best explained by observing that Paris's character is not the moral focus of The Roman Actor in the way that Antiochus's is in Believe As You List. In the former play our attention is largely taken up with Domitian, his crimes, and the retribution that he brings upon himself. If Antiochus's stoic fortitude is meant to move us to virtue, then Domitian's gruesome death is meant to dissuade us from vice. That makes Paris's downfall ancillary to the main action of The Roman Actor, even though the title of the play obviously refers to him as well as to Domitian, the 'new actor' (IV.ii.237). There is ample evidence in the commendatory verses included in the first edition (1629) of The Roman Actor that Massinger's contemporaries saw the play in this light. Thomas Jay, one of the work's dedicatees, praises the author for his creation of Caesar, who

          (forgetting Heavens rod)
By His Edicts stil'd himselfe great Lord and God.

Paris, on the other hand, is mentioned only for his eloquent defence of actors. Similarly, in Robert Harvey's tribute to the play, the reader is invited to witness Domitian's tragic fall.

Long'st thou to see proud Casar set in State,
His Morning greatnesse, or his Euening fate?

Harvey asks, and then urges the reader to admire Massinger's setting forth of the story.

The failure to recognize that Paris's chief purpose is to defend the moral influence of the acting profession has led critics to distort the meaning of The Roman Actor by attributing to Paris more tragic significance than Massinger allows him. A. P. Hogan argues that Paris's ambition, and thus his willingness to serve a tyrant, brings about his 'very ironic' downfall.13 Hogan's conclusion is based largely on Paris's very conventional remark in the first scene that

Our aime is glorie, and to leaue our names
To after times.


There is no other suggestion in the play that Paris is ambitious, and his wish to be memorialized is a harmless commonplace of poets that one finds, as Willard Farnham has observed, in Boccaccio's De Casibus, the Secretum of Petrarch, and elsewhere.14 Moreover, Massinger goes out of his way to show Paris's favour with Domitian in the best possible light. His source for the actor's privileged position is Juvenal's Saturae where the political power of the histrio does, as Colin Gibson notes, come under attack,15 but Massinger shows Paris consistently using his influence with Domitian to good ends. Aesopus praises Paris for his bounty to his fellows (I.i.26-30), and even Parthenius remarks that:

                              many men owe you
For Prouinces they nere hop'd for; and their liues,
Forfeited to his anger.


Certainly, Paris's capitulation to the lascivious Domitia is pathetic, but neither that lapse nor Domitian's subsequent killing of Paris constitutes an ironic commentary upon the actor's favour with the emperor. Perhaps David Richman puts the case most clearly when he argues that Paris's 'mistake' is never explored enough to allow us to respond tragically.17 But if Massinger does not develop the tragic possibilities in the character of Paris, it is merely because his interests as a moralist lead him in another direction. With the example of Paris, as with that of Domitian himself, Massinger's purpose is to show us:

                              what honours waite
On good, and glorious actions, and the shame
That treads vpon the heeles of vice.


The whole of The Roman Actor is, in fact, an elaborate illustration of the Horatian idea,18 so often repeated by Massinger, that cold precepts cannot, like representation on the stage,

The Bloud, or swell the veines with emulation
To be both good, and great.


Like so much else in Massinger's plays, Paris's defence of the stage is conventional. It ultimately derives from Poetics 4 (1448b) where Aristotle observes that men are better pleased when they learn by seeing. Horace further emphasized the moral significance of poetry by giving profit and delight equal billing,19 and Sidney, following the Italians, allowed that 'the speaking picture of Poesie' might teach virtue better than either the philosopher's precepts or the historian's examples.20

