"The Significance of Massinger's Social Comedies,
with a Note on 'Decadence'"
- Critic: L. C. Knights
- Source: Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson, pp. 270-300. London: Chatto and Windus, 1937.
[(essay date 1937) In the following essay, Knights views Massinger as the last of the Elizabethans, as his works are concerned with aristocratic values and show little interest in the middle class or common people.]
The first symptom of decadence that we notice in Massinger is his dependence on Shakespeare. Canon Cruickshank gives a close-packed page to 'a few examples of the imitation of incidents', and over seven pages to 'parallels in thought and diction'.1 The nature of this indebtedness is discussed by Mr Eliot, who concludes that,
Massinger's feeling for language had outstripped his feeling for things; that his eye and his vocabulary were not in co-operation. ... Every vital development in language is a development of feeling as well. The verse of Shakespeare and the major Shakespearian dramatists is an innovation of this kind, a true mutation of species. The verse practised by Massinger is a different verse from that of his predecessors; but it is not a development based on, or resulting from, a new way of feeling. On the contrary it seems to lead us away from feeling altogether.2
Massinger not only imitates Shakespeare, he repeats his imitations and he repeats himself. There is not only dilution, there is a tendency towards stereotyped feelings and perceptions. And besides the influence of Shakespeare there is the influence of Jonson, most potent in The City Madam.
In by-corners of
This sacred room, silver in bags, heap'd up
Like billets saw'd and ready for the fire,
Unworthy to hold fellowship with bright gold
That flow'd about the room, conceal'd itself.
There needs no artificial light; the splendour
Makes a perpetual day there, night and darkness
By that still-burning lamp for ever banish'd!
But when, guided by that, my eyes had made
Discovery of the caskets, and they open'd,
Each sparkling diamond from itself shot forth
A pyramid of flames, and in the roof
Fix'd it a glorious star, and made the place
Heaven's abstract, or epitome!--rubies, sapphires,
And ropes of orient pearl, these seen, I could not
But look on with contempt. And yet I found
What weak credulity could have no faith in,
A treasure far exceeding these: here lay
A manor bound fast in a skin of parchment,
The wax continuing hard, the acres melting;
Here a sure deed of gift for a market-town,
If not redeem'd this day, which is not in
The unthrift's power: there being scarce one shire
In Wales or England, where my monies are not
Lent out at usury, the certain hook
To draw in more. I am sublimed! gross earth
Supports me not; I walk on air.3
There is no need to quote Volpone's address to his gold;4 it is clear where the central inspiration comes from. There is, besides, a minor borrowing from Epicoene,5 and the speech ends with a reminiscence of Sejanus.6 The play reveals other direct borrowings,7 but what this speech shows also is that Massinger is not a mere unconscious plagiarist. The passage has a life of its own, and it forms a genuinely original variation on the Jonsonian mode. Much more could be said about Massinger's verse. It is capable of sudden vividness--
Think of the basket, wretches,
And a coal-sack for a winding-sheet,8
and it is almost always a serviceable dramatic medium. It is, however, 'the nearest approach to the language of real life at all compatible with a fixed metre',9 and its virtues--perspicuity and a freedom from 'poeticisms'--too easily become vices.
Now to you we'll discover
The close design that brought us, with assurance,
If you lend your aids to furnish us with that
Which in the colony was not to be purchased,
No merchant ever made such a return
For his most precious venture, as you shall
Receive from us.10
This is not verse at all, and passages of this kind reinforce Mr Eliot's verdict that 'if Massinger's age, "without being exactly corrupt, lacks moral fibre", Massinger's verse, without being exactly corrupt, suffers from cerebral anaemia'11--
Old poets fancy, (your cramm'd wardrobes richer
Than various natures,) and draw down the envy
Of our western world upon you.
(III, ii (IV, 63))
though one has to add that it is far from being consistently anaemic.
* * *
Comment of this kind was a necessary preliminary to a consideration of Massinger's handling of social themes in his two admirable comedies, A New Way to Pay Old Debts and The City Madam. Here, as the verse tells us to expect, we find that Massinger is derivative, but not, like Shirley, entirely dependent upon a literary common-stock. His themes are drawn from the Jonsonian field, he breaks no fresh ground, and his manner of approach and presentation is obviously dependent upon Jonson's. But each of the plays lives; neither is a mere repetition of work that had been done better. That is to say that there is fresh perception of a contemporary world, and the treatment shows that the tradition on which Jonson drew is active in Massinger, not a matter of inert convention.
In A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1621) Wellborn, ruined by his own prodigality and by the extortion of his uncle, Sir Giles Overreach, persuades Lady Allworth, whose late husband he had once helped in similar circumstances, to countenance a plot, and she allows it to be understood that he is about to marry her. His credit immediately rises; to those who had turned on him in his degradation he is now 'worthy Master Wellborn'. Even Sir Giles insists on lending him a thousand pounds and protests his affection--while plotting to gain his lands when he shall have married the widow. Meanwhile Sir Giles has planned to marry his daughter, Margaret, to Lord Lovell, whose page, Tom Allworth, is in love with the girl. Lord Lovell helps the lovers, and Tom, instead of his lord, is secretly married to Margaret. By this time Overreach has been deprived of the lands extorted from Wellborn and the double disappointment drives him mad. Lord Lovell marries the widow, and Wellborn, determined to regain his reputation as well as his estate, goes abroad to fight in the wars.
The relationship between this play and Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One has been made too much of. Massinger borrows the central device of the plot--the hero's supposed engagement to a rich widow--but the scope and method are entirely different from Middleton's. In his comedies Middleton's inspiration derives from nothing more profound than the desire to make a play; Massinger does at least feel indignation at a contemporary enormity. It is commonly recognized that Sir Giles Overreach--'Cormorant Overreach'12--is Sir Giles Mompesson. The play was produced shortly after his impeachment,13 and the Christian name was probably sufficient indication for the first audience. As Gifford points out, Massinger refers to Mompesson's gold and silver thread monopoly in The Bondman (II, iii--1623).
Observe but what a cozening look he has!
Hold up thy head, man; if, for drawing gallants
Into mortgages for commodities, cheating heirs
With your new counterfeit gold thread, and gumm'd velvets,
He does not transcend all that went before him,
Call in his patent.
