"Massinger's Men and Women"

Critic: Philip Edwards
Source: Philip Massinger: A Critical Reassessment, edited by Douglas Howard, pp. 39-49. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

[(essay date 1985) In the following essay, Edwards explores Massinger's depictions of conflicts between the sexes and argues that the playwright presents the relations between men and women with sensitivity and insight.]

An extended session with Massinger's plays is likely to give a reader a frequent sense of déjà vu as similar images, protestations, situations and even characters come round again and again. But repetitiousness is not necessarily a sign of a lack of inventiveness, and Massinger's pronounced tendency to do things more than once often shows him absorbed in the ramifications of some particular issue or problem. His two satirical comedies, A New Way to Pay Old Debts and The City Madam, show general similarity in treating the war between the nobility and the city, but the scrupulous attention to social detail in these two plays reveals Massinger extending, not repeating, his views of the problem. I shall try to show that in dealing with the relations between the sexes Massinger's tendency to repeat patterns of conflict shows him exploring perennial problems about domination and submission with subtlety and shrewdness.

*  *  *

A king or duke who is a besotted and infatuated husband embarrassing his court by his public declaration of the pleasure he gets from his wife's embraces is a piece of theatre which Massinger gives us twice, in The Duke of Milan and The Picture. Here is Sforza in the former play:

Such as are cloyd with those they haue embrac'd,
May thinke their wooing done: No night to mee,
But is a brydall one, where Himen lights
His torches fresh, and new: And those delights,
Which are not to be cloth'd in ayrie sounds,
Inioyd, beget desires, as full of heat,
And Iouiall feruor, as when first I tasted
Her virgin fruit.


We might feel that we need not be detained by the psychology of this, but we are on the threshold of what goes beyond mere theatre. The devotion of Ladislaus, the comic king in The Picture, 'drownd in dotage', takes the form of a fervent masochism. 'He forbeares / The duety of a husband, but when she calles for't' (I.ii.70-1). He publicly kisses the hem of her robe 'in signe of my subiection, as your vassall' (I.ii.161). This submissiveness with all its grovelling delights--'hugging his fetters' as Eubulus calls it--belongs to an intense possessiveness: 'But then adde this, she's mine, mine Eubulus' (I.ii.109). The necessary relationship between doting servility and a possessiveness that verges on the insane becomes a main issue in The Duke of Milan and The Bondman.

The Duke of Milan is a sensational play and all emotions tend to be at an extreme. Sforza has made his own way to the dukedom (III.i.156-7; hence the 'supposed' Duke of Milan, that is, supposititious or not genuine, in the list of characters). Massinger shows us the fearless soldier-statesman in the excellent scene (III.i) in which, having backed the wrong side, Sforza makes a spirited defence of his conduct to the victorious Emperor--and so retains his title and averts the sack of his city. But the rest of the play is his private life, the private life of an autocrat. We do not know until towards the end of the play what instigates and explains the whole of the action. Three years before, Sforza seduced Eugenia on a promise of marriage, then threw her off. He then advanced her brother Francisco in order to buy his silence. It is to this apparently trustworthy aide that he imparts the dreadful secret instruction as he leaves Milan in order to meet the Emperor; namely, to kill his wife if he doesn't return. Francisco has been waiting for an opportunity to avenge his sister's disgrace; in the possession of this secret he now has all he needs, and proceeds to the mischief which culminates in Sforza stabbing his own wife in jealous fury.

What makes Sforza issue this secret instruction that his wife is not to outlive him if he fails in his desperate mission to placate the Emperor? He has publicly honoured and expressed in the extreme terms I have quoted his adoration for this woman whose life he now proposes to snuff out if it continues beyond his own. It is but justice, he says, that she should not outlive him, because he would refuse to outlive her! So his immoderate affection is not freely bestowed but stipulates an equivalent return. He basks in the thought of receiving the adoration he bestows, and indeed it is the honour to him of a voluntarily offered death that he is crazily exacting from her:

The slauish Indian Princes when they dye
Are cheerfully attended to the fire,
By the wife, and slaue, that liuing they lou'd best,
To doe them seruice in another world:
Nor will I be lesse honor'd, that loue more.