But while Massinger's ideas about the moral function of art may be purely derivative, it is important to note that they are not treated uncritically in The Roman Actor. Paris takes an orthodox line in his oft-quoted defence in Act I, but his pronouncements are rigorously and methodically tested as we move through the play itself. We see them tested when Domitia decides that Paris, on the basis of his performance in 'Iphis and Anaxarete' (III.ii), must in real life be the perfect lover; we see them tested in 'The False Servant' (IV.ii) where Paris, in spite of his having played this role so often, proves that he has not learned its lesson; but most important, we see such assertions about the moral influence of art tested in the first of these plays-within-the-play, 'The Cure of Avarice' (II.i). Here Paris hopes to reform Parthenius's avaricious father, Philargus, by presenting a play in which a man is awakened from his moral stupor and made to repent of his miserliness. Philargus sees the play, is unmoved, and is sent to his death by the emperor who is displeased at his intractability. The failure to cure Philargus is a sign of Massinger's unwillingness to accept easy answers to complex questions about the relationship between life and art, and it is part of the sceptical undercurrent in this play which led Anne Barton to suggest that 'There is a sense in which The Roman Actor is more pessimistic about the power of art to correct and inform its audience than any other play written between 1580 and 1642.'21

The whole of The Roman Actor does not, however, leave one with the sense that Massinger's essential faith in the theatre as a tool of moral instruction is at all shaken. He maintains the hope that Paris's good intentions, like the dramatist's own, will not be without their impact upon the audience. Even Paris's ultimate failure to live up to his high moral expectations of himself has its instructive value, for Massinger clearly wants to show us that even the best men have no easy task in always heeding the voice of reason.

If we are looking for evidence of Massinger's convictions in this play about the moral effectiveness of his art, we must also look at his treatment of Domitian, the unprincipled tyrant around whose career The Roman Actor is really built. Just as Massinger altered his source in Juvenal in order to make Paris a more appealing and sympathetic figure, so he at every turn blackened the picture of Domitian which he found in the De Vita Caesarum of Suetonius and elsewhere. Suetonius's final verdict is, as Colin Gibson points out, that Domitian was 'one made of an equal mixture of virtues and vices, until he turned his virtues too into vices, being, so far as one may conjecture, greedy through lack of money, cruel because of fear'.22 This description might fit Massinger's earlier tragic figures, but it does not apply to the bloody emperor he sets before us here. Clearly Massinger wants us to make no mistake about the enormity of Domitian's crimes or the justice of his final punishment. 'Besides suppressing every creditable action recorded by the historians', Gibson writes, 'the dramatist introduces fresh crimes from other sources hostile to Domitian, and invents further ones.'23

Part of the reason for Massinger's portrayal of Domitian as a thoroughly villainous character is, as I have already indicated, that he wants to make a conventional moral point about tyrants and the inevitability with which retribution is visited upon them. Such a character is less fraught with tragic potential than the complex and divided personalities--Charalois, Sforza, Malefort--that Massinger had earlier depicted, but Domitian, like Antiochus at the opposite end of the ethical spectrum, is far better suited to Massinger's moral purposes. Malefort's 'Vertues so mix'd with vices' (III.ii.34) in The Unnatural Combat might have made for superb tragedy in the hands of Chapman, or Webster, or Ford, but Massinger's insistence upon clear moral example prevented him from treating internal conflict in a convincing manner. Domitian, though his character has a limited range, is more life-like than Massinger's earlier attempts at tragic complexity.

It is not merely the broad strokes of villainy with which he is painted that make Domitian interesting, however. His is the story of a despot, a man who governs by whim and whose fall marks the end of a long progress of evil. Although Ascletario's death and the emperor's fearful dream give the play a sense of the numinous, Domitian's murder is the work of human agents, and Massinger brings all his ethical scrutiny to bear upon those who conspire in his death. Of course, Massinger is also careful to give the conspirators just cause in their plot against Domitian. Both of Massinger's chief sources, Suetonius and Dio Cassius, have the murderers acting largely out of fear,24 but Massinger himself provides nobler motives. In Suetonius's account, Stephanos is under a charge of embezzlement, but Massinger makes him a disinterested avenger, exacting punishment for Domitian's abuse of Domitilla. Similarly, Parthenius is an auxiliary to the crime in Dio's version of the story, but Massinger has him avenging the death of his father, Philargus.