Overreach, moreover, like Mompesson, has power over tavern keepers:
For, from the tavern to the taphouse, all,
On forfeiture of their licences, stand bound
Ne'er to remember who their best guests were,
If they grow poor,14
and Tapwell and Froth are represented as creatures of Sir Giles. Mompesson, it will be remembered, issued licences solely with an eye to his profit, ignoring his functions as a guardian of public order.15
But just as Dryden's Achitophel stands independently of the historic Shaftesbury, so Overreach is very much more than a portrait of a living person. A New Way to Pay Old Debts is a play--something made, not a mirror of persons and events. Overreach is created, though not quite consistently, on Jonsonian lines.
Marrall. I wonder,
Still with your license, why, your worship having
The power to put this thin-gut in commission,
You are not in't yourself?
Overreach. Thou art a fool;
In being out of office I am out of danger;
Where, if I were a justice, besides the trouble,
I might or out of wilfulness, or error,
Run myself finely into a praemunire,
And so become a prey to the informer.
No, I'll have none of't; 'tis enough I keep
Greedy at my devotion: so he serve
My purposes, let him hang, or damn, I care not;
Friendship is but a word.16
Those lines are spoken by a descendant of Barabas; other passages clearly relate Overreach to Volpone and Sir Epicure Mammon,17 though as each example shows, Massinger is a creator inspired by his predecessors, not a mere imitator.
Throughout the play there is a sure grasp of the actual. Massinger, that is, observes the significant economic activities of the time, and sees their significance.18
Marrall. What course take you,
With your good patience, to hedge in the manor
Of your neighbour, master Frugal? as 'tis said
He will nor sell, nor borrow, nor exchange;
And his land lying in the midst of your many lordships
Is a foul blemish.
Overreach. I have thought on't, Marrall,
And it shall take. I must have all men sellers,
And I the only purchaser. ...
I'll therefore buy some cottage near his manor,
Which done, I'll make my men break ope his fences,
Ride o'er his standing corn, and in the night
Set fire on his barns, or break his cattle's legs:
These trespasses draw on suits, and suits expenses,
Which I can spare, but soon will beggar him.
When I have harried him thus two or three year,
Though he sue in forma pauperis, in spite
Of all his thrift and care, he'll grow behind hand. ...
Then, with the favour of my man of law,
I will pretend some title: want will force him
To put it to arbitrement; then, if he sell
For half the value, he shall have ready money,
And I possess his land.19
Elsewhere Overreach describes himself as
Extortioner, tyrant, cormorant, or intruder
On my poor neighbour's right, or grand encloser
Of what was common, to my private use,20
and his relationship with Greedy typifies the power of money over justice.21 The reflection (if we call it that) is of course magnified--
To have a usurer that starves himself. ...
To grow rich, and then purchase, is too common:
But this Sir Giles feeds high, keeps many servants,
Who must at his command do any outrage;
Rich in his habit, vast in his expenses;
Yet he to admiration still increases
In wealth and lordships. ...
... No man dares reprove him.
Such a spirit to dare, and power to do, were never
Lodged so unluckily22
--but Overreach certainly represents the neew aristocracy of wealth. It is not merely that he plans to marry his daughter to a lord, so that she may 'write honourable, right honourable' and have the wives 'of errant knights' to tie her shoes--in spite of the
Between us and true gentry23
--he is also conscious of his own social poower:
In birth! why art thou not my daughter,
The blest child of my industry and wealth?
Be thou no enemy to thyself; my wealth
Shall weigh his titles down, and make you equals.24
But more goes to the making of Overreach than typical traits. I do not think it is too much to say that he represents the traditional figure of Avarice--one of the Seven Deadly Sins. He is explicitly anti-Christian:
I would be worldly wise; for the other wisdom
That does prescribe us a well-govern'd life,
And to do right to others, as ourselves,
I value not an atom.25
He instructs his daughter, Margaret,
Learn any thing,
And from any creature that may make thee great;
From the devil himself,26
and her reply, 'This is but devilish doctrine', both echoes Welborn's retort to Marrall, 'Thy religion! The devil's creed!'27 and foreshadows the 'atheistical assertions' that Overreach makes to Lord Lovell when he expects the latter to become his son-in-law:
Then rest secure; not the hate of all mankind here,
Nor fear of what can fall on me hereafter,
Shall make me study aught but your advancement
One story higher: an earl! if gold can do it.
Dispute not my religion, nor my faith;
Though I am born thus headlong by my will,
You may make choice of what belief you please,
To me they are equal.28
It would be foolish to make too much of isolated passages of this kind, but they help to bring out the theological-moral aspect of a scene such as that where Marrall--following the instructions of Overreach, 'this blasphemous beast'29--attempts to drive Wellborn 'to despair'.30 'Despair' had fairly definite religious connotations, and when Marrall fails to persuade Wellborn to hang himself--
Will you stay till you die in a ditch, or lice devour you?
... If you like not hanging, drown yourself; take some course
For your reputation,
the religious theme is made explicit:
'Twill not do, dear tempter,
With all the rhetoric the fiend hath taught you.
I am as far as thou art from despair.31
A New Way to Pay Old Debts is a comedy, not a morality play, but that it is so much more than mere amusement is largely due to the way in which Massinger has drawn on and made his own the traditional attitude towards avarice and worldly ambition.
* * *
In The City Madam32 the traditional social morality is even more potently present. The intrigue is of much less importance than that of A New Way; the whole effect lies in the presentation of two major social themes.
The wife and two daughters of Sir John Frugal, a City merchant, ape the manners of Court, and their stupid haughtiness drives away two suitors. Sir John's younger brother, Luke, after a career of dissipation, lives in the house as a humble pensioner--a model of patience and piety. Sir John, wishing to test his brother, and tired of his wife's extravagance, leaves his home, giving out that he is retiring to a monastery abroad and that his estate is to be managed by Luke. The women receive the news complacently since Luke ironically promises to increase their splendours. Then follows an exhibition of 'miserly grasping'. Luke humbles the City Madams, attempts to ruin two apprentices whom he had previously encouraged in extravagance and dishonesty, and shows no mercy to his debtors. Finally he bargains with three 'Indians', agreeing to ship Lady Frugal and her daughters to Virginia as human sacrifices in return for 'a mine of gold'. The Indians, of course, are Sir John and the two suitors in disguise; Luke's villainy is unmasked, and the women are reclaimed from their folly.