Within this vanity is also the strange idea that heaven may permit sexual intercourse. 'There is no heauen without her' (356). It is the ultimate reduction of the worshipped person into an eternal sex-object that chiefly inspires Marcelia's indignation when Francisco betrays Sforza's secret to her:

But that my Lord, my Sforza should esteeme
My life fit only as a page, to waite on
The various course of his vncertaine fortunes,
Or cherish in himselfe that sensuall hope
In death to know me as a wife, afflicts me.


That his wife should (compulsorily) offer him the adoration of not surviving him, and that they should together experience what heaven may perhaps allow them is still not the whole story. It may seem an indifference to Marcelia as a person that her life is valued only in its continuance with him, but indifference is hardly the word for his nauseated contemplation of her sexual life if she continues to live. The need to placate the Emperor and stop him sacking Milan is the more urgent because he cannot bear the thought of her becoming one of the spoils of war. It is curious, however, that he should picture this ravishment with himself as observer--when he presumably would have been the first victim:

                                           But should that will
To be so be forc'd Marcelia! and I liue
To see those Eyes I prize aboue mine owne,
Dart fauours (though compel'd) vpon another!
Or those sweet Lips (yeelding Immortall Nectar)
Be gently touch'd by any but my selfe!
Thinke, thinke Marcelia, what a cursed thing
I were, beyond expression.


This is the jealousy which sums up and explains Sforza and is finally exhibited in the play's climax, when, goaded by suspicions which Francisco has carefully fomented, he stabs his wife and kills her. It is a jealousy which takes a secret pleasure in imagining the loved one being defiled in compelled sexual encounters with rough captors. The passage I have quoted takes extra force when put alongside passages from the companion study of possessive jealousy in Leosthenes' part in The Bondman. Such insistent fantasies of capture and rape seem a very poor basis for the ethic of masculine supremacy which society in these plays takes for granted. And there is no doubt that Massinger is taking trouble to expose these shadowy foundations.

The difficulty, for us, about the Leosthenes-Cleora relationship in The Bondman is that Cleora is such a prig. She is certainly not meant to be; it is she, a mere woman, who shames the decadent aristocracy of Syracuse into an awareness of their duty to fight for their country. It is one thing for a young woman to congratulate herself that she has not let herself go with her young man, but quite another to express to the young man the hope that the love between them may

                                                   burne heere,
And as a Sea-marke, serue to guide true Louers,
(Toss'd on the Ocean of luxurious wishes)
Safe from the rockes of Lust into the harbour
Of pure affection.


But since her chastity--the firmness of her will to say no--is of great importance in the play, we shall have to put up with the way Massinger makes her talk about it. Leosthenes is an immensely distrustful man, distrustful of his power to engage or keep Cleora's affection. It is 'excesse of loue', he says, that convinces him that in his absence at the wars Cleora's attractiveness will make some rival replace him. 'Can you thinke,' she asks, 'I may be tempted?' 'You were neuer prou'd', he replies brutally, explaining that he never attempted to get past her guard.

                               When you are courted
By such as keepe a Catalogue of their Conquests,
Wonne vpon credulous Virgins; when nor Father
Is here to awe you; Brother to aduise you;
Nor your poore seruant by, to keepe such off,
By lust instructed how to vndermine,
And blow your chastity vp; when your weake senses
At once assaulted, shall conspire against you;
And play the traytors to your soule, your vertue;
How can you stand?


To counter a jealousy born of such an undervaluing of her intelligence and self-control, Cleora swears to stay blindfold until Leosthenes returns from the wars. Being blindfold makes rather more plausible than usual the non-recognition of a disguised character. Her former admirer Pisander, returned in the guise of a slave, engineers a slaves' revolt and rather unfairly wins her esteem by acting as her protector instead of ravishing her, which is what a slave-leader in rebellion is supposed to do. On his return Leosthenes of course expects that Cleora's virginity has not survived the revolt. 'Come', he says to her maid, 'discouer / What kinde of looke he had, that forc'd thy Lady' (IV.iii.53-4). Cleora finds it as hard to accept his domineering possessiveness (IV.iii.177-9) as his continuous suspicion that she has in fact yielded (188-200). Leosthenes accepts her word that she is still chaste, and acknowledges to himself an abnormality in his suspiciousness (209-11), which, however, breaks out again immediately he hears that Pisander has been found in her rooms. 'This confirmes / All she deliuer'd, false' (IV.iv.56-7). In a further moment of remorse he explains that

Distrust of other springs, Timagoras,
From diffidence in our selues.