The most important change in Massinger's version of the conspiracy, however, is the addition of the three women--Domitia, Julia, and Domitilla--to the list of assassins.25 Domitia's expanded role in the plot helps to unify the play as a whole, since she seeks vengeance for the death of Paris, just as in her initial pursuit of him she sought to redress the wrongs done to Lamia, her husband. (See V.i.76-81 and V.ii.73.) Julia, Domitian's niece, seeks retribution for the emperor's incestuous involvement with her, and Domitilla, with the help of Stephanos, also exacts punishment as a victim of Caesar's lust. Massinger makes clear, in other words, that Domitian's crimes are the cause of his fall. There is no confusion here, no unexpected accusation of villainy like those by which we are surprised at the end of The Duke of Milan and The Unnatural Combat; we have witnessed Domitian's evil deeds from the outset, and now we see him called to judgement for them.

Given the fact of Domitian's tyranny, we are left to weigh the justifiability of revenge on the one hand, against the perils of regicide on the other. Massinger is quite consistent on both scores in this as in his other plays. The 'entirely hard-headed bourgeois disapproval of revenge' which Fredson Bowers observes in The Fatal Dowry26 surfaces again in The Roman Actor, and with it comes an even deeper aversion to the killing of a king. It is not so much that Massinger had a greater sense of loyalty to the crown or a greater reluctance to countenance revenge than his fellow dramatists, but that here for the first time, as Bowers contends, 'the romantic stage conventions of personal justice are outspokenly contrasted to the legal and moral code by which the vast majority of Elizabethans lived.'27 As with every other ethical issue, Massinger insisted upon pursuing the moral consequences of revenge, and he has no need, as Shakespeare does in Richard III and the Henry IV plays, to justify the claim to the throne of a benevolent usurper. Granted that political expediency might have required some statement about the divine right of kings, we cannot help but hear at least an echo of Massinger's own voice when Domitilla first declines Stephanos's offer to avenge her wrongs:

                              The immortall powers
Protect a Prince though sould to impious acts,
And seeme to slumber till his roaring crimes
Awake their iustice: but then looking downe
And with impartiall eyes, on his contempt
Of all religion, and morrall goodnesse,
They in their secret iudgements doe determine
To leaue him to his wickednesse, which sinckes him
When he is most secure.


Whether one demands satisfaction in a just cause, as Charalois does at the end of The Fatal Dowry, or whether one awaits the fall of a wicked prince, as Domitilla and the others do here, Massinger is reluctant to see the individual take the law--human or divine--into his own hands.

The first Tribune's speech at the end of The Roman Actor sums up Massinger's dilemma in this regard. He begins by accusing the conspirators and ordering the wicked Domitia imprisoned:

                              Yet he was our Prince,
How euer wicked, and in you 'tis murther
Which whosoe're succeeds him will reuenge.


Then, as Massinger would no doubt approve, the Tribune leaves it to the senate to censure Domitia.28 But the speech does not end here; the same Tribune offers a final and revealing assessment of Domitian's reign:

                              He in death hath payd
For all his cruelties. Heere's the difference:
Good Kings are mourn'd for after life, but ill
And such as gouern'd onely by their will
And not their reason, vnlamented fall;
No Goodmans teare shed at their Funerall.


The two sides of the argument are clear enough, and since the instance is only a hypothetical one based on ancient history, the claims both of loyalty and of justice can be honoured. But in his final extant tragedy, Believe As You List, Massinger turned to events which, as Sir Henry Herbert reminded him, were dangerously contemporary, and to a time when the English were already growing impatient with Charles's failure to set what they considered appropriate royal priorities.

Like The Roman Actor, Believe As You List is a tragedy about the fall of a prince, but in the latter play we pick up the story long after Antiochus's defeat; he has spent 22 years in self-imposed exile and has, under the guidance of a Stoic philosopher, reflected upon his downfall. As in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, we have a tragic protagonist who has survived the catastrophe, but who has found no place to dwell among the living. The play is even more firmly rooted in the tradition of The Mirror for Magistrates than is The Roman Actor. Antiochus stands before us in the opening scene like the ghosts of fallen Worthies in Boccaccio, in Lydgate's Falls of Princes, as well as in The Mirror itself,29 and like them he hopes that:

                                                  my fall
might not bee fruitlesse, but still liue the greate
example of mans frayletie.