The impossibilities of the plot can be disregarded. The self-made Sir John is a representative member of the thriving merchant class. In the first scene we learn that he has made 500 per cent. profit on a single voyage, that he is buying up manors in the country, and that one of his daughters is to marry the son of Lord Lacy.33 Lord Lacy stands for the older aristocracy; his land is mortgaged to Sir John,34 and he
needs my master's money
As his [Sir John's] daughter does his honour.35
Indeed, throughout the play, there is sufficient verisimilitude in the general setting to link the 'improbable fiction' to a contemporary world. What is more important, the emotions dealt with are real emotions.
The theme that gives the title to the play is similar to that of Eastward Ho! (1605). Like Gertrude in that play the City Madam and her daughters 'must be ladified forsooth, and be attir'd just to the court-cut and long tail'.36 In the first scene one apprentice tells another:
The want of one [male heir],
Swells my young mistresses, and their madam-mother,
With hopes above their birth, and scale: their dreams are
Of being made countesses, and they take state
As they were such already. When you went
To the Indies, there was some shape and proportion
Of a merchant's house in our family; but since
My master, to gain precedency for my mistress
Above some elder merchants' wives, was knighted,
'Tis grown a little court in bravery,
Variety of fashions, and those rich ones:
There are few ladies going to a mask
That do outshine ours in their every-day habits.37
This short speech not only shows Massinger's variations on the Jonsonian mode, it suggests the standards by which the City Madam is judged ('hopes above their birth and scale', 'shape and proportion', 'bravery'). Throughout the play the women exhibit a purely material ambition, scaring away the suitors by their extravagant demands for an idle and undisputed luxury after marriage. But the worthlessness of that ambition is best exposed by Luke when, becoming for the occasion 'a new satirist'--significantly--'to scourge a general vice', he denounces Lady Frugal:
Your father was
An honest country farmer, goodman Humble,
By his neighbours ne'er called Master. Did your pride
Descend from him? but let that pass: your fortune,
Or rather your husband's industry, advanced you
To the rank of a merchant's wife. He made a knight,
And your sweet mistress-ship ladyfied, you wore
Satin on solemn days, a chain of gold,
A velvet hood, rich borders, and sometimes
A dainty miniver cap, a silver pin
Headed with a pearl worth three-pence, and thus far
You were privileged, and no man envied it;
It being for the city's honour that
There should be a distinction between
The wife of a patrician, and plebeian. ...
... But when the height
And dignity of London's blessings grew
Contemptible, and the name lady mayoress
Became a by-word, and you scorn'd the means
By which you were raised, my brother's fond indulgence,
Giving the reins to it; and no object pleased you
But the glittering pomp and bravery of the court;
What a strange, nay monstrous, metamorphosis follow'd!
No English workman then could please your fancy,
The French and Tuscan dress your whole discourse;
This bawd to prodigality entertain'd
To buzz into your ears what shape this countess
Appear'd in the last mask, and how it drew
The young lord's eyes upon her; and this usher
Succeeded in the eldest prentice' place
To walk before you. ...
The reverend hood cast off, your borrow'd hair,
Powder'd and curl'd, was by your dresser's art
Form'd like a coronet, hang'd with diamonds,
And the richest orient pearl. ...
Great lords and ladies feasted to survey
Embroider'd petticoats; and sickness feign'd
That your night-rails of forty pounds a piece
Might be seen with envy of the visitants.
... You were served in plate,
Stirr'd not a foot without your coach, and going
To church, not for devotion, but to shew
Your pomp, you were tickled when the beggars cried,
Heaven save your honour! this idolatry
Paid to a painted room.38
As I have indicated, in the presentation of this theme there are implicit standards of judgement. The most obvious is the conception of decorum, of degree, which was then almost universally accepted,39 and which had provided the authors of Eastward Ho! with the platitudinous moralizing of Mildred, the goldsmith's 'good' daughter, who opposed the social ambitions of her sister, engaged to Sir Petronel Flash.
Where ambition of place goes before fitness of birth, contempt and disgrace follow. I heard a scholar once say that Ulysses, when he counterfeited himself mad, yoked cats and foxes and dogs together to draw his plough, whilst he followed and sowed salt; but sure I judge them truly mad, that yoke citizens and courtiers, tradesmen and soldiers, a goldsmith's daughter and a knight.40
I had rather make up the garment of my affections in some of the same piece, than, like a fool, wear gowns of two colours, or mix sackcloth with satin. ... These hasty advancements are not natural. Nature hath given us legs to go to our objects; not wings to fly to them.41
In The City Madam the women do not observe decorum:
A fit decorum must be kept, the court
Distinguish'd from the city.42
Luke's satire is meant to 'cry up this decency and neatness', and to provide
examples for our proud city dames,
And their proud brood to imitate.43
The play closes with Sir John's exhortation:
Make you good
Your promised reformation, and instruct
Our city dames, whom wealth makes proud, to move
In their own spheres; and willingly to confess,
In their habits, manners, and their highest port,
A distance 'twixt the city and the court.44
But the theme, as presented, is based on a finer human code than this; if it were merely an argument in favour of sumptuary legislation we should not find it interesting and important to-day. The conception of a 'proper sphere' is allied with--is part of--a Jonsonian sense of limitations, something founded on religion, common sense and decency. The vanity that accompanies Lady Frugal's ambition is perennial:
Why should you talk of years? Time hath not ploughed
One furrow in your face; and were you not known
The mother of my young ladies, you might pass
For a virgin of fifteen.45
So is her superstition.46 But the implicit condemnation is sharpest in Mary's objection to ordinary household duties:
Mary. And can you, in your wisdom,
Or rustic simplicity, imagine
You have met some innocent country girl, that never
Look'd further than her father's farm, nor knew more
Than the price of corn in the market; or at what rate
Beef went a stone? that would survey your dairy,
And bring in mutton out of cheese and butter?
That could give directions at what time of the moon
To cut her cocks for capons against Christmas,
Or when to raise up goslings?
Plenty. These are arts
Would not misbecome you, though you should put in
Obedience and duty47
and in the presentation of Anne's petty, egocentric vanities:
Sir Maurice. Is there aught else
To be demanded?