But is this really true? Timid adoration, and fearfulness that he may lose or have lost Cleora, seem paradoxically rooted in approval of himself and a contempt for Cleora. Feeling that he is losing ground to this astonishing slave Pisander, he sinks to an odious protestation of his own niceness:

                                        If my pride,
Or any bold assurance of my worth,
Has pluck'd this mountaine of disgrace vpon me,
I am iustly punish'd, and submit; but if
I haue beene modest, and esteem'd my selfe
More iniur'd in the tribute of the praise,
Which no desert of mine priz'd by selfe-loue
Euer exacted; may this cause, and minute
For euer be forgotten.


It is he who loses control, and his bitter taunt to Cleora surely reveals his basic fear of her as the insatiable female. Perhaps, he says,

                                        you haue seene
This gallant, pitch the barre, or beare a burthen
Would cracke the shoulders of a weaker bond-man;
Or any other boistrous exercise,
Assuring a strong backe to satisfie
Your loose desires, insatiate as the graue.


A notable concluding image! Of course, he loses her, and it is bad luck on Timandra that the plot requires her to take for a husband such a bundle of arrogance and fear as Leosthenes.

Leosthenes is Massinger's closest study of the psychology of jealousy. There is an extended study of the masculine complacency and self-approval which Leosthenes exhibits in Mathias in The Picture. Here, the partner (Sophia) is much more interestingly and extensively written up. The dialogue of the opening scene is outstanding. The patronizing self-assurance of Mathias is beautifully struck. He is parting from her to go to the wars and there try to make his fortune. There is more than a little of the seven-year itch about him. He is obviously exhilarated at the prospect of war and a holiday from his wife, but he puts on a puritan censoriousness:

We haue long inioyd the sweets of loue, and though
Not to Satietie, or lothing, yet
We must not liue such dotardes on our pleasures
As still to hugge them to the certaine losse
Of profit, and preferment.


His values are very superficial. He needs the fortune which is the goal of his expedition to enable him to keep state and show off Sophia (it is notable that he admits he is of lower social rank than she (I.i.14)). It embarrasses him (46) that she should 'passe vnregarded' because their poverty will not allow jewellery or an extensive wardrobe. He knows women, of course, and knows that 'want breeds dissention / Euen in good women' (35-6).

To all this bland chatter, Sophia's replies are brief and simple. Has he seen any sign of discontent in her with this standard of living? She doesn't want the ostentation of superfluities. But Mathias better understands the duties of a husband:

                                        I should be censur'd
Of ignorance, possessing such a Iewell
Aboue all price, if I forbeare to giue it
The best of ornaments. Therefore Sophia
In few words know my pleasure and obey me,
As you haue euer done.


But, as we shall now expect, this masterful man, so condescending to his wife's inferior understanding and so confident of her obedience, is plagued by the possibility that in the absence of his control this dear creature will suddenly become a beast with a ravenous sexual appetite--'those wanton heates in women / Not to be quench'd by lawfull meanes' (144-5). So he procures a magic picture which will perfectly reflect his wife's constancy in his absence.

Of course, it is he who falls, a victim of the wiles of the vain queen whose besotted husband Ladislaus I have already talked about. Or nearly falls: 'Is it in man / To resist such strong temptations?' (III.v.168-9). It would be too much to describe in detail the amusing stop-go of his relations with the queen. He preserves his loyalty to Sophia and even manages to give a sanctimonious lecture on virtue to the queen who tempted him. He has been very successful in his main venture, achieving glory and prosperity, and the king and queen accompany him back to his modest home.