This theme of human vulnerability is carried through to the last lines of the play where Antiochus, cast off even by his most loyal followers, again hopes that his fate will be a lesson to those who live after him:

                              may my storie
teach potentates humilitie, and instructe
prowde monarchs, though they governe humane thinges
a greater power does rayse, or pull downe kinges.


On the simplest level, then, Believe As You List is, like so much late medieval tragedy, a tale about mutability, and its moral is that one ought to be humble and expect the worst of this sublunary existence.

In a larger sense, however, this play represents a strikingly modern commentary upon the conflict between political expediency and the basic human values of trust and honour. We watch as Flaminius convinces Antiochus's former allies, one by one, that protection for the deposed monarch is not in their own best interest. Without exception, their conclusion is that of Carthalo, who decides:

                              wee are bounde to waigh
not what wee showlde doe in the poynt of honor,
swayde by our pittie, but what may bee donne
with the safetie of the state.


Every one of Antiochus's friends recognizes him, and they all acknowledge him as the king of Lower Asia, but none is willing to give him sanctuary or to support his claim to the throne in the face of Rome's opposition. From a modern perspective, Antiochus's rejection seems to illustrate that pusillanimity in the face of moral crisis which Hannah Arendt labels 'the banality of evil' in her report on the Eichmann trial. There can be no doubt, in fact, that Massinger's chief purpose here is to show us the overwhelming odds against which an untarnished figure like Antiochus fights in the 'labirinth / of politique windinges' (III.i.14-15) that the world has become.

But while Massinger hopes this tale

                                                  may move
compassion, perhaps deserve yor love,
and approbation,

(Prologue, 11-13)

he is careful not to weight the scales too heavily in favour of Antiochus. We are certain throughout the play that Antiochus is the king he declares himself to be, but the arguments of his detractors are made to seem almost equally valid. In spite of the authenticity of Antiochus's claim to the throne, the difficulty remains that his return would throw the current political order into disarray; Rome has brought peace to its Asian territories, and Flaminius urges the Bithinian king, Prusias, 'to preserue what shee hath conquer'd / from change, and innovation' (III.iii.86-7). The certain political upheaval that Antiochus's return to power would bring is everywhere remarked upon in the play. Even in the final scene, after Flaminius himself has been arrested for the crooked means whereby he sought to incriminate Antiochus, Marcellus, Flaminius's accuser, places Antiochus under house arrest. Earlier in the same scene, Marcellus and his wife Cornelia have had a very moving reunion with Antiochus, but now the Proconsul tells the forlorn king:

pray you thincke sr
a Roman, not your constant freinde that tells you
you are confinde vnto the Gyara
with a stronge garde vpon you.


The 'necessitie of state' (II.i.126) that Flaminius pleads as justification for his determined pursuit of Antiochus is, then, more than a mask for personal vindictiveness. It is important to remember that Flaminius is alone when he urges his allegiance to Rome as an excuse for his misdeeds. He has just sent Chrysalus and Geta to their deaths because they know Antiochus's claim to the throne to be a valid one, but as the two informants are taken to what they expect to be their reward, Flaminius has an attack of conscience:

                              doe I feele a stinge heere
for what is donne to theis poore snakes?


he asks himself, but promptly calls upon reason to allay his fears of cruelty:

                              that assures mee
that as I am a Roman to preserue
and propagate her empire, thowgh they were
my fathers sonnes they must not liue to witnesse
Antiochus is in beeinge.


Reason in the service of passion this may be, but it makes the case against Antiochus a difficult one to dismiss, for while the authenticity of his title and the perfection of his virtue are never in doubt, both are measured against the equally desirable good of political stability, and the better claim--at least so far as the characters in this play are able to judge--is that of political stability.