Anne. Yes, sir, mine our doctor,
French and Italian cooks, musicians, songsters,
And a chaplain that must preach to please my fancy:
A friend at court to place me at a mask;
The private box ta'en up at a new play,
For me and my retinue; a fresh habit,
Of a fashion never seen before, to draw
The gallants' eyes, that sit on the stage, upon me;
Some decayed lady for my parasite,
To flatter me, and rail at other madams;
And there ends my ambition.48
Direct observation of this kind merges into a Jonsonian mode in which the essential impulses are isolated and magnified.
Luke You are wide,
Wide the whole region, in what I purpose.
Since all the titles, honours, long descents,
Borrow their gloss from wealth, the rich with reason
May challenge their prerogatives: and it shall be
My glory, nay a triumph, to revive,
In the pomp that these shall shine, the memory
Of the Roman matrons, who kept captive queens
To be their handmaids. And when you appear
Like Juno in full majesty, and my nieces
Like Iris, Hebe, or what deities else
Old poets fancy, (your cramm'd wardrobes richer
Than various nature's,) and draw down the envy
Of our western world upon you; only hold me
Your vigilant Hermes with aerial wings,
(My caduceus, my strong zeal to serve you,)
Prest to fetch in all rarities may delight you,
And I am made immortal.49
The dramatic heightening of Luke's promise to the women (it doesn't matter that it is a false promise) is followed by the magnificent impressionism of the forty lines in which Lady Frugal, Anne and Mary are rapt into a dream of greatness.
Lord Lacy. Are we all turned statues? have his strange words
charm'd us? What muse you on, lady?
L. Frugal. Do not trouble me.
Lord Lacy. Sleep you too, young ones?
Anne. Swift-wing'd time till now
Was never tedious to me. Would 'twere night!
Mary. Nay, morning rather.
Lord Lacy. Can you ground your faith,
On such impossibilities? have you so soon
Forgot your good husband?
L. Frugal. He was a vanity
I must no more remember.50
But 'impressionism' is not the word; we can see and hear the women in their day-dream, and Luke's speech only serves to underline the author's attitude towards the more 'normal' ambitions of the City Madam and her daughters that have already been illustrated.
* * *
Luke Frugal in his character, first as slave, then as seeming pander, then as the agent of the women's humiliation, is the connecting link between the two themes of the play. The women stand for greed and social ambition, he for avarice. Luke's exultation over his treasure has already been quoted (above). He exclaims before his gold,
What wise men wish and toil for! Hermes' moly,
Sibylla's golden bough, the great elixir,
Imagined only by the alchymist,
Compared with thee are shadows,--thou the substance
And guardian of felicity.51
His avarice, like that of Sir Epicure Mammon (who is clearly echoed in these lines), is infinite:
Increase of wealth
Is the rich man's ambition, and mine
Shall know no bounds.52
But (a parallel with the treatment of the ambition theme) his greed is not merely a caricature of reality. Luke represents the attitude that was becoming common of acquisitiveness basing itself on legality. In the first act he describes his brother:
He is a citizen,
And would increase his heap, and will not lose
What the law gives him: such as are worldly wise
Pursue that track, or they will ne'er wear scarlet,53
and Sir John Frugal stands on his strict legal rights with his debtors until dissuaded by his hypocritical piety.54 But when in power--'honester now by a hundred thousand pound'55--Luke takes all that he can get from the debtors--which seems to have been rather more than a fair return for the money lent.56
Conscience! no, no; so it may be done with safety,
And without danger of the law.57
Asked to show mercy to the apprentices whom he had ruined, he tells them,
Conscience, my friends,
And wealth, are not always neighbours. Should I part
With what the law gives me, I should suffer mainly
In my reputation; for it would convince me
Of indiscretion: nor will you, I hope, move me
To do myself such prejudice.
Lord Lacy. No moderation?
Luke. They cannot look for't, and preserve in me
A thriving citizen's credit.58
We are left in no doubt concerning Massinger's attitude towards avarice, even when it works within the bounds of strict legality. In this play, as in A New Way to Pay Old Debts, the anti-acquisitive attitude is explicitly related to religious teaching.
The devil--why start you at his name? if you
Desire to wallow in wealth and worldly honours,
You must make haste to be familiar with him.59
So says the disguised Sir John, and Luke had already bidden
Religion, conscience, charity, farewell!
To me you are words only, and no more;
All human happiness consists in store.60
Massinger's is not a merely formal piety; it is related to the living conception of community, and neighbourly dealing within that community, that we have seen in Dekker and Heywood.
As are born only for themselves, and live so,
Though prosperous in worldly understandings,
Are but like beasts of rapine, that, by odds
Of strength, usurp, and tyrannize o'er others
Brought under their subjection.61
This is the 'reformed' Luke of the early scenes; in prosperity he regards hospitality to his 'poor neighbours' as 'a virtue grown obsolete, and useless', and expresses the same feelings as Dekker's merchant, Bartervile:
I will sit
Alone, and surfeit in my store, while others
With envy pine at it; my genius pamper'd
With the thought of what I am, and what they suffer
I have mark'd out to misery.62
In the essay from which I have already quoted Mr Eliot has this paragraph:
What may be considered corrupt or decadent in the morals of Massinger is not an alteration or diminution of morals; it is simply the disappearance of all those personal and real emotions which this morality supported and into which it introduced a kind of order. As soon as the emotions disappear the morality which ordered it appears hideous. Puritanism itself became repulsive only when it appeared as the survival of a restraint after the feelings which it restrained had gone. ... The Elizabethan morality was an important convention; important because it was not consciously of one social class alone, because it provided a framework for emotions to which all classes could respond, and it hindered no feeling. ... Fletcher and Massinger rendered it ridiculous; not by believing it, but because they were men of great talents who could not vivify it; because they could not fit into it passionate, complete human characters.63
This account is admirably stimulating; it may, perhaps, apply to Massinger's tragedies and tragi-comedies,64 and it certainly applies to Fletcher's. It does not apply to Massinger's two fine comedies. In one sense A New Way to Pay Old Debts and The City Madam are derivative; they sometimes seem to approach the tradition through Jonson rather than directly, and their content is correspondingly less rich and full. But in the figures of Sir Giles Overreach, Luke Frugal and the City Madam and her daughters the Elizabethan social morality is certainly 'vivified'. Coming at such a time, and from an author who was only too susceptible to new influences, the two plays witness to the strength of the tradition that has been explored in these pages.