The final act of The Picture is one of Massinger's very best. When Sophia learns from an informant of her husband's adventure with the queen, and of his secret method for keeping a record of her own constancy, it is the latter that fires her extreme indignation. 'Was I growne so cheape in his opinion of me?' (V.ii.7). She refuses the consolation that as everything has turned out so well Mathias's conduct could be excused. To justify people's actions by the way things turn out is preposterous, she says. Such a defence is

The sanctuary fooles and madmen flie to,
When their rash and desperat vndertakings thriue well.


And she hits Mathias where he is most vulnerable, namely in his anxiety to make a good show, by providing absolutely no reception for the royal train and not even being on hand herself to welcome them. 'How shall I begge / Your maiesties patience?', asks Mathias, beside himself with vexation. When he finds his wife, he quite fails to impress her with the greatness of the occasion and the 'wrong' she is doing both of them by her crazy indifference to royal guests (V.iii.37-44). She publicly challenges him with his affair with the queen, torments him by pretending that she too has been unchaste, and finally sues for a divorce. (The 'inchanter' in her speech is the man who fashioned the magic picture.)

          When you went to the warrs
I set no spie vpon you to obserue
Which way you wandred: though our sex by nature
Is subject to suspitions and feares,
My confidence in your loyalty freed me from 'em.
But to deale as you did gainst your religion
With this inchanter to suruey my actions
Was more then womans weaknes, therefore know
And tis my boone vnto the King, I doe
Desire a seperation from your bed,
For I will spend the remnant of my life
In prayer, and meditation.


But she relents when they all, king and queen included, beseech her to change her mind. Sophia's challenging assertion of herself makes an excellent ending, morally and theatrically, and shows very well how Massinger does not accommodate his morality to theatrical requirements but exploits and utilizes those requirements for moral ends.

All these male self-approvers we have been looking at, Sforza, Leosthenes, Mathias, overestimate themselves and undervalue their partners. Their sense of superiority accompanies a deep insecurity; they assume a position of control over women because, they argue, the inferior sex needs guidance; but in fact they fear that without strict guard the rapacity of women's sexual appetite will take over and they will lose their monopoly. Yet nothing in the women's actual behaviour can justify these fears. No one could call Massinger's drama male-oriented, and it would not be improper to call it feminist. The insufficiency of men is more often shown than the insufficiency of women; the weak structure on which an ethos of male dominance is founded seems all the weaker for the constant demonstration of great fortitude and moral tenacity in women, and their self-knowledge.

The ending of The Picture, with Sophia's determination to seek a religious celibacy, has obvious affinities with The Maid of Honour. There is also, as I have pointed out, a severe comment by Sophia on the philosophy that all's well that ends well. Now the parallels between The Maid of Honour and Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well are striking enough to suggest that Massinger intended to invite a direct comparison, challenging with his ending the moral and theatrical soppiness of the ending provided by his great predecessor. Both plays have the feature of a war which is fought by volunteers only after a king has refused official assistance. In both plays the strong-minded heroine, rather surprisingly in love with a man of patently weaker character, forces a marriage on to him as the payment of a debt. In The Maid of Honour, the obligation is a kind of jest. Camiola ransoms Bertoldo from captivity and as payment demands only the marriage that he himself has sought. But the bond and obligation are still there. Bertoldo falls like Bertram to the attractions of another woman. From these Camiola proposes to rescue him by direct confrontation, and she utters the following perplexing words:

                                        You perhaps
Expect I now should seeke recovery
Of what I have lost by teares, and with bent knees
Beg his compassion. No; my towring vertue
From the assurance of my merit scornes
To stoope so low. I'll take a nobler course,
And confident in the justice of my cause,
The king his brother, and new mistrisse, judges,
Ravish him from her armes.
He shal be then against his wil my husband
And when I have him, I'll so use him--