That Massinger has set up Antiochus as a kind of saviour of his people and at the same time made the case against him so tenable has resulted in general confusion about the author's own point of view in this play. Roma Gill, for example, argues that Marcellus provides 'the only solution compatible with both humanitarianism and policy'30 when he has Flaminius arrested and orders Antiochus released from the galleys and taken to prison. While Marcellus's verdict does acknowledge both Antiochus's rightful claim and the demands of political expediency, it can hardly have represented an acceptable solution to Massinger, any more than it does to the modern reader. The greater likelihood is that there is no wholly satisfactory answer to be had to the problem, that what we see here is that clash of opposites, that 'self-division and intestinal warfare of the ethical substance'31 of which, in Hegel's definition, tragedy is constituted. Flaminius plays Creon to Antiochus's Antigone, and if the Roman point of view here is lent more credence than we might expect, the explanation is that Massinger wants us to recognize the choice between political stability and allegiance to the deposed king as a serious dilemma.

Roma Gill goes too far, however, when she contends that Massinger's portrayal of Flaminius shows him to be a serious student of Machiavelli. Gill tries to prove that Massinger ignored the stage conventions of the Machiavellian villain and turned to The Prince itself as a source for Flaminius's political acumen. She writes: 'Flaminius has the welfare of the state at heart; it is his sole motivating force.'32 This sort of overstatement upsets the careful balance Massinger has created between Flaminius's ambition and unscrupulousness on the one hand, and his intermittent sense of civic duty on the other. Flaminius exists in this play not as a purveyor of Machiavellian statecraft, but as a reminder that the simple, untainted goodness of Antiochus is bound to be destroyed by the 'botches' that 'are made in the shoppe of policie' (IV.i.92-3). In fact, if one were looking for the influence of Machiavelli in Believe As You List, one might better search Antiochus's character than Flaminius's. Machiavelli foretells the doom of such idealists in Chapter XV of The Prince where he observes that:

how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation. A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good.33

A political climate in which the good man might survive was for Machiavelli a thing of the imagination; for Massinger, it was merely a thing of the past, and thus the dramatist looks with a certain nostalgia upon 'the image of a kinge' (V.i.150) as it is so gloriously represented in Antiochus. He is a holdover from a golden age of perfect virtue and unquestioning allegiance who has lived on into an age of iron; he is a larger-than-life figure who can find no niche in a society whose workings are too complex and whose goals are too mundane to tolerate his bold idealism. The tone of Believe As You List is an elegiac one, and if one presses too hard for a choice between Flaminius's politic manoeuvring and the regal splendour of Antiochus, one is likely to miss the essential mood of the play. What Massinger wants us to feel is regret. His sense of political reality was too great for him to have denied the claims of empire, and his commitment to honour was too strong for him to have let Antiochus's case go unheard, but neither of these facts suggests that we can or should make a choice of opposites. We simply leave the play wishing things might be different, but knowing that they are not.

The kind of moral stalemate with which Believe As You List ends is, admittedly, unusual for Massinger. His preference is more often for unequivocal moral statement, even at the expense of tragic meaning. I do not mean to suggest that Massinger's own allegiances are unclear in the play: there is no doubt that his sympathy lies with Antiochus, but he does not allow himself the luxury of believing that moral victory is easily won. We are urged by the example of Antiochus to stand for honour and loyalty, but we are not made to think that that will save us from being torn apart in the political fray. As in The Roman Actor, Massinger here shows himself to be a dramatist who believed in the moral influence of art, but who was at the same time aware that its powers are in no way miraculous. We, like the Carthaginian nobles, have been presented with incontrovertible evidence that Antiochus's claim is authentic, but our capacity to defend that claim in the face of Flaminius's threats would, Massinger seems to say, be no greater than theirs.

This reading of the play is in general agreement with Philip Edwards's conclusion, in a more topical vein, that Flaminius (or Philip II in the original version) was for Massinger 'a metaphor for a kind of modernism'34 that the English found objectionable in the policies of Charles I. Edwards points out that the causes of the king's unpopularity--his autocratic efforts to raise money, his unwillingness to convene Parliament, his failure to come to the aid of the Elector Palatine--were all viewed as evidence of his would-be absolutism. His was the role of a dangerous innovator, and the negative reaction against his increasingly authoritarian rule carried with it a large measure of nostalgia. 'Those who opposed Charles wished not to advance but to return', Edwards contends, 'and the reign of Queen Elizabeth took on a quite extraordinary sentimental lustre as the golden image of all that life under the Stuarts failed to be.'35