* * *
The problem that criticism still has to solve is the problem of 'decadence'; the contrast between the richness of 'Elizabethan' drama and the poverty of Caroline and Restoration drama is not due merely to the different amount of talent available in each period. In tackling this problem there are three points to start from, none of which can be treated in isolation from the others. The first, and most important, is the handling of the verse or, more generally, the dramatic medium. The second is found in the kind and quality of the interests enlisted in each play, or group of plays. The third concerns the constitution, the literary and general interests, of the theatre audience.
The completeness with which Fletcher represents (and fosters) a changing taste deserves to be more fully realized than it is. If Massinger's verse tends towards the dilution of feeling, the emotions which Fletcher presents are faked: they are worked up, and the purpose is impure. Fletcher's serious mode is fairly represented by this passage from A King and No King (1611):
Good lady, be not fearful: though he should not
Give you your present end in this, believe it,
You shall feel, if your virtue can induce you
To labour out this tempest (which I know,
Is but a poor proof 'gainst your patience),
All these contents your spirit will arrive at,
Newer and sweeter to you. Your royal brother,
When he shall once collect himself, and see
How far he has been asunder from himself,
What a mere stranger to his golden temper,
Must, from those roots of virtue, never dying,
Though somewhat stopt with humour, shoot again
Into a thousand glories, bearing his fair branches
High as our hopes can look at, straight as justice,
Loaden with ripe contents.65
Everything is vague, general, and unrealized ('these contents ... newer and sweeter to you', 'a mere stranger to his golden temper'); the final metaphor is particularly betraying--one can grasp nothing particular in those 'roots of virtue ... stopt with humour', and the metaphorical tree is loaded with abstractions, 'a thousand glories' and 'ripe contents'. But Fletcher's metaphors are invariably unrealized or commonplace. Love, as in the Restoration heroic plays, is always a 'flame',66 frozen souls 'melt',67 and here is a description of inconstancy:
She lives to tell thee thou art more unconstant
Than all ill women ever were together;
Thy faith as firm as raging overflows,
That no bank can command; and as lasting
As boys' gay bubbles, blown i' the air and broken:
The wind is fix'd to thee. ...68
If Shakespeare is not a fair test ('Heaven stops the nose at it, and the moon winks'), we have only to put beside this any example of imagery from, say, The Changeling ('Let the common sewer take it from distinction') or The Revenger's Tragedy ('Does the silkworm expend her yellow labours for thee?') to expose its essential falsity.
The reason for the vagueness and generality, the commonplace figures and unrealized imagery, is that there is no informing emotion, no pressure from within. 'The blossoms of Beaumont and Fletcher's imagination draw no sustenance from the soil, but are cut and slightly withered flowers stuck into sand.'69 Since there is no firm pressure of emotion behind the verse of, say, A King and No King, the play itself is not a coherent emotional development: there is no emotion to develop. Everything, therefore, is sacrificed to the immediate effect; we have merely a succession of emotional high spots,70 and the comedy is merely 'comic relief'.
A further consideration leads directly to the domain of morals, and therefore approaches the subject of this book. R. P. Blackmur says that for Henry James, 'art was the viable representation of moral value; in the degree that the report was intelligent and intense the morals were sound'.71 In the Beaumont and Fletcher 'serious' plays the report (of human emotions) is not 'intelligent and intense', and in consequence the moral issues which they profess to raise--incest in A King and No King, conflicting loyalties and revenge in The Maid's Tragedy--are not squarely faced. The moral problem merely gives an additional fillip to the emotions, and provides the maximum number of piquant situations. In these plays tragedy becomes pathos, and pathos an indulgence, not part of a larger organization.72 Each of the tragedies and tragi-comedies of Beaumont and Fletcher is a series of cunningly contrived situations to exploit, not to explore and express, emotions; and that is decadence.
A similar judgement is enforced by Fletcher's comedies. Maybe Fletcher 'understood and imitated the conversation of gentlemen much better (than Shakespeare); whose wild debaucheries and quickness of wit in repartees, no poet before him could paint as he has done',73 and certainly his comedies are amusing. But gaiety and gentlemanly repartee are not enough. To write great comedy one has to be serious about something; and the only thing that Fletcher took at all seriously--that at least is to his credit--was the question of a decent freedom for women.74 In The Elder Brother (completed by Massinger) there is some mild satire on the way in which 'virgins of wealthy family waste their youth'--which goes no deeper than Addison's 'Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion'--and a glance at the vanities of court, where one learns 'to speak a tedious piece of nothing'. But satirical effects of this kind are quite unrelated to the central purpose of the play, which is to exhibit the romantic adventures of the studious Charles. As a rule, indeed, it is hard to tell what central purpose there is. In The Scornful Lady (with Beaumont) the skits on Shakespeare ('"To sleep, to die; to die, to sleep", a very figure, sir'75), the light-hearted use of popular sententiousness ('Let thy chimneys smoke'; 'Hang it, dirt!'--contrast the implications of 'spacious in the possession of dirt'), the superficial wit (e.g. about Abigail's age) and the buffoonery, all indicate the quality of the amusement that is offered. The usurer, Morecraft, is a stock figure whose practices are forgotten as soon as mentioned, and it is not only in the skirmishings round sex76 that we are reminded of the Restoration stage. In Wit Without Money (1614), The Humorous Lieutenant (c. 1619), Rule a Wife and Have a Wife (c. 1624) and the rest, everything is subordinate to the intrigue, to amusing dialogue, to the immediate comic effect77 (the most notorious instance being the Lieutenant's venereal disease in The Humorous Lieutenant). There is of course incidental satire, but it remains incidental. The major interests of a diverse audience are not aroused.