This speech, so strangely out of character, is mere play-acting, to deceive both the person she is speaking to and the audience, and so lead to the grand surprise of the final set-piece which is of course not marriage and reconciliation but a repudiation of Bertoldo and the world for the life of the convent. This is a drastic response to the fickleness and instability of men, but there is a particular fitness here in that Bertoldo was a Knight of Malta who had broken his vow of celibacy in even seeking Camiola's hand in the first place. In later offering him marriage, Camiola connived at his sin. Her final action redeems them both and drives him back to his order. The idea of marriage becomes only a brief interlude and weak indulgence. So far as the parallel with All's Well goes, Camiola's final choice of a religious life makes a pointed comment. Shakespeare's Helena gave up her pilgrimage in order to regain her erring husband and to become fully his wife. The ending of The Maid of Honour at one blow rejects such trifling with religion and such disconcerting moral choices as Helena's final union with Bertram.

The Maid of Honour is strict and grim, and its ending is in strong contrast to that of The Great Duke of Florence where the patience of Fiorinda for the erring Sanazarro is without limit; she persuades a perplexed Duke to let the happy ending arrive by a forgiveness beyond reason. Endings may differ, but the constant material is the greater strength of women.

But what about the erring women? Given such sexually excitable females as Beaumelle in The Fatal Dowry, Domitia in The Roman Actor, Donusa in The Renegado, might Massinger's possessive males not have some reason for wishing to keep the closest eye on their women? No one can say that Massinger ignored the libido of women. The sexy maid-in-waiting is just a cliché, of course, and perhaps the aristocratic nymphomaniacs of The Bondman, Corisca and Olimpia, amusing though they are, seem too exaggerated to form part of any writer's view of the world. But these errant people, however stereotyped or caricatured, belong in the Massingerian mimesis. It is not that they are the only women with sexual desires; they are those who do not succeed in controlling and channelling them. The offence that the jealous possessive males are guilty of is a total inability to observe and recognize the women they claim to love. They simply do not discriminate. They see Woman not individual women. This impercipience, parading as knowingness, is a real crime against the person.

Massinger tried to make a whole play out of the mistakes of men whose philosophy is così fan tutte. This was The Parliament of Love, but it is a failure. What are we to think of a Leonora who is so outraged at the 'brutality' of Cleremond in trying to get her to sleep with him just before their marriage that she pursues a limitless vendetta? The rest of the action is more comprehensible, being a series of outwittings of philanderers and adulterers who believe that women can very easily be persuaded to give themselves to them. But the play never comes alive. I think the failure of A Very Woman, a rewriting of an earlier collaboration with Fletcher, is a very different kind of failure. Here the leading woman, Almira, is incorrigibly light and inconstant. She falls in love with Don John, whom she has rejected in his own person, when he is disguised as a slave. (The Bondman, with its somewhat similar plot, explores a quite different moral issue, and well illustrates Massinger's tendency to look for new aspects of familiar material.) Almira is quite unable to perceive and judge the person, in the way Massinger more often makes the man misjudge the woman. The final union of Almira and Don John is a patched-up thing that offends against the standards of The Maid of Honour and The Great Duke of Florence. By writing his share of the original of A Very Woman and liking the play well enough to revise it, Massinger shows himself ready to accept the dramatic rendering of an irresponsibility in women equal to the male irresponsibility he so often anatomized. (It is interesting, though, that the two plays built on female inconstancy and infidelity are collaborative plays: The Fatal Dowry with Field and A Very Woman with Fletcher.) Yet because of the unfamiliarity of the theme, or because it was not really his kind of play, the ending, unusually for him, betrayed what had gone before.


Massinger's satirical comedies are intensely observant of the social scene and (for their time) rather high-minded and old-fashioned about social change. His tragedies and tragicomedies are, I think, for all the operatic manoeuvrings of the plots, similarly observant and sensitive about the male-female relationship, and his views on sexual restraint and indulgence are similarly high-minded and (in a rather general and perennial way) 'old-fashioned'. But his extensive criticism of the exponents of male dominance and his recognition of the rights of women as people strike a much more modern note than can be found in many of his contemporaries.

Source: Philip Edwards, "Massinger's Men and Women." In Philip Massinger: A Critical Reassessment, edited by Douglas Howard, pp. 39-49. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.