Edwards's conclusions about the original version of Believe As You List are more difficult to accept. Since only the revised version of the play is extant, we cannot be certain how Massinger originally treated the Don Sebastian story, but C. J. Sisson's introduction to the Malone Society Reprint of the play argues convincingly that Massinger made as few changes as were required to appease the censor.36 In fact, as Sisson was the first to observe, Massinger substituted names that were metrical equivalents of the originals (Antiochus for Sebastian, Carthage for Venice, even Demetrius Castor for Sebastian Nero) to avoid changing the verse. In spite of such evidence that Massinger's revisions were minimal, Edwards argues that Antiochus's portrayal is substantially different from the earlier one of Don Sebastian. Massinger's purpose in treating the Don Sebastian story was, Edwards believes, to bring dignity and credibility to a pretender who had, like the protagonist in Ford's Perkin Warbeck (1633), been discredited by history. Edwards writes:

In the rewritten story, the indispensable element of dubiety is lost. Antiochus is no longer a mysterious pretender; he is the true king returning. The earlier hero, the Portuguese pretender, was, like Warbeck, an enigma who puzzled and divided his contemporaries, a famous real pretender of modern history.37

There is, in fact, nothing to suggest that Massinger represented Don Sebastian as having a more dubious claim to the throne than Antiochus does in the revised Believe As You List, or that his hero in the first version was more enigmatic. While Ford's treatment of Warbeck does suggest one possible method of development, he and Massinger were very different writers and they would not have been likely to treat the subject in exactly the same way. Moreover, had Massinger's Don Sebastian been so enigmatic a figure or so dubious a claimant as Edwards asserts, it is just possible that Herbert would have found nothing objectionable in the play.

In comparing Massinger's play with Perkin Warbeck, Edwards says that 'it is essential to keep Massinger's original purpose in mind',38 but that purpose appears not to have changed perceptibly in the course of revision. Although Edwards does not say so himself, his insistence upon the distinction between Sebastian, the pretender, and Antiochus, the returning king, appears to be a way of accounting for the puzzling fact that Massinger allows the case against Antiochus such validity. Had Antiochus been a mere pretender, like the one claiming to be Don Sebastian, then Flaminius's merciless routing of him in the name of policy would not be nearly so appalling, and the desertion by his supporters would be seen as an astute political manoeuvre rather than the unconscionable display of cowardice that it is in the later version of the play.

The difficult ethical question Massinger poses in pitting Antiochus's claim against Flaminius's plea for political stability need not be explained away either by Edward's hypothetical reconstruction of the original play or by Roma Gill's contention that Massinger is defending Machiavellian statecraft. Clearly, Massinger was not so naive as to expect that the stoic wisdom acquired by Antiochus in the desert was something that a fallen world would either tolerate or share in. But like Spenser before him and Milton after, Massinger believed that virtue is a meaningful quality only if it is persistently tested in the everyday world. Thus, the Stoic tells Antiochus in the opening scene of Believe As You List:

                              you must now forget
the contemplations of a private man
and put in action that wch may complie
with the maiestie of a monarch.


Antiochus is not like ambitious men, of the sort described by Marcellus, who seek 'the golden fetters of imployment' (V.i.45), but who,

                              when they haue tri'ed
by a sad experience the burthen of 'em,
when 'tis not in their power at any rate
... woulde redeeme their calm securitie
morgaged in wantonesse.


Such politic creatures always seek a permanent escape when they discover, as Dioclesian does in Fletcher and Massinger's The Prophetess, that the glories of empire cannot save them from 'a shaking fever', or 'the uncorrupted dart of Death'.39 For Antiochus, the call to the active life is a call to duty, and even if the end is defeat, the obligation cannot be ignored.