Shirley and Brome are even nearer to the later Comedy of Manners. Different as they are, they are alike in practising in a narrower field than any of their predecessors. Fashionable society, or the imitation of fashionable society, provides their themes. Brome 'habitually regards from the outside the manners of fashionable society, gaining his comic effects through their caricature and distortion when aped by curious citizens who perceive them only as mannerisms'.78 Shirley has perhaps an even narrower range. His comedy is the comedy of polite society,79 and when wider issues are mentioned they seem to have a literary ancestry rather than to be the result of direct observation.80
In comedy Massinger is the last of the Elizabethans, whilst Fletcher is the first of the direct line that runs through Shirley and Brome (although Brome was a 'son of Ben') to the comic writers of the post-Restoration period.81 The comedies of these three are indeed best discussed in conjunction with the later comedy of manners. One touches here on a subject that cannot be treated summarily--the changing taste of the theatre audiences and of the reading public points directly to the shifts in national culture which form one of the major changes of our history--and discussion is best deferred. But once the truth of this alignment is accepted one important point becomes clear. For the significance of the Restoration theatre as a functional unit in the national life is seen in the account that M. Beljame has given of its audience:
Ces spectateurs ... �taient peu nombreux. La Cit�, rest�e puritaine, choqu�e des mours du jour et de l'audace des pi�ces, ne venait pas aux repr�sentations, ou fort peu. 'Tous ceux qui tenaient � passer pour des gens s�rieux et estimables se gardaient de para�tre au th��tre. Un jeune homme de loi respectable aurait compromis sa dignit�; un jeune commer�ant aurait fait tort � son cr�dit en se montrant dans ces cercles de la licence effr�n�e.' ... C'�tait une partie nombreuse de l'auditoire qui se trouvait supprim�e, et peut-�tre la meilleure, celle qui est assez instruite pour appr�cier, et en m�me temps assez simple, assez na�ve encore pour conna�tre les rires francs et les �motions sinc�res, pour se laisser prendre par les entrailles. Les spectateurs se r�duisaient donc � la cour et � ce monde de fonctionnaires et de d�souvr�s qui gravite autour du roi.82
The Restoration theatre, that is, catered for a small group whose interests were notoriously limited,83 and its writers had nothing to correspond to the major interests of the Elizabethan-Jacobean dramatists.
The great break, of course, occurred with the closing of the theatres and the Civil War. Before then there was no positive bar to the participation of the 'respectable' middle classes. But an increasing puritanism was already turning many away from the theatres, and there was already a wide gap between the tastes that were catered for at the private houses in Drury Lane, at Salisbury Court or the Blackfriars and 'the original civility of the Red Bull'.84 And in Fletcher, Brome and Shirley we can see that progressive narrowing of the scope of drama that leads from Lear to Aureng-Zebe, from The Alchemist to Love for Love. Fletcher, we may say, had nothing in common with Heywood and Dekker, whereas Jonson, and to a less extent Massinger, shared many of the more important interests and attitudes of these popular writers, as well as those of lay and ecclesiastical moralists.
1A. H. Cruickshank, Philip Massinger, pp. 77-81, 163-168.
2Elizabethan Essays, pp. 159-160.
3The City Madam, III, iii (Gifford's edition of the Plays, IV, 65).
4Volpone, I, i.
5Epicoene, II, i ('she feels not how the land drops away, nor the acres melt').
6'My roof receives me not; 'tis air I tread' (Sejanus, V, i).
And when you appear
Like Juno in full majesty, and my nieces
Like Iris, Hebe, or what deities else
Cf. Volpone, III, vi (to Celia) and, more particularly, The Alchemist, IV, i ('Thy wardrobe Richer than nature's', etc.). Cf. 'A perpetuity of being'--City Madam, V, iii (IV, 108)--and 'a perpetuity of life and lust'--The Alchemist, IV, i. (Repeated as 'A perpetuity of pride and pleasure' in The Bondman, I, iii.)
8The City Madam, IV, iii (IV, 86). The basket is the basket of food provided by charity for the poorest prisoners.
9Coleridge, Lectures on Shakespeare (Bohn Edition), p. 404.
10The City Madam, V, i (IV, 95).
11Elizabethan Essays, p. 162.
12A New Way, I, i (III, 488). See p. 84 and note, above.
13Schelling says that 'the play was certainly on the stage by 1625', and quotes Fleay's opinion that the first performance took place in 1622 (Elizabethan Drama, II, p. 253). The Shakespeare Association's Chart of Plays (ed. W. P. Barrett), p. 38, places it in 1621, the year of the impeachment.
14I, i (III, 485).
15Gifford gives a quotation from Wilson's Life and Reign of James I (Fol. 155), which may be reproduced here:
They [Mompesson and Michell] found out a new alchemistical way to make gold and silver lace with copper and other sophistical materials, to cozen and deceive the people. And so poisonous were the drugs that made up this deceitful composition, that they rotted the hands and arms, and brought lameness upon those that wrought it; some losing their eyes, and many their lives, by the venom of the vapours that came from it. ... Sir Giles Mompesson had fortune enough in the country to make him happy, if that sphere could have contained him, but the vulgar and universal error of satiety with present enjoyments, made him too big for a rustical condition, and when he came at court he was too little for that, so that some novelty must be taken up to set him in aequilibrio to the place he was in, no matter what it was, let it be never so pestilent and mischievous to others, he cared not, so he found benefit by it. To him Michell is made compartner; a poor sneaking justice, that lived among the brothels near Clarton-well, whose clerk and he picked a livelihood out of those corners, giving warrants for what they did, besides anniversary stipends (the frequent revenue of some justices of those times) for conniving. This thing was a poisonous plant in its own nature, and the fitter to be an ingredient to such a composition--whereby he took liberty to be more ravenous upon poor people, to the grating of the bones, and sucking out the very marrow of their substance.
'From this apposite extract', says Gifford, 'it will be sufficiently apparent not only from whence Massinger derived his principal character, but also where he found Marrall and Greedy. The "sneaking justice", Michell, undoubtedly sat for the latter, and his clerk for the "term-driving" Marrall; whose hopeful education will now enable the reader to account for his knowledge of the "minerals, which he incorporated with the ink and wax" of Wellborn's bond'(III, pp. 505-506).
16II, i (III, 503-504). Mr Eliot has pointed out the inconsistencies in the mode in which Overreach is presented. Massinger, that is, has not Jonson's complete sureness of purpose. A minor example is provided by the Justice, Greedy; he is admirably comic, but he has no part in the main design, as Jonson's minor figures have, and his exhibition of greed tends to become merely extraneous fooling.
Spare for no cost; let my dressers crack with the weight
Of curious viands. ...
And let no plate be seen but what's pure gold,
Or such whose workmanship exceeds the matter
That it is made of; let my choicest linen
Perfume the room, and, when we wash, the water,
With precious powders mix'd, so please my lord,
That he may with envy wish to bathe so ever.
(III, ii (III, 529-530))
--A good example of the poetic force that iis generated by Massinger's carefully managed, cumulative constructions.
18Cf. The Projector scenes in The Emperor of the East, and Timoleon's speeches to the senate in The Bondman, I, iii. Massinger also had keener political interests than most of his fellows. Cf. S. R. Gardiner, 'The Political Element in Massinger', The Contemporary Review, August 1876.
19II, i (III, 504-506).
20IV, i (III, 553).
... And yet
The chapfall'n justice did his part, returning,
For your advantage, the certificate,
Against his conscience, and his knowledge too,
With your good favour, to the utter ruin
Of the poor farmer.
He frights men out of their estates,
And breaks through all law-nets, made to curb ill men,
As they were cobwebs.
22II, ii (III, 517).
23II, i (III, 508).
24III, ii (III, 532-534).
25II, i (III, 504).
26III, ii (III, 535).
27II, i (III, 509).
28IV, i (III, 553-554).
29IV, i (III, 554).
30The second half of II, i--
Do anything to work him to despair,
And 'tis thy masterpiece.
Miss Bradbrook has pointed out the references to religious 'despair' in The Duchess of Malfi.--Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy, pp. 195-212.
31II, i (III, 510).
32Licensed in 1632, but probably first produced some considerable time before that date, perhaps as early as 1619.
33I, i (IV, 5-8).
34Luke. I find in my counting-house a manor pawn'd,
Pawn'd, my good lord; Lacy manor, and that manor
From which you have the title of a lord.
(V, ii (IV, 105))
35I, i (IV, 8).
36Eastward Ho! I, i.
37City Madam, I, i (IV, 6).
38IV, iv (IV, 90-93).
39See pp. 144-148, above.
40Eastward Ho! I, ii.
41Ibid., II, i. I have said that there is obvious burlesque in this story of the prodigal and the good apprentice and of the ambitious and the dutiful daughter--written by Marston, Chapman and Jonson for the Blackfriars, not by Dekker for the Fortune. (Cf. Touchstone's 'thrifty sentences', I, i; Goulding's sudden promotion to civic dignity, III, ii; Quicksilver's no less sudden and edifying repentance in the last act, etc.) But the play is not entirely parody. In any case it provides 'evidence' of the current notions of citizen propriety; the burlesque is not directed against these but against their easy exploitation for stage purposes--and the ambitious daughter is the chief butt.
42City Madam, III, ii (IV, 62).
43IV, iv (IV, 90).
44V, iii (IV, 114).
45I, i (IV, 10).
46Cf. her dealings with Stargaze:
And as such prescribes my diet, and foretells
My dreams when I eat potatoes; parcel poet,
And sings encomiums to my virtues sweetly;
My antecedent, or my gentleman-usher,
... an absolute master
In the calculation of nativities;
Guided by that ne'er-erring science call'd
(II, ii (IV, 36-37))
47II, ii (IV, 41-42). That these 'arts' were not considered beneath the dignity of a born lady is clear from the records of the Verney family, from Smyth's description of Lady Anne Berkeley (p. 112, note 2, above), and from any contemporary book of household management.
The moralists, echoing common opinion, are all emphatic on this point. Thus Becon: 'Let them [wives] be no delicate minions, nor no white-fingered housewives, which can do nothing else but trick up themselves like puppets, and prick upon a clout without any gain, swift to command, but ready to do nothing, except it be to eat and drink, to keep company with some he-saint, to play at the dice and cards, to dance, to play upon a lute ... but rather let them be such as will lay their hands to work, help to get the penny, save such things as the man bringeth in, dress meat and drink, spin and card, look to her family, nurse her own children, suffer nothing to perish, and in fine, even such one as Soloman describeth in the thirty-first chapter of his Proverbs.' Becon (d. c. 1570), A New Catechism, Works, II, p. 356. The popular Barnabe Rich describes the marks of a virtuous woman: 'She seeketh wool and flax, and laboureth, she putteth her hands to the wheel. ... Soloman pointed her a housework it should seem, she must not be a gadder about the streets but a Home housewife. And although her degree be such that she putteth not herself to bodily labour, yet she over seeth the ways of her household, she must see to her children, her servants and her family. ... A dishonest woman is hardly kept within her own house, but she must be a-ramping, and a-roistering about to make herself known' (The Excellency of Good Women (1613), pp. 23-24).
48II, ii (IV, 40).
49III, ii (IV, 63).
50III, ii (IV, 64).
51III, iii (IV, 65).
52IV, ii (IV, 82).
53I, ii (IV, 20).
55V, ii (IV, 104).
56Luke, I have got into my hands
Your bargain from the sailor, 'twas a good one
For such a petty sum. I will likewise take
The extremity of your mortgage, and the forfeit
Of your several bonds; the use and principal
Shall not serve.
(IV, iii (IV, 86))
57V, i (IV, 96).
58V, ii (IV, 104). Cf. Sir John Frugal:
I shall be laugh'd at for my foolish pity,
Which money-men hate deadly.
(I, iii (IV, 26))
59V, i (IV, 96).
60IV, ii (IV, 83).
61I, iii (IV, 24).
62V, i (IV, 102). Contrast the description of Wellborn's father, a country gentleman of the old style:
a man of worship,
Old Sir John Wellborn, justice of peace and quorum. ...
Bore the whole sway of the shire, kept a great house,
Relieved the poor, and so forth.
(A New Way, I, i (III, 483))
63Elizabethan Essays, pp. 165-166.
64'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' (ibid.).
65A King and No King, IV, i (Variorum Edition of Beaumont and Fletcher, I, p. 308). The play is a Beaumont and Fletcher collaboration, but there is 'practical unanimity' in assigning this scene, together with IV, ii, iii and V, i, iii to Fletcher.--Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, III, p. 225.
Tigranes. I feel my old fire flame again, and burn
So strong and violent.
(Ibid., IV, ii (I, 311)--Fletcher)
Arbaces. If you above love not such sins as these,
Circle my heart with thoughts as cold as snow,
To quench these rising flames that harbour here.
(Ibid., IV, iv (I, 324))
Amintor. I am now dissolved;
My frozen soul melts.