Antiochus does lose in the end, but his defeat is, as Edwards has observed, a practical not a moral one.40 His regal bearing and his unfaltering virtue strike wonder in everyone who encounters him, and no one is able to deny his right to the crown, even if it is kept from him as a matter of political expediency. There can be no doubt about the play's austerity or the sense of hopelessness with which it ends. Its spirit is not, however, one of resignation: Massinger was too much a product of English humanism ever to have submitted to the view of the Stoics or, much later, of Schopenhauer, 'that the world, that life cannot grant any true satisfaction, and hence they do not deserve our attachment'.41

A mood of despair may well inform Believe As You List, just as a kind of scepticism about the moral influence of art underlies The Roman Actor, but in both instances we are seeing only a part of Massinger's broad range of dramatic expression. In assessing the Massinger canon as a whole, the grim verdict of these two plays--that the virtuous will be devoured by the fallen world they inhabit--is a useful corrective to the impression of Massinger left by his numerous tragicomedies, where the capacity of virtue to arouse wonder and the power of example to alter character often seem too easily granted.


1Malone's note that 'The Great Duke was licensed for the Queen's Servants, July 5, 1627' is difficult to explain in light of Massinger's otherwise exclusive association with the King's Men after 1625. Philip Edwards's suggestion that 'Massinger had in earlier times undertaken to produce the play for Beeston, had been paid for it, but was very slow in delivering the copy' seems the most likely answer to the problem. See Joseph Q. Adams (ed.), The Dramatic Records of Sir Henry Herbert (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1917), p. 31, and Philip Edwards and Colin Gibson (ed.), The Plays and Poems of Philip Massinger (5 vols., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1976), vol. 3, p. 95.

2See G. E. Bentley's account of the play's prohibition in The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare's Time (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1971), pp. 178-9.

3Colin Gibson provides a convenient summary of Massinger's alterations in Edwards and Gibson, vol. 3, pp. 294-8. For a more elaborate discussion see P. M. Smith, 'Massinger's Use of Sources, with special reference to The Duke of Milan and Believe As You List' (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Birmingham, 1963). The findings of Gibson and Smith are supplemented by David Bradley's discovery that Massinger's principal source for the first version of Believe As You List was almost certainly Edward Grimestone's translation and continuation of Louis de Mayerne Turquet, The Generall Historie of Spaine, London, 1612. See Bradley's 'A Major Source of Massinger's Believe As You List (1631)', Notes and Queries, 29 (1982), 20-2.

4G. E. Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage (7 vols., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1941-68), vol. 4, p. 795.

5F. G. Fleay, A Biographical Chronicle of the English Drama, 1559-1642 (2 vols., London, 1891), vol. 1, p. 229. See also Edmond Malone (ed.) Shakespeare: Plays and Poems, Variorum edn. (21 vols., London, 1821) vol. 3, pp. 230, 240; and Adams, The Dramatic Records, p. 22, n.3.

6Alfred Harbage (rev. S. Schoenbaum), Annals of English Drama, 975-1700, 2nd edn (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964), p. 124.

7Bentley, Jacobean and Caroline Stage, vol. 4, p. 795, and W. W. Greg, A Bibliography of the English Printed Drama to the Restoration (4 vols., London, Oxford University Press, 1939-51), vol. 2, p. 1003.

8Among Massinger's lost plays are two which seem to represent tragedies of a non-political nature, The Forced Lady (date unknown) and The Unfortunate Piety (1631).

9The attempt of S. R. Gardiner, 'The Political Element in Massinger', The Contemporary Review, 28 (1876), 495-507, to read Massinger's plays as political allegories has been much disputed, but Philip Edwards argues convincingly about the topical nature of Believe As You List, in 'The Royal Pretenders in Massinger and Ford', Essays and Studies, 27 (1974), 18-36. See also Allen Gross, 'Contemporary Politics in Massinger', SEL, 6 (1966), 279-90.

10See Willard Farnham's study of the deeply flawed heroes of Shakespeare's later tragedies, Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1950). Timon, Macbeth, Antony, and Coriolanus, Farnham argues, 'draw from us reactions that vary widely between profound antipathy and profound sympathy. Along with sympathy they can inspire admiration' (p. 9).

11See Colin Gibson, 'Massinger's Use of his Sources for The Roman Actor', AUMLA, 15 (1961), 60-72.