(Maid's Tragedy, IV, i (Fletcher) (I, 82))
68A King and No King, IV, ii (Fletcher) (I, 312).
69T. S. Eliot, 'Ben Jonson', Elizabethan Essays, p. 78.
You kill your father.
Gobrias. You kill your father.
Arbaces. My father! Though I know it for a lie,
Made out of fear, to save thy stained life,
The very reverence of the word comes 'cross me,
And ties my arm down.
A King and No King, V, iv (I, 346)
Evadne. Why, 'tis the King.
Amintor. The King!
Evadne. What will you do now?
Amintor. It is not the King!
... Oh, thou hast named a word, that wipes away
All thoughts revengeful! ,etc.
(The Maid's Tragedy, II, i (I, 42-43))
These scenes are probably by Beaumont, but they are relevant here.
71'The Critical Prefaces', Hound and Horn, April-June 1934, VII, No. 3, p. 452.
72Contrast Aspatia's song, 'Lay a garland on my hearse' (Maid's Tragedy, II, i) with Desdemona's Willow song (Othello, IV, iii). The song occurs in a Beaumont scene; for a corresponding effect by Fletcher see Evadne's speech:
I was once fair,
Once I was lovely; not a blowing rose
More chastely sweet. ...
(The Maid's Tragedy, V, ii (I, 98))
73Dryden, Essay of Dramatic Poesy. Dryden has 'they'. The passage precedes the famous sentence which describes Beaumont and Fletcher's popularity in the Restoration period: 'Their plays are now the most pleasant and frequent entertainments of the stage; two of theirs being acted through the year for one of Shakespeare's or Jonson's: the reason is, because there is a certain gaiety in their comedies and pathos in their more serious plays, which suits generally with all men's humors'.
74See especially The Little French Lawyer (with Massinger, 1619-1622) and The Wild Goose Chase (1621). In the latter Rosalura wishes
to maintain good women's honours,
Their freedoms, and their fames.
Cf. Lillia Bianca: 'A merry and a free wench, give her liberty'.
I will run mad first, and, if that get not pity,
I'll drown myself to a most dismal ditty.
76For the tone of
You that be coming on, make much of fifteen
At twenty-five in women's eyes
Beauty does fade, at thirty dies
77'An incurable zest for random adventure and farcical intrigue' (K. M. Lynch, op. cit., p. 24).
78K. M. Lynch, op. cit., p. 29. The projector scenes of The Court Beggar are merely rather dull imitations of Jonson.
79A typical effect from The Lady of Pleasure (1635):
Frederick. My most loved aunt.
Lady Bornwell. Support me, I shall faint.
Littleworth. What ails your ladyship?
Lady B. Is that Frederick? In black?
Kickshaw. Yes, madam; but the doublet's satin.
Lady B. The boy's undone.
Little. Your French tailor
Has made you a perfect gentleman; I may
Converse now with you, and preserve my credit.
With lordships, but no manors! one that has
But newly cast his country skin, come up
To see the fashions of the town, has crept
Into a knighthood, which he paid for heartily;
And in his best clothes is suspected for
(Changes, or Love in a Maze (1632), I, i)
This adds nothing to the similar satire of the early part of the century. Compare the passage on the decline of hospitality, The Lady of Pleasure, II, i.
81For some important lines of communication, see K. M. Lynch, op. cit., chap. ii.
82Beljame, Le Public et les hommes de lettres en Angleterre au dix-huiti�me si�cle, 1660-1744, pp. 56-57. The quotation is from Johnson's Life of Dryden. Cf. C. V. Deane, Dramatic Theory and the Rhymed Heroic Play, p. 58. Mr A. M. Clark notes the signs in the reign of James I: 'The theatre both gained and lost by the direct patronage of the crown and the extended authority of the Master of the Revels; for while on the one hand the wealthier citizens and still more their wives looked with a favourable eye on the now fashionable and therefore respectable theatres, the stage was ceasing to be a national institution and was becoming more and more dependent on the court, more restricted in its appeal, and in reality no more acceptable to an ever-increasing body of puritans' (Thomas Heywood, p. 70). Chambers notes 'some development of censorial practice' when Buck succeeded Tilney as Master of the Revels in 1610 (Elizabethan Stage, I, p. 322), and this was increased under Sir Henry Herbert in the next reign. But much more is involved here than censorship.
83For the tastes of the Restoration audience see Beljame, op. cit., pp. 56-70, and Deane, op. cit., pp. 58-62. But the Restoration plays themselves are sufficient evidence on this point.
84Dryden, Essay of Dramatic Poesy.
Bacon, Collected Works, with his Letters and Life, ed. Spedding, Ellis and Heath, 14 Vols.
Rich, Barnaby, The Excellency of Good Women (1613).
Smyth, John, of Nibley, The Berkeley Manuscripts, ed. Sir John Maclean (1883), 3 Vols. (Vols. I and II, The Lives of the Berkeleys, 1066-1618; Vol. III, A Description of the Hundred of Berkeley and of its Inhabitants).
Beaumont and Fletcher, Works, Variorum Edition (1904), 4 Vols. (not completed).
Jonson, Works, ed. Gifford, Cunningham (1875), 9 Vols.
Jonson, Chapman, and Marston, Eastward Ho! ed. F. L. Schelling (Belles Lettres Dramatists).
Massinger, Plays, ed. Gifford (1805), 4 Vols.
Criticism and Literary History
Barrett, W. P., Chart of Plays, 1584-1623 (for the Shakespeare Association).
Beljame, Alexandre, Le Public et les hommes de lettres en Angleterre au dix-huiti�me si�cle, 1660-1744.
Bradbrook, M. C., Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy.
Chambers, E. K., The Elizabethan Stage, 4 Vols.
Clark, A. M., Thomas Hewyood, Playwright and Miscellanist.
Coleridge, Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare, etc. (Bohn edn.).
Cruickshank, A. H., Philip Massinger.
Deane, C. V., Dramatic Theory and the Rhymed Heroic Play.
Eliot, T. S., Elizabethan Essays.
Lynch, Kathleen M., The Social Mode of Restoration Comedy.
Schelling, Felix E., Elizabethan Drama, 1558-1642, 2 Vols.
L. C. Knights, "The Significance of Massinger's Social Comedies, with a Note on 'Decadence'." In Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson, pp. 270-300. London: Chatto and Windus, 1937.