12Lily B. Campbell (ed.), The Mirror for Magistrates (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1938), p. 102.

13A. P. Hogan, 'Imagery of Acting in The Roman Actor', MLR, 66 (1971), 273-81.

14Willard Farnham, The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1936), p. 83. The desire of poets to be immortalized is often mentioned by Dante, and Horace, Odes III.30, might also be added to Farnham's list.

15Gibson, 'Massinger's Use of his Sources', p. 64.

16Gibson cites these two passages in order to illustrate Massinger's sympathetic portrayal of Paris. See 'Massinger's Use of his Sources', pp. 63-4.

17David Richman, 'Dramatic Craftsmanship in Jacobean Tragedy' (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Stanford University, 1978), p. 338.

18Gibson notes (Edwards and Gibson, vol. 5, p. 184) Gifford's suggestion that Massinger here expands upon Horace, Ars Poetica, 179-82.

19Horace, Ars Poetica, 343-4.

20Sir Philip Sidney, 'An Apology for Poetry', in G. Gregory Smith (ed.), Elizabethan Critical Essays (2 vols., Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1904), vol. 1, pp. 163-5. See also Marvin T. Herrick, The Fusion of Horatian and Aristotelian Literary Criticism, 1531-1555 (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1946), pp. 39-47.

21Anne Barton, 'The Distinctive Voice of Massinger', TLS (20 May 1977), reprinted as an appendix in this volume (see p. 231).

22Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum, VIII.3, cited by Gibson in 'Massinger's Use of his Sources', p. 71.

23Gibson, 'Massinger's Use of his Sources', p. 71.

24Gibson, 'Massinger's Use of his Sources', p. 67.

25Domitia's compliance in the plot is clear from the historians, but Massinger's inclusion of her among the actual assassins was his own invention.

26Fredson Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642 (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1940), p. 190.

27Bowers, p. 192.

28It is difficult to tell in lines 86-7 whether the Tribune continues to address Domitia, or if, having sent her to her punishment, he now turns and speaks to the other conspirators. In either case, he is allowing the law to take its course. The first Tribune's recognition that punishment for regicide is inevitable, even though Domitian was a tyrant, is also the substance of Lysippus's final pronouncement in Beaumont and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy (1610).

29See Howard Baker, Induction to Tragedy: A Study in a Development of Form in 'Gorboduc', 'The Spanish Tragedy' and 'Titus Andronicus' (1939; rpt. New York, Russell and Russell, 1965), p. 111.

30Roma Gill, '"Necessitie of State": Massinger's Believe As You List', English Studies, 46 (1965), 415.

31A. C. Bradley, 'Hegel's Theory of Tragedy', in his Oxford Lectures on Poetry, 2nd edn (1909; rpt. London, Macmillan, 1923), p. 71.

32Gill, '"Necessitie of State"', p. 410.

33Niccol� Machiavelli, The Prince and The Discourses, intro. Max Lerner (New York, The Modern Library, 1950), p. 56.

34Edwards, 'The Royal Pretenders', pp. 34-5.

35Edwards, 'The Royal Pretenders', p. 33. Anne Barton has recently studied Jonson's similar recollection of the bygone age of Elizabeth in 'Harking Back to Elizabeth: Ben Jonson and Caroline Nostalgia', ELH, 48 (1981), 706-31.

36C. J. Sisson (ed.), 'Believe As You List by Philip Massinger, 1631' (Oxford, Oxford University Press, for the Malone Society, 1927), pp. xix-xx.

37Edwards, 'The Royal Pretenders', p. 20.

38Edwards, 'The Royal Pretenders', p. 20.

39Alexander Dyce (ed.), The Works of Beaumont and Fletcher (11 vols., London, 1843-6), vol. 8, p. 272.

40Edwards, 'The Royal Pretenders', p. 29.

41Walter Kaufmann, Tragedy and Philosophy (1968: rpt. Garden City, NY, Anchor-Doubleday, 1969), p. 342.

Source: Douglas Howard, "Massinger's Political Tragedies." In Philip Massinger: A Critical Reassessment, edited by Douglas Howard, pp. 117-37. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.